I guess walking into these conversations I expect the emption to play a big role in critique, mostly because of the associations I had with the practice through articles like the one in the New York Times. “Crit” made me think of Yale’s “pit” made me think of students breaking down with ragged sobs from the cruel destructive comments of their peers and professors. This impression was not dispelled by looking at the book about critique that Andy loaned me, The Critique Handbook, which offers some sample comments such as, “The story that you present in this scene is interesting, but your figures are badly drawn” and, “It is very well-drawn but it leaves me cold. Do you even know what this is about or why you drew it in the first place?” (6). From my perspective as a teacher of writing, such comments feel themselves a bit cold. Given the mythic status of critique, I wondered what role fear (and the process of dispelling that fear) played in the undergraduate studio critique? I’ll also admit that one of the reasons I was so interested about fear is that I generally have no idea what students in the classes I teach are feeling, if they feel anything at all. While perhaps not the emotion I would want to cultivate, at least it was an emotion. I wondered what it might add to the process of peer revision, as well.
Actually, my chat with Andy brought the topic to the forefront of my thinking, since it seemed a subtext for many of the things he talked about. For example, he mentioned the importance of setting an environment in critique where students feel empowered to speak because many might be afraid of being embarrassed. Students can simply be afraid to talk. Sharon’s critique handout addresses this explicitly: “Do not be afraid to talk.” Both of them also discussed how they address this in their classroom practices by modelling good critique, reframing student comments back through the vocabulary of the class, asking students direct questions, and offering feedback and assessment on students’ critique comments. I’ve done some similar things in my writing classes, reinforcing peer revision by pointing out good comments from students and offering a larger conversation about the process through the elements of the class and its vocabulary.
In discussing this kind of fear, both Sharon and Andy reinforced for me that peer feedback practices are learned behaviors, ones that need careful cultivation. I feel like peer revision worksheets do a lot of that work in the writing classroom. Students don’t have to be afraid in answering the sheets because they are well-skilled at answering a teacher’s questions. It’s locating methods to empower them to speak in comments on the papers themselves that remains a bit of a challenge for me, though I can’t say if the (de)motivating emotion in the classes I teach is fear or just indifference.
But for art students, there is another side to the fear coin and that is the fear of the artist subject to critique. In this sense, I was reminded of Becka McKay’s comment about creative writing students—that they believe that what they write comes from their souls. Andy explained that at first students are afraid because they don’t quite know what they’re doing yet, or they’re afraid their work isn’t good enough, or they’re afraid of what others might think of them and their work. Sharon emphasized that critique is not about sugar-coating. But it’s not about tearing them down, either. Both emphasized that one of the lessons of critique is that it makes better artists. Sharon went as far as to call critique a luxury: “When else do you have all those eyes looking at your work?” Andy shares his own experiences of harsh critiques and explains how they helped his work, and Sharon told me that when a critique is good (even if tough) it makes you want to work and make and continue.
If the remedy to the fear of offering peer feedback is scaffolded instructions and close moderation with a hefty dose of modeling, then the remedy to the fear of receiving peer feedback is to understand that the process is vital to becoming better. I don’t know if my students believe me when I tell them that peer revision makes writing better, and I don’t know that they are afraid (not identifying as compositionists in the way that art students identify as artists or creative writers identify as writers). But I do know that starting from the question of what we feel offers me a new way to open up all of these questions in my classroom. And I think I will give that a try.
More next time. Don’t be afraid to comment (wink, wink).