Nerve-Racking yet Necessary? How to Tackle Instructor Feedback

Nerve-Racking yet Necessary? How to Tackle Instructor Feedback

“I wrote a paper in a single day only once in my college career. I knew it didn't turn out well. Later on, when my professor was returning the papers, he didn’t hand me my paper… He threw it at me! Each page was dripping in red ink…”

During my sophomore year of college, my history professor told the class this personal narrative. He seemed to confirm that receiving instructor feedback is synonymous with decades-long traumatization – even when you become the professor yourself.

But that doesn't need to be the case.

Approaching an instructor for feedback can be intimidating. It's especially intimidating when we feel we haven't developed our ideas and/or writing. After all, instructors are experts and we students have barely begun to survey the field. We all worry that our instructors will think, or worse, tell us our work is awful. It's far easier to avoid office hours altogether.

We will always find ourselves needing a second opinion no matter where we are in the writing process. To complicate matters more, our resources for constructive feedback become scarce as we progress to higher-level argumentative essays based on textual analysis and lengthy research papers. By the time we reach upper-division courses, there will be few peers who possess the knowledge of and experience with the high-caliber thinking and writing required of us. Far fewer will be familiar with both the assignment and material.

Our instructors are the best resource for the best feedback.

Let’s break down exactly how to approach receiving instructor feedback so that the process is less intimidating (and you can avoid an angry professor chucking your paper in your face).

1. Avoid the Snare of Being a “Solitary Scholar”

Writing alone in the comfort of an isolated little bubble is easy and all, but does writing in isolation help you develop into a skilled writer?

When I write in isolation, I'm invulnerable to criticism. No one is around to point out my poor grammar or disorganization. No one is around to push back on my argument or question the evidence I extracted from the text. This solitary environment works well with private writing endeavors, such as journaling, but how might writing in solitude affect a paper that needs to effectively convey ideas to others? Consider argumentative essays or project proposals. When we write these kinds of works, we need to confirm that our ideas, and the writing expressing them, make sense to people other than to ourselves, the authors.

Constructive feedback from a knowledgeable reviewer, such as your instructor, can provide the best guide to the right path or the comforting reassurance that you're already there.

2. Embrace Receiving Feedback

If feedback provides a basis for improvement, can it be said that an instructor can best help you improve?

My instructors are the most intimidating people to ask for feedback. But it’s comforting to remind myself that everyone starts at the beginning. My veteran professors, who have authored books and presented at conferences, were once students. And I'm confident they sought feedback from their instructors when they needed it.

Don’t fear criticism. I know my fear of being criticized deterred me from seeking any feedback at all. The benefits of receiving feedback are too great to ignore. Confident writers possess an insatiable appetite for suggestions to help them improve their craft.

Instructors can best answer the most important question we students need to ask: "What – and how – can I improve?"

3. Prepare Any Stage of Your Writing Process For Instructor Feedback

Whether you have an outline or a polished draft, any stage of the writing process is open to feedback. But how might arriving to your professor's office hours empty-handed (or empty-headed) affect the feedback he or she provides?

I always hesitate before bringing in half-baked ideas and hastily written drafts to office hours. The most useful feedback I received was on ideas and writing I felt were products of my best efforts.

In order to develop into strong academic writers, we need to learn how our best efforts can be better. If you present your best ideas possible, you’ll receive the most constructive feedback from your instructor.

4. Overcome the Obstacle of Ego

Have worries about "looking dumb" ever blocked your developing into a better writer and thinker?

Letting go of my worries about “looking dumb” was the single most helpful thing I have done for myself as a student. Once I was honest with myself and let go of my burdensome ego, I learned so much more.

Ask questions about the comments your instructor leaves on your paper. If you’re having a conversation with him or her, ask for clarification or explanation whenever you need it. Don’t let a silly ego be the obstacle to your development.

5. Act On Your Instructor’s Feedback … Or Don’t

Your instructor is the expert, but who is the author of your paper?

Up until a month or so ago, I felt like every single bit of instructor advice was pure gold. In other words, an instructor’s advice I didn’t take was like my throwing away precious nuggets of insight and wisdom. Even if we students aren’t expert writers, every author should feel empowered when writing his or her own work.

Remember that, as the author, you are the final authority on your paper's form and content. Take the responsibility for making the decisions for what should and should not be done with your paper. Have confidence in your writing and your ideas.

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