I love feedback!

I am going to confess to something now that is going to make me look like an absolute trumpet.


I don’t love it that much that I would cover all my papers in red ink, mind you. And I don’t like to harm myself with it when I have done something wrong either. But in all other senses I love it, and I constantly look for it, whether in my student life, or my referee life, and sometimes even at work. I like to know when I am doing things right and what I should do or change if I am not. And I love to think outside my own box. Yes, what a trumpet I am.

I am writing this post today partly because I got feedback from my supervisors for the article I have been writing for the past few weeks. I barely ever see anything that needs to be changed, or any particular flaws, the first time around. I operate a policy of “get it out, and let’s move on”. I am a critic after it’s written, but I know that I am too close or attached to the text, and I know I can barely see the mistakes. So then I ask somebody else to read it, whether my better half, who has patiently corrected my terrible English grammar for the past year, or my supervisors, who see between the lines and underline bigger expression mistakes, non-referenced sources, and other issues. After they have covered the text in red ink, I can see where I am wrong, and start killing my children. And I do it with pleasure – I know that the massacre is only going to help to make the text better, and improve my writing, expression and analytic skills.

I reckon this is probably making me sound like a trumpet because not everyone likes feedback. By feedback, of course, I mean constructive feedback from reputable sources. I think I have reached that point in my student and referee life in which I can tell where the reputable sources are, and how to interpret the feedback from the non-reputable ones. A few years ago I did an “international” game with a senior referee with whom I have a great officiating relationship. We had a great game together, and I learnt some things about the so-called ‘feel for the game’ that otherwise it would have taken me longer to develop. Not everyone thought we did well, though. As a referee, you are exposed to everyone’s criticism – players, coaches, spectators… but more importantly fellow referees in general, and assessors in particular. A fellow retired senior official saw the game, and felt compelled to what can only be described as “rant” about our performance. I did not know who this person was until he had finished giving us a piece of his mind about our performance. At that point I was a relatively junior official, but I was not deterred by his words, because they were inconsistent with the teachings I had received from my federation over the years. With time, you learn to recognise bad feedback, acknowledge it (shit happens, so whatever), and move on without thinking about it.

Sometimes, however, the line between good and bad feedback is very thin, and it is hard to call it. In many occasions, you end up judging the feedback by the person who gives it, and their track record with you. That can be dangerous because sometimes the people we rank to be best in the field can also give terrible feedback, and the other way around. But the assumption is that most feedback will try to be positive, or at least constructive, and help with the individual’s development. If that is not the intention, then that’s not feedback, it’s just abuse. And I sort of know about this because people really let me know of their feelings about my calls on a basketball court, believe me.

So if feedback tries to be constructive and help the individual, what is not to love? Yes, a lot of people are a bit sensitive and protective when it comes to their work. Seeing your own mistakes highlighted on a page is not amazing – realising you make mistakes is also what puts off people from liking feedback, I guess. But the thing is we all make mistakes, we all leave references all mixed up, and most of us have expression issues (or maybe that’s just me). Nobody is perfect. Someone telling you that there are things you can correct to make your text even better should be something to love – it means they actually care to read your stuff critically. Answering back justifying your position and your choices is normal, but trying to argue every correction is just not right. It’s easy to blame it on others on a basketball court, because there is another official with you that, at any given time, you can try to throw under the bus and save yourself (although it’s badly frowned upon). You can’t really do that when you are the single author of your text. If a senior academic thinks you have to reconsider certain points, be glad: they read your text and are suggesting something to improve it.

I can safely say that I would have never got this far in my refereeing career (Scotland Level 3, sort of a big deal for me) or my PhD if it wasn’t for my love for feedback. Only seeing and acknowledging your mistakes will make you try to work something out to fix them and improve. So next time you see that paper you wrote covered in red ink, think about it twice before going to “I’m a failure” or “You are wrong” mode and be critical of your own work. And then move on and get oan wae it.

Ps. Sometimes I wish I knew what I originally meant when I get the feedback “not sure what you mean, rephrase”. Whoops.

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