Stoat and I had a brief exchange on the psychological impact of strong, negative feedback. I thought back to this passage from Ira Glass, who is the director and lead narrator in “This American Life,” a charming and informaitve weekly broadcast on NPR. Glass’s comments do not directly fit philosophers, but it does not take much imagination to apply them:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
There are lots of complications that could be put in, but one thing worth stressing in this context is that acccusatory insistence on a beginner’s meeting your standards can be lethal in this situation. That is, it can kill creativity. The opposite, an insistence that everything the beginner does is brilliant, can also have a bad effect, leading that person unsure about how to repeat the effect. Worst of all, may be the idea that one is not and never can be a player. Or, in fact, there may be a still worse one.
I remember being at an art exhibit of work by Cezanne and looking at a series which consisted in the same still life done from slightly different perspectives or with slightly different tones. I wondered what sort of love of self it might take to do that. I don’t know that I was right about self-love being required, but I do suspect that attacks that jeer, ridicule, make fun of one are especially threatening to creativity.
26 thoughts on “A meditation on our “be nice” rule”
Thank you for posting this.
Alpha, you are most welcome.
Really an excellent insight.
Thanks so much for this. My sister and I had a long discussion about the difficulties of writing yesterday, so I will send Ira’s comments to her. And it’s also a nice reminder about our students’ developing intellects as the new academic year begins.
Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours to acquire any expertise at a top level. It’s controversial just what this dictum applies to, but it also makes vivid the idea that one cannot start out at the top. Hence, there’s a range of time when wrong kinds of critical interference can really be destructive.
I’m reminded here of Gladwell’s also quoting Paul Ekmann (sp?) on the sure predictor of divorce: the contemptuous jeering I mentioned at the end of the post. I’m not sure quite what the conclusion should be except that expressions of contempt, which I think some phlosophers may be prone to indulge in, are deadly. Perhaps also: think of marriage as a creative process and realize the consequences of killing off creative responses.
The longer I do this thing (by “this thing” I mean academic philosophy), the more I realize that I need to give myself, and my students, a safe, unthreatening space in which to fail — to be okay with, and perhaps even welcoming of, the endless ways that we all fall short (or think we fall short or are told that we fall short) in the eyes of our profession, our peers, ourselves. And I do not see this approach as a way just “to be nice” or to preserve another’s self-esteem — or, perhaps more correctly, another’s sense of self. It is to allow the practice of one’s craft to unfold, however unsteady and fragile and imperfect it may be. Sometimes, the product is glorious. Sometimes, one has to throw everything in the recycling bin, and start again. But the point is, both have to be okay. Yet in the current broken environment of (especially analytic, but really, most) academic philosophy, what one sees instead is a counting of “deliverable product” of papers published, grants won, etc. The clock is always, always ticking. The criticisms are withering, and the stakes are high: one either wins or loses. One either scores points, or hangs one’s head in shame. It is this binary kind of thinking (and acting) that I take to be most cruel, most discouraging (especially to beginners) and most harmful to the possibility of them continuing to develop their craft at all. As a feminist — but also as a philosopher and teacher and person — I take it to be a part of my job to allow them to try to “fight their way through.”
Twss, Your comments seem to me to raise very serious questions. Such as, Is there a tension between the pursuit of philosophical excellence and the achievement of philosophical professionalism?
I have worried that the discipline has a decreasing ability to make such distinctions. I can only hope many will disprove the grounds for my worry.
twss, I think you’re entirely right, and I kind of wish it wasn’t so… There’s very little space to take the risks one needs to take to produce really good work, especially with everything having to count (be published in high impact journals!!) these days.
I think that one thing I’ve noticed as a problem sometimes is what anonymous peer-review can allow. Some reviewers seem almost to mimic internet trolls in their lack of ‘niceness’. I’ve become so aware of this that I usually spend *way* too much time on my reviews, trying to draw out the important insights that I think the author should develop, rather than cutting them down ‘to size’. Critique is important, yes, but I think the majority of us, especially women, tend to take critique more seriously and as more true than the positive stuff (or… it could just be me! ;-)). So when people take a risk in sharing their work, I try to be responsible to that.
