Thursday, September 19, 2013

How to Make the Most out of (Constructive)* Critical Feedback - 7 Tips

Academic writing is hard work.  There is no way around it.  And making the most out of the feedback you receive from a professor or a peer can seem even more difficult than cranking out that first draft.  Here are 7 tips for how to utilize the blessing and the curse that is critical feedback. 

Tip #1 – Don’t reply right away to your critic.  Writing is an emotional enterprise.  When our written work it criticized – however validly – it can be painful.  And, you might feel angry about it.  So take some time to cool down before you respond.  99.9% of the replies that you will write too soon after reading your feedback will sound a little defensive at best and crazed-from-too-much-coffee-and-not-enough-sleep at worst.  The only reply that you should make within the first 24 hours of receiving feedback should be something like, “Thank you very much for your feedback.”

Tip #2 – Read all comments and criticisms with this question in mind: how will this feedback help me strengthen my argument?  Remember that academic writing isn’t as much about creating beautiful prose (although that is a worthy goal and the best of the best do both) as it is about persuading your audience with solid evidence and skillful argumentation.  Not all feedback will aid you in this task.  Asking yourself how each question, comment, or snarky aside will build up your argument will allow you filter, prioritize, and use feedback wisely.

Tip #3 – Read critiques more than once.  There is a good chance that your first read-through will be clouded by your own anxiety and frustration with the writing process.  Give yourself some time (a few days, a few hours) after your first read-through and then go over each comment again.  You may see some things you missed and you might be encouraged that the feedback was not as bad as you thought it was the first time around.

Tip #4 – Try to summarize the overall point that your critic is making in your own words.  This will allow you to understand a) your reader’s approach to your work and b) where your thesis needs clarification.

Tip #5 – Get a second opinion – or even a third!  Every critic sees things from their particular perspective (see Tip #4).  Consult others in your field (or a related discipline) and see what they have to say about your project.  Also, additional voices can help you solve logical or evidential problems in your work. 

Tip #6 – Take a break from writing and have some fun.  Taking time away from your work can seem like a waste – especially when you have deadlines looming.  But nothing stymies creative problem-solving like obsessing over your work and neglecting your rest and relaxation.  So spend some time with friends.  Hug a family member.  Eat and drink good food and beverages.  Sleep!  Do something that will relax your brain cells and refresh your problem-solving skills.**

Tip #7– Congratulate yourself – you are a part of a community!  Submitting your work to peer and/or professorial review means that you are a part of something that is bigger than your individual thoughts and opinions.  Blogs are great, but anyone can create one (for example, this blog!).  By agreeing to have your work evaluated by others through the academic process, you are joining a worldwide, multi-generational quest for knowledge.  Congratulations!

*This post assumes that you have a helpful, constructive critic.  Of course every now and then you’ll have a critic who uses ad hominem attacks or other such logical fallacies.  If that is the case, please disregard.   
**Facebook, blogs, twitter, etc. do not count as a break.  Step away from the computer/smart phone – step away!!!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Follow-up from Ava Roasteria

Hello, friends.
I received many e-mails about the very helpful, "How to Read Academic Texts Critically," and so I'm working on a follow-up post entitled, "How to Make the Most Out of Critical Feedback."  I'll look forward to your critical feedback when it is done!
Incidentally, this post comes to you from Ava Roasteria in Beaverton.  The atmosphere is always bustling at this 24 hr. coffee house.  The coffee is not my favorite, but it's respectable.  To my taste buds it's a little on the tart side.  The tea is really excellent, however, and I recommend any of their herbal varieties.  Another thing that I like about Ava is its international feel.  They attract a really diverse crowd and every time I work there, I overhear a different language being spoken!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to Read Academic Texts

One of the first things students discover is that academic reading is much different than reading for fun. It's a specific style of reading and doing it well is a valuable skill! One of my academic mentors, Kathleen Flake, shared this very helpful information with me as a grad student, and now I pass it along to my peers, students, and friends. Happy reading!

How to Read Academic Texts Critically
(Adapted by Kathleen Flake from Canberra University at

Academic material is not meant to be read. It is meant to be ransacked and pillaged for essential content. This means that you should never just sit down to read academic works as if they were novels or magazine articles. Academic study is not suited to such an approach, and the chances are you could spend hours reading and then not have a clue what you have been reading about (does that sound familiar?).

