Constructive criticism and anonymous bashing…

Last night in my Personal & Professional Assessment class, we broke into small groups and read each others essays to provide peer feedback. This is an intensely personal experience, as part of this class is translating life experiences (sometimes, incredibly negative ones) into college-level learning outcomes.

After small groups, the class reconvened and we discussed out group experiences. Arlo, one of my classmates, made a pretty valid point that by changing the groups every week, we don’t get to spend a lot of time to get to know the people in the class, so there’s an element of vulnerability to it. He was right, and yet, at the same time, I didn’t feel entirely vulnerable–I actually felt pretty safe in my class, even though I don’t know anyone in there particularly well.

This made me think–why am I so comfortable with other people offering constructive crtiticism?

In thinking back, I remembered one of my first experiences in a group setting getting feedback from my peers. My freshman year of college, I took a creative fiction writing course at Portland Community College (PCC). Peer review was a huge part of the class, and I remember being especially nervous as I turned in my first piece of fiction for the class. I wish I still had a copy of it, it’s been lost somewhere over the years, but it was shortly after 9/11 and I tackled the story of a firefighter who, on that day, found out his wife was having an affair, and to wrap a long story up into a short synopsis, lost his wife in the attacks and rescued the man she was cheating with from the rubble in the penultimate scene, in a touching act of forgiveness and humanity.

I was nervous about giving this to my class. It wasn’t that long after 9/11, and I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to be prepared for it in fictionalized form yet. To my surprise, it actually was well received by the majority of the class. And by the majority of the class, I mean all but one of them.

His name was Daniel.

I can’t remember his last name, but I remember my first interaction with him on the first day of class. He asked me what kind of authors I read, and I responded with Grisham and Clancy. He snickered, then said, “I meant REAL authors.”

When I got my copies returned with my classmates notes, his were in a dark, almost unholy black script, sloppily scrawled in the margins and between lines. Everything he had to say was negative, and on top of that, he didn’t even sign his own name to the critique–The only reason I knew it was his comments is because everyone else did sign their copies. I remember, in spite of everything good that my classmates and professor had to say, Daniel’s criticism of my writing burned within me.

It was two weeks later when his story came up for review. The thing that I discovered with Daniel, that carried on later to a second creative fiction course I took, is that in each class, there is at least one person who is harshly critical of everyone because they feel they are superior, and usually the one with the superiority complex is also the worst writer in the class. Daniel’s story, beyond being incredibly poorly written, didn’t make a lick of sense.

I’m not proud of what I did next.

It was childish, to be sure, but I wanted Daniel to know the pain he had inflicted on me, and so I unflinchingly unleashed my finest criticisms in a bright crimson, all over his story. Drawing upon my time as a high school yearbook editor, I found every grammatical mistake, every incorrect punctuation, every misspelled word. I made prolonged explanations on why certain sentences made no sense, and how I couldn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish with his story. I don’t want to say it was poetry, but if Shakespeare had been a high school copy editor with a horrendously written section of copy to dissect, I imagine he would’ve done something similar. And, the cherry on top, I made my criticism anonymous–I didn’t sign my name to his, either.

When we showed up for class that day, it turns out I was not the only person who had a problem with Daniel’s story–No one actually made any sense of it. As we went around the room, each of us confessed confusion with Daniel’s cluttered prose. His expression was one of tormented genius, who was left to deal with the mindless drones of academia who couldn’t possibly understand his lofty mind.

His mood didn’t improve any the following class session, after having read all of our thoughts on his story in handwritten notes on the copies we’d returned to him. His second story of that term was an attempt at satire, lampooning the class as idiots subtly, so that only a few caught wind that he was doing it.

So why does this matter? I think it was a growing experience for me. As I reflect back on that, it was my first really harsh criticism from a peer, and while I didn’t handle it in a mature fashion at the time, I learned a lesson at 18 that stuck with me–I can’t control whether or not someone likes my writing, I can only control my own words and actions. The majority of folks I’ve found offer criticism in more constructive fashions, but the ones who are truly hateful or spiteful aren’t really my concern. They’re entitled to their opinions, and I don’t have to engage them on their level. Especially with the internet, it’s become incredibly easy to dump anonymous attacks on people for no better reason than because we feel like it. When the haters pop up, don’t waste your time. Just keep moving on, my friend.

Applicable to writing, applicable to all of life.


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