Thanks for the post! On a day when I’m trying to put a paper together (which has fallen apart a few times already) this is just the kind of thought I need to be having :)
Stoat, many a first draft has left me in pain. Rewrites can take courage.
I’m not always nice. My “not nice” is typically much nicer than it used to be and I’m certainly systematically less convinced of the value of not niceness. I’m not sure how often “bluntness” is merely not nicetude, and I’m often blunt. I josh and tease a lot even though I’m exquisitely aware from personal experience how even well meant teasing can be devastating.
Some of it is habit. Some of it is that it can be fun and even bonding. Sometimes it can be effective for some purposes. Some of it is coping with insecurity and anxiety.
I’m a venter and I’ve had to learn that merely venting in the presence of some people (e.g., my beloved) can be threatening or discomforting for them, even if they are not (or never are) the target of the venting. (For a variety of reasons, e.g., worry that they might one day be a target, triggering, worry for me, etc.)
As a recent example, in a a thread I used the term “gibberish” to describe what someone wrote (with a bunch of surrounding text to try to blunt the impact of the term). The intent was to reflect both my judgement and the severity of the problem. It failed. The person started out with a thickish skin but had their skin thin as the discussion went on. The thinness seemed correlated with the lack of convergence between us: They seemed to think that they were coherent; I continued to think that they were seriously confused. In the end, as other people responded with essentially the same content but with “nicer” phrasing, they took that as vindication of their thinking and started lashing at me in, unfortunately, ineffective ways (e.g., detecting a contradiction in my writing that manifestly did not, then weirdly generalizing to my whole publication record).
So, in the end, what I did was not nice and ineffective and (to the degree that I was not amused) unpleasant (with some minor degredation of the forum), and what the other people did was nice but ineffective (in that the original poster is still, afaict, in the grip of their incorrect self-assessment).
Similarly, in an internal mailing list disucssion with our PhD student I had a long discussion of the importance of getting effective criticism. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:
Finding “Appropriately Hostile Audiences” is especially important. You want them hostile so they will look for problems. You don’t want them to be unhelpfully hostile (e.g., someone who says “Why bother with any ontology crapola?” is only rarely appropriately hostile). You want good criticism and the toughest you can handle and you want to train yourself to handle ever tougher criticism.
You should practice being each other’s appropriately hostile audiences. It’s a skill that can be acquired! (And different people have to learn different things; I had to learn to not hit *every* possible point of criticism, for example; also, I can, for a variety of reasons, go over the top, esp. when I’m frustrated or tired; I still struggle with these although afaict I’ve gotten much better with them over the years).
You can influence the level and nature of the “hostility” by being upfront about your requirements. For example, “Please don’t look at x” or “Could you just give me a high level response” or “I know it’s not really worked out, but could you just let me know if it’s utterly bonkers or not?” Communication is a collaboration and it’s as much your job to make the communication successful as the other persons. Being straightforward with your issues is the best way I know how to do that.
In subsequent discussion, one of the other faculty members wrote:
In case you feel uncomfortable with being ‘hostile’ or putting yourself deliberately into a ‘hostile’ position, I would think that replacing ‘hostile’ with ‘challenging’ or ‘inquisitorial’ or ‘scrutiny’ or ‘forschend’ (which is, funnily enough, literal German for ‘researching’!)
Which elicited from a (female) student the fact that they found the word “hostile” uncomfortable and felt some relief at the alternatives.
So, was the advice I wrote “not nice”? I’m not sure it was itself, though it’s easily construed as advice to *be* not nice.