Rule #1: Never read without specific questions you want the text to answer. If you want your reading to stay in your memory, you must approach your text with a list of questions about the particular information you are after, and search the text for the answers to those questions. Don't just read with the hope that an answer will appear.

Rule #2: Never start reading at page 1 of the text. If there is a summary, a conclusion, a set of sub-headings, or an abstract, read that first, because it will give you a map of what the text contains. You can then deal with the text structurally, looking for particular points, not just reading ‘‘blind'' and so easily getting lost. Always keep in mind what you need, what is relevant to the question you are asking the text.

Rule #3: Study Guides & Strategies
Think critically as you read. In reading academic texts you need to develop a personal (but nevertheless academic and rational) response to the article/ theory/ chapter through (1) developing an understanding of the content and (2) evaluating and critiquing the article. Therefore, before reading a text closely, read the introduction or abstract and skim read the text to give you a preliminary idea of what it is about. Then read it closely and critically. Some questions to help you read critically are:
  • What are the main points of this text? b. Can you put them in your own words?
  • What sorts of examples are used? Are they useful? Can you think of others?
  • What factors (ideas, people, things) have been included? Can you think of anything that has been missed out?
  • Is a particular bias or framework apparent? Can you tell what 'school of thought' the author belongs to?
  • Can you work out the steps of the argument being presented? Do all the steps follow logically? 
  • Could a different conclusion be drawn from the argument being presented?
  • Are the main ideas in the text supported by reliable evidence (well researched, non-emotive, logical)?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
  • What connections do you see between this and other texts?
  • Where does it differ from other texts on the same subject?
  • What are the wider implications——for you, for the discipline?

Rule #4: Treat critical reading as a skill which can be developed through practices, such as:
  • Taking notes of the text's main ideas and adding your own responsive comments.
  • Talking to others about what you have read.
  • Relating a given text to others in the syllabus by identifying similar or contrasting themes.
  • Explaining what the text means to a non-specialist and noting what you would have to add to make it intelligible? (This will help you to see the underlying, unstated assumptions.)
  • Asking yourself: "Is it possible to disagree with any of this?"
  • Asking yourself: 'How can I convince my peers/teachers that I understand what this is about?'

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Vacation Coffee!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that coffee on vacation tastes much better than coffee on a work day.  Especially when you have someone special with whom to share it.  Last week, my spouse and I went on a short trip to the beautiful Oregon coast.  We stayed in a sleepy little town called Gearhart and enjoyed coffee one morning at Pacific Way Bakery and Cafe.

I enjoyed the quaint setting, the laid-back coastal culture, the delicious veggie tart, and the Victorian-ish decor.  My coffee-drinking partner, however, pointed out that the entire coffee shop was made for people of a smaller scale than a 6' tall man.  He could barely get his fingers through the coffee cup handles.

But, no matter how tiny the tables and chairs, there's something magical about vacation coffee and conversation.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hipsters Make Academic Writing Seem Cooler Than It Is....

Today I met good friend Sarita Gallagher for a cup of lavender chamomile tea and a writing session at The Black Cat Cafe in NE PDX.  Now Portland is known for being a hip city and the NE is one of the hipsterest of hipster places in Portland.  All of that to say, you can expect a good amount of good-natured pretense and The Black Cat does not disappoint!  Lots of grimy, too-cool-for-grooming (but still very friendly) types came and went while we clicked away on our laptops.  So if you are looking for a place to get the creative juices flowing and do some hipster people watching, go to The Black Cat!

At The Black Cat, even the napkin holders are cool.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Black coffee and a scone from Longbottom Coffee - is there anything better?

Whenever I am feeling behind when it comes to my writing schedule, I go to a coffee shop.  Something about the hustle and bustle of customers and baristas makes me want to crank out the pages.  Longbottom Coffee in Hillsboro, Oregon is one of my favorite places to go.  If you get there early enough (they sell out quickly!), you can enjoy a fluffy not-too-sweet scone (pictured) with a cup of coffee roasted right there at their shop.  Longbottom roasts really smooth, earthy blends.  I've tried a number of their roasts, and I've enjoyed each of them for their distinct, well-rounded flavor.  If you are on the west side of Portland, grab a cup of joe and a scone at Longbottom!