Monday, May 31, 2010

Receiving feedback on writing, part the first

This is the third post in what appears to be a series on responses to writing. Previously I laid out my idea of what constitutes a good response to someone else's writing. Responding to writing is a nontrivial intellectual task. But it's also not entirely obvious how to receive feedback on writing. Most people have received a laboriously marked up draft, only to find themselves at a loss as to how to use it. Don't tell anybody, but sometimes those marked-up drafts wind up in the recycling bin. What a waste of everyone's time!

Today I'll mention some ways to get the most useful possible feedback from your readers.

  • Set expectations. I can't overemphasize this. A respondent will be far more helpful if she or he knows what kind of response is needed. You don't have to give a lengthy report on your expectations, but you should signal what stage you imagine the piece to be in and what kind of time frame is available. If it's a draft for a long-term book project, the reader will respond to the substance of the ideas and perhaps suggest significant rewriting, theoretical reorientation, etc. If it's a writing sample that's due in a few days, the wise reader will catch all your typos and offer suggestions to improve the clarity of the language. The wise reader in that situation will not tell you that you need to engage with Nietzsche. Note, too, that regardless of what you say, the presentation of the manuscript also sends signals about the state of the draft. A poorly formatted, typo-ridden manuscript says "drafty draft draft draft," no matter what you say about it. Conversely, a polished manuscript signals assurance and a relatively more developed argument. More to the point, a clean manuscript allows the reader to focus on language and ideas, because she isn't being distracted by your wonky footnote formatting. And if you want feedback on particular issues ("I'm not sure whether the section about how the Cheezburger Cat formally reproduces the Bergsonian durée is clear"), then by all means ask the reader to respond to them.

  • Hold up your own end of the deal. Give your reader a reason to take your argument seriously. Even if the work is incipient, give the reader enough to work with. How useful will it be to receive feedback on five introductory pages that don't actually start in on the body of the argument? The reader can't know if those pages do what they're supposed to do without the rest of the essay in hand. Similarly, meet the deadlines you set for yourself (true confession: I am entirely guilty of not following this advice on occasion). Responding to writing is a generous thing to do, and it's only right to respect your reader's time by delivering what you said you'd deliver, when you said you'd deliver it.

  • Be strong. You've asked for feedback; now be willing to accept it. It's always hard to hear from someone else that your baby needs work, even when you already hold that opinion yourself. Make up your mind now that you're going to use this feedback productively.

If I don't flake out (always a possibility -- I mean, this is a blog, after all), then I'll proceed in a future post to outline how to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful feedback, and some of the ways to use feedback productively, including relatively low-quality feedback.

(A lolcat for Gladys.)

Previous posts on responses to writing:

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nerd alert: University of Washington Information School librarians significantly improve upon Lady Gaga's "Poker Face":

[Lyrics][Via Lisa Gold.]

Friday, May 28, 2010

How to respond to others' writing

I recently wrote a fairly rambling post about responding to other people's writing, which was partly an appreciation of those who have done it for me and partly a reflection on how I learned to respond to writing (in short: haphazardly).

What I didn't do in that post was give a concrete account of my idea of how one should respond to writing. I'll attempt to outline it briefly below. These statements apply to writing by peers and by students alike.

  • Writing is an act of creation. Properly conducted, so is responding to writing. A good response is the product of a serious intellectual engagement with a document, usually a document in an unpolished state, which takes a bit more effort to read than a fully articulated, proofread, edited document. It's your job to figure out what the document is accomplishing, what it aims to accomplish, and what it could accomplish. You're partaking of the creative act and projecting for the writer what you think the piece will be once fully realized. Consequently, a response should be positive in both senses. I don't mean this in a warm and fuzzy way. I mean that a response should offer suggestions, point out successful moves (that should be extended or repeated, perhaps), and ask questions, because these are the things that will help a writer proceed. It is easier to work from models than from interdictions. You can say what not to do, but the task of the writer is not to not do but to do -- something. The writer needs to know what you think that something ought to be, even if she or he will ultimately reject your suggestion.

