Missing the mark

‘Choose your words carefully and wisely.’

How many times have I uttered those very words to the various participants in my classes, lectures and seminars. As much as I attempt to instill in my students a greater appreciation for selecting the precise word that carries the meaning they intend, I unintentionally (and unfortunately) chose my own words rather carelessly this morning.

In several courses, we work on providing, as well as accepting and responding to feedback on our work. In such classes, 90% of my own responsibility lies in providing constructive criticism and guidance on how to improve as well as building the confidence of my students to keep pushing themselves to do better. Clarify. Refine. Define. Revise and rework. Describe just what they do in their research and its broader relevance to various audiences in a language that is engaging, accessible and informative. I begin these classes by encouraging these brilliant young scholars to invite, welcome and use criticism and feedback to improve upon already well-constructed and exceptionally important projects. As a mentor of mine once said, ‘[they’ve all done fine jobs]; yet, everything we do can be improved upon. Let’s discuss how.’

I well remember receiving less-than-positive feedback as a graduate student. In fact, some of the very first feedback I received helped me to improve and ultimately land my current job. Whilst not exactly lovely to hear, it was constructive, solution-oriented conversation, meant to encourage and help me become a better scholar. Was it easy to hear? Not really. But, was it necessary? Absolutely. And, the rewards were immense. They still are. (Thank you, Kathy!)

I also well remember how utterly gutted I following a particularly harsh assessment of my work from an entirely different professor, delivered in a very different tone and most likely with a very different intent. That conversation, by contrast, left me so completely shaken it took me months to recover, and I seriously questioned continuing my graduate studies. I fled — I literally ran the several blocks home despite carrying about 10 to 15 kg of books — from the meeting in tears and spent several days wondering if I’d made a huge mistake in pursuing an advanced degree.

Whilst I needed a kick up the backside to alter some of my work habits and to focus my attention on things like writing and deadlines, things I still struggle with today, that particular professor’s choice of words and their delivery tore me down and nearly destroyed what little confidence I had as a graduate student. I lost a lot of sleep because of that conversation.

Thankfully, my mentors, those whom I trusted and most admired, adopted entirely different means of guiding me and helping me to develop my skills. And, thankfully, I could steer clear of that rather careless-with-her-words professor for the remainder of my time in that department.

But, today. Today.  Whilst providing feedback, I chose my own words rather foolishly. It wasn’t my intention, but I completely understand how the message missed its mark (meaning, I missed my mark) and how I rattled one of my own students. Worse, I know how she feels, and that makes it even more difficult to stomach.

I’m not sure that I can repair my own carelessness with words. I have apologised. I’ve offered assistance and guidance to the student in question, and I will certainly work with her should she wish to (although I suspect she won’t). More than anything, I will use this as a valuable if not painful learning moment and a cautionary tale in what not to do in future. What I can and will do differently in future.

But, damn, if I don’t feel truly awful at the moment.