(There’s a loquaciousness problem as well, natch :))
I think there are definitely problems with the association of niceness with the politeness of conventional middle-class femininity – it can be a trap that has you agreeing with people when you don’t agree, pretending to be fine when you’re not etc. And I think sometimes men especially are surprised by my ‘not-niceness’, which a sweetie of mine describes as a refusal to flatter egos (to not act impressed just because I’m meant to, for e.g.). In theory discussions, I also refuse to be put off by those points where I’m meant to laugh and let go of a line of concern or critique. Sometimes that’s read as ‘not nice’.
There are important reasons to be ‘not nice’. In classrooms, my tendency to try for a safe space for those students who are already marginalised is often read as ‘not nice’ by those who expect a safe space for their privileged selves (I teach gender, sexuality, race and disability stuff, so this is part of how I trouble naturalised assumptions/’common sense’).
But that said, I really reject the idea that philosophy or thinking more generally should or can only be or is best done through hostility. In fact, I have a tendency toward *discussion* rather than *argument*, partly because I don’t actually believe that antagonism is a great motivator; it tends to play on competitiveness which in my experience has long-term disadvantages for those it doesn’t have short term disadvantages for! I personally prefer a collaborative approach: I think it’s more fun, I think it’s community-building, and I think it means that people are more likely to take risks, and produce really exciting new work.
And Stoat: I’m glad it was a good thought (well, kinda a good thought). I hope the paper is behaving. I am wrangling two today and thus far, they are not being kind!
Thank you so much for posting this, anne. I am reminded of something I heard about child prodigies–it’s not so much that they have innate talent from the get go, but an inability to stop practicing. And I am also reminded of the studies that say it is better to praise good work with the compliment “this took a lot of work” rather than “this shows great talent”–with the latter if one does not do well in the future one feels one has “lost it”; whereas with the former one feels, “well, I guess I just need to keep working.”
@WP: I find I spend too much time on reviews as well–I almost always try to find a place where the paper begins to work and then say: “see this paragraph–do more of that! It is really working there.” It’s also important I think to try to figure out what the author is really trying to do, not the paper I would write (one of my colleagues taught me this lesson and she is so darn good at it I’m jealous). Lastly, I have sometimes told my students that I burst into tears almost every time I read a first review on one of my own papers and then often I realize, wow, yeah this will make the paper so much stronger.
I think that you are absolutely right — there is indeed a schism between the two. That is not to say that there is never the confluence of both excellence and professionalism, but to suggest that too often, the two have to be forcibly driven apart in favor of the bean-counting that the latter seems to require.
I think that as philosophers, we know, or ought to know, that words matter and words do things. Powerful things. When you begin by calling another’s work “gibberish” (especially when there is a power differential between you, with you having most of the power) I think that you might immediately create a barrier not only for a coming together of minds, but a psychological barrier where what you are suggesting might not receive the kind of uptake that it might have had you said something kinder (even if still critical). And when offering criticism of another’s work, is not uptake what you really want to get — don’t you want the other person to really hear and understand what you are saying, instead of retreating in to a permanent defensive and/or wounded position? Perhaps I am unusual in this regard, but I know that if a senior colleague (or an advisor) told me that my work was “gibberish,” no matter what other words came afterward, THAT is the word that I would hear, coloring my reaction to, and uptake of, whatever otherwise useful advice followed. How is the use of the word “gibberish” EVER going to be constructive? Yes, some people are more obstinate, or more fragile, or simply not open to suggestions, and that is a separate issue. But I think the idea that we must be harsh in order to get our point across does not speak well for our profession. Are we really so unable to get our points across without the use of hostile, aggressive communication? If that is indeed the case, then this sounds like a professional failing — not something to cling to proudly. It sounds like an opportunity to take stock of what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
And it is not just a matter of being “nice.” What I would suggest is that it is a matter of being kind — of offering suggestions, giving arguments, but also listening, trying to find some common ground, etc. It does not mean being “soft” on bad arguments, or never debating what you take to be an important point. What it does mean is seeing the philosophical process as more of a communal conversation, and less of a boxing match. And you usually ought not begin a conversation by punching your interlocutor in the face.