  • A response is not the same thing as an evaluation. When a piece of writing is truly good, it's important to say that, because handing over your work to somebody else is an act of trust. But the chief aim of a response is not to evaluate but to analyze. In particular: telling somebody that a piece of writing is bad gives the writer nothing to go on as far as revision is concerned. What should the writer do, upon being told the piece is bad? Chuck the piece and start over? Start over how? A response should reveal dimensions of the piece that the writer did not previously perceive. Honesty is necessary, of course, and on occasion a reader will be called to save a colleague from the grips of a truly terrible idea for a project. The Queer Temporality of Lolcats: A Bergsonian Analysis in Limericks was never meant to be. But these occasions are rare.

  • A response should summarize what you see the writing accomplishing. Writing does not entail having an idea fully formed and then typing it out. Sophisticated writing is a recursive process of articulating, revising, and nuancing ideas that are at first only incipient. A good response summarizes what the reader has understood to be the aims and accomplishments of the piece of writing, usually with questions when unclarity arises. The reader helps the writer to identify the ideas that have developed in the writing, and the further implications that the writer may wish to draw out.

  • A response should be appropriate to one's relationship with the writer and to the task at hand. A response must always be respectful, period. Apart from that, audiences vary. You can be colloquial with a friend from grad school. It's helpful to repeat composition terminology (like that old classic, "topic sentence") with a student. It's important to be gentle (not dishonest: gentle) with someone whom you know is having a mid-grad-school crisis. Likewise, comments that will prompt substantial rewriting are appropriate for an early draft of a dissertation chapter, and not appropriate for a draft of a proposal due tomorrow. Think of the person, the time frame, the situation.

  • A few targeted comments are more helpful than a comprehensive account of every possible thing upon which the writer could improve. Time is finite, and while we all cherish hopes of writing the perfect essay, it's not reasonable to suppose that anyone ever will. Far more harmful to anyone's writing life than an essay circulating with a few flaws is the awkward, insular prose of the sitter-and-polisher. Each of us has an inner sitter-and-polisher, and that's not a bad thing (it's also known as our inner critic), but there must be limits. A tragic affliction often seen among advanced graduate students is the inability to show anyone work in progress and an utter unwillingness to submit essays before they are "ready." That way lies incompletes, a fifteen-year time-to-degree, and abject misery. Meanwhile, the writing becomes more and more stilted and anxious, because it never sees the light of day or benefits from the refreshing reality-checks of scholarly communication. Inundating a writer with a flood of comments only encourages the inner sitter-and-polisher who never circulates a draft with which she is not happy--and she is never happy. If there really are a lot of problems, then at minimum impose a hierarchy on your suggestions. When you give a response, you're suggesting revisions, and those revisions should be possible and finite. The goal, after all, is to end up with a good piece of writing, and part of being good is being done.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Working in the quiet of the library with a friend:

1. One of us starts visibly trying to hold in laughter.

2. The other looks up quizzically.

3. The first sends an email with some funny, obscure item encountered in research.

4. The other now likewise has to contain her snorts of laughter.

Repeat as needed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The novelist Gertrude Stein

Why do we tend to speak of Gertrude Stein as a poet? She was a poet, of course, but above all she was a fiction writer and an essayist.

The easy answer is that Stein was appropriated as an antecedent to the Language poets, a move that was instrumental in giving her the place in the canon that she has today.

But that kind of begs the question, because, after all, the Language poets themselves constantly pushed the boundaries between poetry and prose. My Life is often taught as an autobiography, for instance. And why not? It has sentences and chapters.

I'll be thinking further on this in the coming weeks. Ideas welcome.

Friday, May 21, 2010

On guilty pleasures

Kevin Dettmar recently asked his readers about their "guilty pleasures." He was talking about pop music, but sadly, I don't really have any pop music guilty pleasures, unless you count Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," which I for one do not. (Genius, people!)

I do have some guilty blog pleasures, though.

They are Regretsy and Unhappy Hipsters.

Regretsy, aptly self-described as "where DIY meets WTF," mocks poorly wrought and/or ill conceived items on the popular DIY site

Unhappy Hipsters makes fun of the restrained elegance of those beautiful, unaffordable-by-normal-people homes in magazines like Dwell.

The author of Unhappy Hipsters has a hilarious knack for reading sinister motives into Scandinavian furniture. Regretsy is both vulgar and mean-spirited (I really mean it; do not show this blog to your kids), but the unapologetic intensity of April Winchell's mockery is likewise brilliant in its way, even subversive.

