Monday, January 2, 2012

red ink and the golden rule

I've never been one to welcome critique. Let's face it. Who likes to be told they're wrong? I much prefer to be celebrated, applauded, and given a pat-on-the-back for a job-well-done.

But something's changing.

I've attended three dissertation defenses since my arrival at Wheaton. There is nothing quite like it in real life. (Except perhaps American Idol?) The student "on trial" sits up front at a table angled to face all the other students and professors who have come to see them suffer, including their own supervisor. They also face another table where two examiners are seated, one from Wheaton, one from another institution, whose job for the next two hours is to find every conceivable problem with the dissertation. They question methodology. They challenge ideas. They criticize sources. They quibble over wording. They puzzle over problems. The audience must be completely silent while the student scrambles to find words to justify what they've done. If the student survives this frontal attack they are awarded the degree for which they have long labored . . . A PhD.  If they do not . . .? A much sadder story. There are no "second chances" here.

Afterwards students gather in the hallway as the fate of their colleague is decided. The experience is hard on everyone's nerves. All of us are plagued by one ominous thought, "That will be me someday. Someday soon." We scramble back to our study carrels, sobered and determined to work harder.

This is one reason I have a new attitude towards critique. If someone will take the time to read my work and find the problems now, I have a better chance of surviving my defense. Charitable-yet-critical readers are hard to find. Anybody can read a paper and say, "That was great! Well done!" It takes a lot more time and energy to read it closely, find the holes, and offer substantive feedback that will make it a better project.

One of the things I love about Wheaton is the sense of community. We are in this together. Papers, ideas, and unfinished dissertation chapters often get passed around and discussed. Sometimes this takes place formally in a colloquium. Often it takes place around the lunch table. We are learning to do for each other what we would love to have done for us, and in this context, that involves red ink.

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