Note in this case, I don’t think there’s any huge power differential. The interlocutor was not a student of mine (or, as far as I can tell, a student at all; i.e., they have a PhD). It was on a public mailing list. I do have more prominence in the community, so there is potentially some difference.
And I did pick the word deliberately, with awareness of the risk involved, and some attempt to mitigate the negative impact. I’m not saying I made the right call, but I did make it aware of the risks involved. I’m not sure if using a slightly more formal word would have helped (e.g., “incoherent”).
This is, of course, one risk, as well as the risk of hurting someone. (Obviously, a critical comment which doesn’t hurt someone’s feelings is far better than one with the same content that does.) Of course, in this case, we have a good comparison with the nice vs. the less nice: With the less nice, the person just remained unaware that they completely didn’t understand what was going on.
(Secondary effects are a problem, of course, since there were no immediately helpful effects from my not-niceness.)
Well, my theory was that “gibberish” makes clear all the varying problems with what the person wrote as well as the degree of the problem. I’ve written gibberish on occasion and I’ve labeled it as such. (That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use with everyone, or perhaps anyone else.) I’d be interested in your analysis of the whole exchange, if you’d care to follow the links above. Here’s the paragraph I wrote:
I’m going to be blunt: AFAICT, most of what you’ve written is gibberish. I say this not to insult, though that’s hardly avoidable, but to make clear how off base what you’ve written is. It may have its roots in some idiosyncratic terminological choices you make…I don’t know.
Was this a punch in the face? The receiver didn’t take it that way, and indeed, didn’t take it that way for quite some way into the thread until it was clear that I wasn’t going to change my judgement. Then my expression became objectionable.
Which points to a weakness in using it in the best case: It provides a distraction.
I think if you read even my first reply you’ll see that I did engage in a conversation and a process. It wasn’t, “You’ve written gibberish, get out”, but “What you wrote seems to be gibberish and here’s why”.
That may, of course, not be sufficiently better.
In my interactions with students I vary my interaction style quite a lot. I won’t say that it’s principled, though I try to make it be, and I try to adjust it to personal needs. I’m aware as well that I turn some people off in a variety of ways, and intimidate others, but not all of that tracks to not niceness. (One of my more disappointing experiences came from “too much intervention” wherein every meeting was very high up on the niceness scale (from me), but the student was highly resistent to help, or at least, help from me. When that became clear, I backed off, but that hasn’t solved any of student’s problems either.)
(Note that I’m working in computer science at the moment, which does, however, have similar problems.)
Thanks WP! Writing went ok. Ish. Hope your two did too!
There’s a nice audio rendition of the Glass quote, here: http://vimeo.com/24715531. It’s even better in his voice.
[…] While I think that one can make a case against my use of the term “gibberish” (see the discussion on Feminist Philosophers) as being provocative, I will point out that they did not express […]
Arendt gives what I think is a good interpretation of the Socratic ‘dokei moi.’ Her reading, which I think helps promote dialogue, even as critique, has to do with tone: what I say is not absolute and objective, but always first is as ‘it seems to me.’ She goes on:
“To assert one’s own opinion belonged to being able to show oneself, to be seen and heard by others. To the Greeks this was the one great privilege attached to public life and lacking in the privacy of the household, where one is neither seen nor heard by others. (The family, wife and children, and slaves and servants, were of course not recognized as fully human.) In private life one is hidden and can neither appear nor shine, and consequently no doxa is possible there. Socrates, who refused public office and honor, never retired into this private life, but on the contrary moved in the marketplace, in the very midst of these doxai, these opinions. What Plato later called dialegesthai, Socrates himself called maieutic, the art of midwifery: he wanted to help others give birth to what they themselves thought anyhow, to find the truth in their doxa.”