I have genuine misgivings about both of these blogs (Regretsy in particular). But I also like them.

Kevin points out the weird moralism in the very idea of a guilty pleasure, and I think he's right to suspect that there's an intellectual cop-out happening when we pre-ironize our own "low" tastes by disclaiming them as "guilty pleasures." We ought to be able to take a good hard look at our own aesthetic pleasures and say why we like things that we're supposed to know better than to like (because they're too predictable, too boilerplate, etc.).

Kevin gives a great example of this in his discussion of the "military Telephone" video. Kevin contrasts the first half of the video, which manifests what seems to be sincere pleasure in the pop song (with its incredibly clumsy scansion!) with what he calls "the self-consciously 'camp,' second-rate Village People section of the video." It's the earlier, sincere section of the video that's subversive, not the pre-ironized latter section. Unrestrained pleasure is a little frightening.

The other smart discussion of guilty pleasure that leaps to mind is Anne Cheng's "Beauty and Ideal Citizenship," the first chapter of The Melancholy of Race. The guilty pleasure that she names (and which I entirely share) is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1961), and the ostensible reasons for guilt lie in the film's problematic racial politics. Look at the cheesy fake Chinese lettering on the DVD cover, the stereotyping of Chinatown, the casting of all sorts of Asian Americans in the rôles of Chinese Americans (including Japanese Americans as both the male lead and the ingenue), etc., etc. Look at how none of the many Asian Americans cast in the film ever really became a star. What does liking Flower Drum Song say about my politics?

But I think it's where politics intertwines with aesthetics that the guilt comes in. We don't make a habit of apologizing for liking What Maisie Knew, even when we acknowledge that there's an incredibly racist element in it. Somehow James's command of his craft makes it possible to acknowledge, and even condemn, the racism, but also to bracket it. There's a racist element in Uncle Tom's Cabin, too, but we're more likely to apologize for it because it's sentimental--and Stowe's racism is just a cover for our aesthetic embarrassment. Flower Drum Song is problematic, but it's when we add in Oscar Hammerstein's dubious talents as a librettist and the funny 60's dancing that we have ourselves a guilty pleasure. How deeply taste matters.

Cheng sees the forbidden character of Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) as the greatest locus of pleasure in Flower Drum Song. Linda is the definition of a guilty pleasure--beautiful, self-involved, transgressively successful at being both Chinese and American (her "You Be the Rock, I'll Be the Roll" number with Patrick Adiarte's Wang San is perhaps my favorite), in every way politically troubling, transgressively aware of the ways in which she performs gender, she "enjoys being a girl" and dances for her own pleasure in front of a three-way mirror. Flower Drum Song is a parable about rejecting the guilty pleasure, about letting go of Linda Low.

And yet, as Cheng points out, the film can't let go of Linda Low; it has to reject her in the narrative, but she's still the center of the spectacle. When visual pleasure meets narrative cinema, visual pleasure wins. That's why it's Nancy Kwan (in an absurd hat) on the DVD cover, not Miyoshi Umeki. The guilty pleasure that is Linda Low is at the heart of the guilty pleasure that is Flower Drum Song. Which makes Flower Drum Song also a parable about rejecting Flower Drum Song.

Perhaps what's so great about Regretsy and Unhappy Hipsters is that they take the paradigm wherein one is too self-aware to ever endorse anything fully and just go the whole hog with it. Unhappy Hipsters makes fun of the disaffected, joyless, too-cool-for-clutter aesthetic of modernist architecture (and make no mistake, I love this architecture, and very much suspect that the author of Unhappy Hipsters does too). It makes something presumed ironic into something deeply sentimental. Regretsy makes fun of earnestness with its own passionate earnestness. They're politically compromised but aesthetically committed, and it's not the compromise but the commitment that's challenging.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I much enjoyed this ProfHacker post by Nels P. Highberg on "What We Can Do for Graduating Seniors Today" [Chronicle paywall]. In general I think the ProfHacker series is good (though of course nothing matches the perfect wisdom of Ms. Mentor).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Like many people, I had some formal musical training (violin) when I was pretty young and left off serious study about mid-college. I don't consider myself a musician.

