, ,

By Susan Carter

I’ve just had the amazing experience of getting to know Professor Rowena Murray from the University of the West of Scotland. We spent a pleasant few hours weeding a graveled area around a church hall with the community gardeners in the village of Lochwinnoch.

img_2212Talking about our research topics while weeding was a great way for one thought to lead to another, almost like the bramble rhizomes we were pulling out. I’ve walked a supervision meeting, but suspect that there might be other physical activities that both student and supervisor enjoy doing that would allow for the same organic thinking together process.

Weeding allowed time to talk about academic writing and doctoral students.

This post covers one topic that we sifted through and agreed upon: the potential for emotional disturbance in relationship to writing and feedback (see to Sara Cotterall’s earlier post and my own on emotion.) Then we also thought about how students might learn to manage their emotions, and resolve differences between themselves and their supervisors—and then be aware of their own personal development from handling something well recognized as challenging.

It seems important to explain to students that feeling as though they are being criticized personally, although misguided, is pretty common. The intensity of emotion seems almost as much a mark of academic writing as its requirement for formal English. Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson express writing’s personal involvement well: “Writing is a physical, emotional and aesthetic labour…. Many students carry their scholarship deep in their psyche, bones and muscle” (Kamler & Thomson, 2006: 4). Lucia Thesen recognised high emotion as a significant risk when facilitating peer writing groups for research students, while also noting that the informality of such groups makes them a place where laughter can release that emotion (Thesen, 2014).Feedback from supervisors is formal, though, a gift of their expertise and time–it seems to require that you take it seriously as evaluative—and that often takes students into feeling hurt.

Not inevitably though. I’m analyzing data from 80 doctoral students describing the first time they got supervisory feedback. One doctoral student remembered laughing with disbelief:

When my first chapter of writing was returned by my primary supervisor, I was enormously relieved to see very positive comments in the accompanying email. Therefore, I was a tad taken aback to open the word file and find it smothered in virtual red pen. My initial reaction was to burst out laughing – welcome to academia, I thought.

Laughter is renowned as therapeutic. Anne Lamott sees the importance of humour in surviving emotional challenge around writing (Lamott, 1995). Lightening up lets you step out of emotional darkness (see an earlier post on humour and writing). All of us can turn our stories about feedback on our writing into comedies or satires rather than tragedies. The trick is to see the funny side of academia’s pedantry and penchant for hammering things into shape and not take writing feedback personally.

The same anonymised data submission as the one I mentioned above concluded:

I quickly came to appreciate (rather than dread) feedback and viewed all feedback – especially negative – as another step closer to the end. After all, if you are not receiving feedback, you are not writing.

My data is telling me that commonly doctoral students experience anger, despair and self-doubt when supervisors give them feedback. Doctoral students are almost by definition used to high grades in their evaluative feedback—you don’t usually get to PhD level with a history of low grades. If you do, you probably have skills of equal value. Critique of writing during the doctorate can seem an unexpected blow. Students need to learn that these emotions are pretty standard and probably are not accurate indicators of the value of their writing, their research and themselves.

Rowena and I agreed that it is important to acknowledge emotion but not to wallow in it. Lamott (1995) relates emotional survival of writing feedback to emotional survival of grief and other life challenges—as doctoral students learn to handle the writing feedback process, they should note that they are learning life-skills of real value. My own method for handling my negative emotion–anger, despair or grief—is to recognize it and then decide what to do with it. I’m not willing to stay hurt or angry. I find it boring. Being amused by the behavior of the human species, including myself and my own, is often how I like to go. It doesn’t make it a peice of cake, but it moves you along.


I bet there are self-help books that give advice along these lines, but with writing, I would recommend the following to doctoral students dismayed by writing feedback (or lack there of):

  • Diplomatically give supervisor feedback on the feedback process
  • Tell the feedback story as a joke to another doctoral student—you’ll help them to know that the hammering they endure on their own prose is just part of academic culture. This genre is well rehearsed by Jorges Cham.
  • Then settle down and go through bit by bit doing the easiest tasks first
  • Congratulate yourself on how effective you are when under fire.

To the student who really feels unable to work with a supervisor, I’d suggest the following. Ask yourself:

  1. What exactly is not working with writing feedback from your point of view?
  2. How might it be advantageous to you to bail out of this supervisory relationship?
  3. What do you lose by changing supervisor?

One middle-route tactic is to consider where else might you get more useful feedback on writing. Tactful openness with the supervisor is essential, so it’s important to let supervisors know that you have joined a writing group, are taking up writing support from a learning advisor, or would like to add another academic to your advisory team. And certainly wait to make sure that the negative emotions you are experiencing are true symptoms of something unworkable rather than just a short-term response. A majority of my study’s participants experienced negative emotion—mainly anxiety—on first submission of writing and half of those felt worse after getting their work back. That is something for supervisors to think about–comments welcome!

Works cited

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life. New York: Anchor.

Thesen, L. (2014). ‘If they’re not laughing, watch out!’: Emotion and risk in postgraduate writing groups. In C. Aitchison & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for the doctorate and beyond: Innovations in practice and theory (pp. 172-176).