This idea of “dokei moi” helped me get through grad school. With all (scathing, dismissive, unnecessary) critiques, I would mentally add to the first line “Dokei moi”…
Perhaps of interest: http://cacm.acm.org/blogs/blog-cacm/123611-the-nastiness-problem-in-computer-science/fulltext
For what it’s worth, BP, I found your commentary during our discussion a few weeks back very helpful. You were NOT ‘not nice’ at all. Being unfortunate enough to clash with a male religious conservative in first year, I was not so much a victim of attacks on my creativity, as I was literally threatened with institutional and legal sanctions for having the nerve to push my prof for answers I could live with. The guy accused me of being ‘threatening’ and dragged in the Chair and all the rest. Don’t even get me started on the way the campus cops followed me around after that incident.
I know durn well I’m nowhere near the place in my studies that you philosophers have reached
(because I wasn’t ALLOWED to continue!! Chalk up what successes I’ve had so far to stealth, fanaggling free audits, creative self-teaching and my interest in heroes like Frederick Douglass. Is it cheesy to say I admire Oprah on a philosophy blog?)
and yet you were very supportive of my monosyllabic manner of self-expression ;-) Sometimes people, myself included, do need to be told when they’re spewing gibberish. As long as the criticisms are explained thoroughly, and solutions are offered, the advice is constructive. I wish my first year prof had been more like you and some of the other profs I chat with on this blog. Some people call your style ‘not nice’ (?!?) It’s more like pruning. It does no good to mollycoddle a weed. Just make sure you don’t pull the flowers out with the bad stuff.
Ok, it’s not exactly “dokei moi” (above). But wasn’t I the subversive who had to ask my M&E prof if “giving birth to a wind egg” was anything like having a brain-fart <:-/ anyway? Maybe that's why some profs find me threatening?
BP, I hesitated for a long time over writing this – and working out how to be ‘nice’-ish! – but to be really honest, I thought that what would have been nice in that situation would have been to acknowledge the difficulties with language comprehension that were shaping the whole conversation by modifying how you were expressing yourself (this reaction, I should mention, is based on having taught a very high proportion of students from NESBs (non-English-speaking backgrounds) in my time). This probably would have helped with the actual getting-through-to thing, too.
I think that understanding ‘niceness’ as not having worked in this situation can really only be understood in relation to your ‘not-niceness’ – that is, this individual was clearly so on the defensive that anyone being even mildly nice was read as being on-side, rather than critiquing them. But that defensiveness, well, it didn’t come from nowhere; it came from this conversation taking place in a public space (and now being discussed around the internet, which I am not sure I’m okay with really) in which you are known, authoritative, comfortable, and can communicate easily, clearly and say precisely what you mean. That’s a fair power differential, right there, because this person, as far as I can tell, has none of those benefits accruing to zim.
I suspect the slow reaction to the word ‘gibberish’ arose from an uncertainty as to meaning, intent, and contextual significance – if you’re not sure what someone means, intends, or whether this is ‘normal’ for the context, then you’re likely to hedge your decision about whether you’re grumpy about it or not, and tend not to let any irritation or offence show.
Finally, in some places, the prefix ‘drs’ refers to someone who has completed their bachelor degree, so I wouldn’t be toooo sure that ze was setting out to mislead – there’s probably a fair amount of diversity in relation to titles across the world.
I appreciate your response and the care you’ve put into it both with respect to the content and to the tone.
Obviously, I can’t be certain that you aren’t entirely correct, i.e., that the subsequent bad reactions (both to the nice posts and the negative posts) stem primarily or merely substantively from my use of the term “gibberish”. And, clearly, I’ve some self interest in that not being the case (though, I do try to take ownership of my bad behavior and to at the very least apologize for it in an equally public way; indeed, I try to err on the side of apologizing even if I’m not convinced I did wrong; nevertheless, the self interest is there).
However, I think your reading is rather more strongly charitable than is warranted by the exchange. Yes, “gibberish” is a relatively powerful word, even with my cautions beside it, and yes, I’m articulate, an authority, well known in the community. But their initial reaction was exactly the same as to the nice posts: Assertion that we didn’t really disagree but were talking at different levels, plus an escalation of the confused stuff. This was what I (and many other people I was chatting with) expected.