Now I find myself with sudden access to a piano. I do not play piano; I never have. I have, however, tried to pick out music on pianos many times. It's the sort of thing I find irresistible: there is the music, there is the keyboard. See what you can realize just by taking a stab at it.

It's startling to me to notice what is and is not difficult about it to me now, in contrast to earlier periods in my life. Reading bass clef seems more natural than it once did. Reading two lines together seems easier. It seems less necessary to look at the keyboard than it once did. On the other hand, I'm far more aware of my lack of fingering technique, and the limitations it imposes, than before. And I can feel the effects of typing a dissertation in my hands.

It seems the relationship between my brain and my hands has changed without my noticing. Hello, my fingers; we meet again.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Facebook is ridiculous

I was well into my old age (like, 21?) when Facebook appeared, so I never created a Facebook account until earlier this year. I was lured in by the walled garden effect; the Franklin Humanities Institute would post event details on Facebook, and you could only see them if you had an account, so I created one. Then my adorable young cousin friended me and I was sunk, i.e. Facebookified. (I still love you, FHI. You too, Brookie!)

While I've come to be a big fan of Twitter and, of course, blogs, I've never found a reason to relinquish my suspicion of Facebook. Even before the privacy controversies, it always seemed to me that Facebook only gave the illusion of privacy, leaving you with limited control of your identity and none of the advantages of total openness that you get with blogs and Twitter (which is of course simply microblogging).

I also find the "friend" relation on Facebook, frankly, creepy. Facebook requires that this relation be symmetrical; it actively tries to dissolve the distinctions between acquaintances, colleagues, family, and friends. This contrasts with Twitter and RSS feeds (and Zotero), in which you control whom you follow but not who follows you.

Asymmetrical relationships encourage professional connections; I follow my friends and they often follow me back, but I also follow some scholars who have no idea who I am (and that's fine). Some people follow me and I have no idea who they are; that's fine too, because we're not "friends." Twitter is largely for sharing links, so people who subscribe to my Twitter feed generally do so because they want the kinds of things I find interesting to come across their radar. It is, in other words, an intellectual relation. A Twitter connection is primarily formal, not emotional, and that's a good thing.

What a difference between Twitter's asymmetrical "following" and the ways Facebook tries to guilt you into being "friends" with everybody you've ever known or could plausibly know. The classic example is being Facebook "friends" with your parents--always an awkward thing, even if you get along well with your parents, because after all, a parent is something other than and beyond a friend. A whole bunch of French Canadian Cécires, charming people but of no known relation to me, have tried to friend me on Facebook. Of course! That's how Facebook works; that's how "friending" works. Nobody would ever follow my Twitter feed on the basis of a surname. On the basis of tweet contents (limerick, a mention of Marianne Moore, the use of a conference hashtag), yes. A possible genealogical connection, no.

I never posted much of anything on Facebook (I think I made two status updates: one to post a CFP and one to say that I was deactivating my account). I deactivated my account a few weeks ago, which isn't the same as deleting the account. I think my short and apathetic tenure on Facebook has me fairly safe, although of course I could be kidding myself (Byzantine instructions for actually deleting an account are linked below).

Typical of its penchant for confusing the personal with business, Facebook attempts some pretty funny emotional manipulation when you deactivate an account. Below, I'm told that a friend from college; my best friend from second grade, now an actor in L.A.; a good local friend; my sister-in-law; and my youngest brother are going to miss me. They won't be able to keep in touch with me.

It could be just me, but it strikes me that if the only thing keeping me in touch with someone is Facebook, then that person is not going to miss me, and I'm not going to miss them either. I think my friends and family and I are going to manage.

Some recent Facebook-related links:

Friday, May 14, 2010

It seems that approximately the entire third-year cohort here just took qualifying exams this week. It makes me nostalgic for those days when my entire job was to read nineteenth-century novels and modernist poetry and the like--even though I know I'm idealizing the memory.* Anyway, congratulations to everyone who just passed quals!