I do think there were language difficulties, but I also think that there were both conceptual and “bumptiousness” issues, and I believe I gave room to them in my first post. They tried to use that as the primary excuse for my lack of agreement, which pretty evidently wasn’t true.
(I also teach a lot of students with NESBs and often those with moderate to much worst than this person’s difficulty with English. Sometimes, I’ve been affronted by things that they’ve said that turn out to be mistatings, not offensive things. Such confusion is usually sorted out pretty quickly in my experience.)
Re: their PhD hood, I was pretty careful not to say anything in thread, but my judgement that they have a PhD is based on such links as: http://www.icina.org/com.htm which seem a bit unusual (though not impossible) for a PhD student, and would be very odd to use a non PhD version of “Dr” in that context. I couldn’t find a conclusive page, so I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. (They didn’t claim to be a PhD student, just a student, i.e., beginner on that topic.) They have a publication record which they put out up front, are involved in many organizing committees, etc. I don’t see that the formal power differential, per se, is so huge. I can’t sink their career. They can’t sink mine. I couldn’t shut them out of any group, really. They were certainly willing to go to credentials and personal attacks rather quickly, if ineptly. I stuck to what they wrote. Is that enough?
It’s not uncommon in this forum for people to come in with grandiose ideas that are systematically out of touch with the relevant literature. (This is true of well established folks as well!) While my tone may have bad secondary effects on third parties, so does theirs. Hmm. That’s dangerously close to rationalization. I don’t mean it as such, merely as descriptive. I don’t think they were so innocent in their initial inquiry nor in the subsequent thread.
I take on board twss’s report: “Gibberish: would be a blocker for her. (I would hope that if they were my student or colleague that we would evolve an understanding such that even if I did slip, we could recover from it.) That suggests that my use of it, even if somehow warranted in the narrow sense, would contribute to a hostile climate. (Cf, my use of the term “appropriate hostility” and its effect.)
It’s delicate because I do enjoy verbal sparring and I like reading flame wars. I enjoy invective and snark. Not always. Not always when directed against me. Not always when directed by others against others. But some of the time. (More self interest, of course.) I don’t enjoy people suffering, though sometimes I wish it on some people.
If you are uncomfortable about discussing it publicly (because of possible downstream negative effects on this person) please feel free to email me . As I wrote, this is an ongoing, lifelong issue for me. As I get a lot of validation for being not-nice (in amusingish ways) I do welcome counterbalance.
I’m sorry if it’s somewhat incoherent and rambly. I don’t want to be defensive, but I’m still disagreeing with your analysis. It seems at least open.
Thanks! To be fair, this is an explicitly “nice zone”, and I strive to conform to the rules. It also seems to me (:)) that I’m also often spontaneously nice and exhibit a host of other interlocutionary and instructional virtues.
I’m sorry you weren’t allowed to continue. If there’s something institutionally or interpersonally I can do to help your further study or research, please feel free to drop me a line. I got lost in my graduate career and had it revived through the generosity of others.
Also perhaps relevant as a counterpoint, though I’ve not follow through to the acutal papers is: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/08/the-creativity-of-anger/
A secondary quote:
I don’t think this disproves the possible lethality of negative feedback (I’ve experienced that), but it suggests that the picture might be rather complicated.
(I don’t take this as evidence that my use of “gibberish” was justified!)
(Sorry for the volume again! I hope this case is more generally interesting and not just about me. Some of what I write here is my working through it and I appreciate the gracious indulgence from you all.)
Thanks, Bijan #24. That’s very kind of you. I’m dealing with some obstacles right now that would turn into a serious threadjack if I discussed them here. Your offer may be a little premature (I didn’t quite make it to grad school) but no obstacle is insurmountable. I’m very creative. I’ll follow some of your links in the next few days, and we can chat in your space. Maybe we can come up with something.
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