*In point of fact, I had the honor of giving someone a mock exam yesterday and was reminded that there were some real duds of the nineteenth century, e.g. Iola Leroy. I'd forgotten that book, but it's still on my shelf. Dear God, what a terrible novel.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I recently had a conversation about letters -- you know, the kind you stick in the post. Since I've actually been known to write them on occasion, here are my thoughts, briefly, on what makes a good letter.

  • A good letter is affectionate. Ideally, it contains an in-joke.

  • A good letter is substantive; it contains ideas, not just a narration of events.

  • A good letter is crafted; it has some structure. Thought has gone into the letter. Likewise, proofreading.

  • A good letter is written legibly by hand.

What else makes a good letter?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On responding to writing

Kevin Dettmar's recent lovely ode to an editor put me in mind of my own readers. Like the art of praise, the art of giving useful feedback is a delicate one.

Although I've been trying for years to cultivate a detached attitude toward my writing (as all writers do), I still find it frightening to show writing in its early stages. It is always bad. A bad version of every essay must be written, often multiple bad versions. There is no point in trying to save time by skipping the bad version; there's no skipping it, because without the bad version there can be no good version.

The bad draft is bad because we write our anxieties. If we feel hemmed in by a previous critic's argument, then we ramble on about how very wrong that critic is. If we feel insecure in our understanding of a philosophical point, we will attach multiple lengthy footnotes to the section in which we explain it. If we're not quite sure what we mean by a phrase, we will say it repeatedly. At least for me, a first draft is a record of my anxieties about the ideas about which I'm writing. Only later can the bloom of anxieties be cleared away, and the ideas themselves emerge, blinking.

A good reader helps the ideas emerge by taking for granted that they are there (somewhere). She assumes that you know what you're about, gives you the benefit of the doubt, and responds to the smartest version of what you could be saying. She tells you not only when you're being unclear but also how. Instead of naming deficiencies, she asks questions and offers suggestions. She notices patterns in your writing that you didn't see yourself. Above all, she tells you what she sees, which is usually different from what you think you said.

Like praising, giving feedback is a skill I learned informally. I had a dissertation group for a year or two, and that was crucial in helping me see how to respond to others' writing. (I was also teaching composition continuously during this period, which made for some startling revelations.)

The dissertation group made me realize that good feedback is not only a response to writing but also to a writer. Some people have particular habits that need remarking. Some people's relationships with their dissertations are so fragile that suggestions must always come in the form of praise, lest the writer despair and stop writing altogether. And often, too much feedback--high quality or otherwise--is so overwhelming that it shuts the writer down. The point of feedback is not to be exhaustive but to be useful.

I've had many good readers, and there's something exciting (also scary) about receiving feedback from someone for the first time. It's a special kind of favor that scholars do for one another, one that I've always deeply appreciated. Just as there are certain things only family and friends can do for you, there are certain things that only a scholar can do. Likewise, it's an honor to be asked to read a colleague's work in progress. (I say this with a little guilt, knowing that I still owe someone a response to an article.)

In addition to these, I have two truly exceptional regular interlocutors, one an advisor, one a peer. Both of them are exceptional first of all because I trust in their scholarship. Both do me the honor of engaging deeply and frequently with my work, even in its bad phases. Of the two, the more senior is perhaps the better respondent to my writing; he's a master of the distilling phrase. It's my peer, however, who's the better respondent to me as a writer; she knows my work in all its forms and can detect latent concerns before I do. Because of these two readers, writing is never not collaborative to me. Even when I reject all of their suggestions, my thinking changes, and therefore so does the writing.

There is also an art of taking feedback. But that's another topic.

Monday, May 3, 2010

After days of seeing me haul home sad little clutches of orange juice, cough drops, lemons, Advil, and Kleenex, the checker dude at my local grocery grabbed my receipt today and wrote down the name of some hippie homeopathic remedy for me. Oh, Berkeley.


Received this morning, posted unchanged except to highlight every instance of the words "excellence," "effective," and "effectiveness":
Dear Campus Colleagues:

Last fall, we launched Operational Excellence, an effort to identify opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations at the University of California, Berkeley. As one of the world's preeminent public teaching and research universities, there can be no doubt that excellence is deeply ingrained throughout our campus. However, for some time, most of us have recognized that the systems, policies, and processes that we depend on to run our campus have substantial room for improvement. Our goals in Operational Excellence are to improve our operations and to ensure that the maximum possible resources are available for teaching and research.

I know that all of us are fully committed to ensuring that this institution continues to be a model of excellence. We have taken dramatic steps to reduce our operating expenses, especially over the past two years. Nevertheless, we cannot count on the State to cover our full operating costs in the highly competitive market for world-class faculty, staff, students, and facilities.

In addition to reducing our costs, we must create an environment in which all members of the campus community can do their best work. This will require streamlining business processes and reducing organizational complexity, automating cumbersome manual transactions, and making a commitment to greater accountability at all levels. At the same time, we must keep our focus on our primary missions of teaching, research, and public service.


On April 12th the Operational Excellence Steering Committee, which was composed of Berkeley faculty, staff, students and alumni, released a report that outlines the conclusions from the diagnostic phase, with recommendations regarding the most appropriate path forward. The report, prepared by a large working group of Berkeley employees and supported by the consulting firm Bain & Company, is an impressive compilation of data gathered and analyzed over the past six months regarding key operational areas of our campus. The report highlights the potential to improve materially the way we operate and to save more than $100 million from Berkeley's on-going operational costs. The Steering Committee recommended that we make a systematic effort to capture at least $75 million annually of those savings over the next three years.

Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost (EVCP) George Breslauer and I have participated in every Steering Committee meeting, separately reviewed much of the research and analysis presented to the Steering Committee, and, of course, have thoroughly reviewed the Steering Committee's final report. I am accepting the Committee's recommendation to proceed with initiatives in five areas: procurement, organizational simplification, information technology, energy, and student services. Together, these five initiatives will be designed to improve effectiveness of our operations while reducing on-going operational costs by a minimum of $75 million annually, over the next three years.

In the next few weeks we will appoint initiative teams to design specific solutions for cost savings and operational improvements in each of the five areas. Two more teams will be appointed to address broader organizational challenges: the design of a new model for managing our financial resources, particularly common goods, and a strategy to move our campus toward an operating culture with aligned, clear goals throughout our organization, consistent decision processes, effective management strategies, and clear career paths for our employees within the university.

The Steering Committee also recommended that we immediately establish a Program Office which, for the duration of Operational Excellence, will both oversee and guide our efforts as well as support a coherent, integrated, and systematic approach to the design and implementation of specific initiatives. I agree with this approach and have initiated processes to put this structure in place quickly. We will have more information to share with you in the coming weeks.

In addition, I have asked Bain & Company to continue assisting us through the end of this calendar year. We have not finalized the details of this engagement but I expect that this investment will be invaluable in helping us achieve the savings we have identified, maintain the momentum of this work, and augment and support our Berkeley leaders in emulating best practices.


I strongly believe that our campus has significant opportunities to achieve the savings and operational improvements that we need. This will require a systematic and sustained effort for the next 2-3 years. It will not be easy. Each of us will have to change the way we work, and the way we work with each other, in order to streamline our operations and produce meaningful savings.

In addition, we will need to make significant investments in automation, process improvements, people, and training, many of which are long overdue. We are exploring alternatives for low-cost financing that will enable us to borrow the money needed to make these investments soon in order to produce real savings quickly.

Many of you participated in the development of the Steering Committee's recommendations through focus groups, interviews, surveys, and e-mailed suggestions. Some of you have expressed concerns about specific changes outlined in the Steering Committee's report. Others have argued strongly that we need to take swift and decisive action. I very much appreciate the feedback that you have provided, before and after the report was issued, and the extent of your commitment to making sure that we move forward in a way that preserves our excellence and honors our values.

It is imperative that we succeed with Operational Excellence. The current budget challenges are likely to persist for some time. Consequently, we need to manage the resources we have as effectively as we possibly can, while we continue to advocate for more resources from the State of California and pursue our ongoing fundraising efforts as well as other creative revenue strategies. So far, the reactions to our Operational Excellence efforts, in Sacramento and from the UC Regents, have been promising.

EVCP Breslauer, Vice Chancellor Yeary, and I are committed to the success of Operational Excellence at Berkeley. We recognize that it will not be easy; however, I am convinced that we can make the needed changes. I ask each of you to participate in making this effort a success.

Yours sincerely,

Robert J. Birgeneau