Early in my career--it was during my second or third year working in several different adjunct positions--I learned the method for giving feedback that I still use today. If you are one of the thousands of students or authors who have received feedback from me on a written dissertation, thesis, research project, article, or book manuscript, you will probably recognize this method. I learned it not from an English professor, but from an architect.
Building a New Humanities Seminar Room at FermiLab
I was hired by FermiLab (the Federal National Accelator Lab) via the new Illinois Humanities Council to conduct a weekly humanities seminar for U.S. and Russian high energy physicists who, in their daily work lives, were so antagonistic that they were barely speaking to one another. The theory was that, by reading the same books--chiefly American and Russian novels--watching the same movies, attending the same lectures and then talking about them once a week, they would learn to trust and respect one another and be able to collaborate better on the neutrino particle physics they were doing with the world's largest, fastest particle collider. Given my late switch from science to humanities, it was a ideal job for me amid my community college teaching while also writing the articles and books that I hoped might land me a first full-time teaching job.
But first we needed a space to work in each week. On my first long drive to Batavia, Illinois, I worked with an architect who was going to carve out a meeting space for us in FermiLab's famously open plan scientific spaces, with translation and projection equipment but also with inviting, comfortable spaces that were separated from the rest of the Lab. The FermiLab resident architect presented his plans to me and three of colleagues from the Illinois Humanities Council, one of the program officers, and two professors who were early advisers at IHC.
The architect rolled out his early sketches.
We piled on.
This was a cliche. That wouldn't work. Nix the overhead lighting. Can't we do better on the windows? The colors are awful.
It was a barrage of negative responses. I think we called it "critique."
He handed us each a pencil.
And stepped back.
"Go for it!" he said,and pointed to the drawing. "Show me. Just go ahead."
I think we were all a little stunned. I know I was. He encouraged us again to draw, make changes right on his drawing or to draw something entirely new.
"No architect goes into a critique session without a pencil," he told us."We all want to get this room built, right? So we can't just say what's wrong. We need to contribute to a way forward. How do English professors give critique?"
Critique v. An Alternative Plan
No one had ever before offered me not just critique--a page of all the things that were wrong, often with rude abbreviations like "awk," but without any alternative suggestion for how to be "un-awk."
"Really? You tell someone everything that's wrong but don't offer your own basis for that critique, your own ideas about what might work, a better way to proceed?"
It was the architect's turn to be stunned. He didn't see how you could give feedback without also putting your own alternative ideas out there, as a way to move forward. He feared critique without input and alternatives just led to paralysis not implementation of a better way.
This was a long time ago but I have since worked with many architects on projects small and large, and there is almost always that crucial moment that moves from critique and feedback to the critic actually drawing out an alternative idea.
And this is now the "architect's method" (my term, not a professional one I've seen elsewhere) that I use. I warn all my students that I use this is my method and has been for decades.
When I return their papers, I never just write comments ("Good" or "Run on" or "Unconvincing") but, if something is not jiving, I will typically do a "quick and dirty" rewrite in the margins that, to my mind, expresses what I think they are trying to say. I might write something like, "Here's a quick paraphrase of what I think you are conveying. Am I getting it?"
I always offer them the chance to see this alternative and then decide if it does or not do the work they wanted it to do. I don't want them to just take my rewrite as is; I want them to see what someone else is reading in what they are writing, how someone else goes from what they are writing to a conclusion. Is this what you are aiming for? Look at the difference between your original and this variation. Is this closer?
If not, what would be another way of getting to what you want? It sure beats re-re-re-re-writing the same sentence (who hasn't done this?) over and over. Instead of being simply the recipient of negative comments, the reader, in this situation, sees an alternative possibility. It's not the only one. It's another option on the way to success.
The architect, many years ago, was baffled by the idea that you could offer only critique and not propose a possible solution to the problem being addressed. He was shocked that anyone in our field ever managed to write anything after receiving critical feedback but no help thinking one's way out and beyond it to a final solution.
I've used the "architect's method" every since.
Towards a Finished Product
If the goal is a finished product that works, pointing out everything that is wrong doesn't really give the person who has to actually build the room (or the argument) much guidance. In the "architect's method," no one holds back from saying what they think might be wrong but they know that, at some point, it will be their turn: they will be handed the pencil and asked to offer an alternative. That changes how one gives critique--and it changes one's relationship to the person who has to take that critique and move forward to implementation.
In architecture--as in a dissertation, thesis, research project, article, or book manuscript--you have constraints. These are predetermined. At FermiLab, the constraints included the size of the space we had, the windows, the ceiling height, the relation to the landscape as well as our timeframe (we were starting our humanities seminar in a month) and a budget. We also had ecological restrictions on the materials we could use and the amount of energy we would consume. We also had a basic style of the rest of the Lab to interact within and we had a range of use requirements, both for the upcoming Seminar and for other, future purposes (projector, movable chairs--some ideal for view, some for discussion--some tables, white boards, and so forth).
Within all that, it was an empty box.
The architect, in view of all these constraints, had filled it in one way. We had a lot of critique of the way he had addressed the constraints and produced a plan for the room. He was offering us a chance to show him some other ways, not in the abstract, not some Platonic ideal, but actual ways within the constraints of our designated space and budget. The idea was to come up with something that would end up with an ideal final product.
A Better Way to Model Institutional Change
No one had ever before that encounter offered me not just critique but an alternative, a different way forward. I've since done that thousands of times. Not everyone in our profession likes it. We've been well trained to give and receive critique. We offer almost no training in how to propose an alternative that, together, we might build on. I believe it stymies us not only in our writing but in our efforts to reimagine alternatives to the way we do things--in our work, in our classrooms, in institutional change.
This is among the reasons why, in The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, I pair any critique of the existing system with an ethnographic account of a professor, a group of academics, a department, a school, or a whole university that has actually grappled with the problem and found a way to solve it. Not every reader, in every situation, will like the solution. But by seeing an alternative, I hope that every reader will understand that their own situation is not "unsolvable," but that there are various ways to address and tackle the problem within all the constraints offered.
Administrators are often middle-managers and are often handed constraints that they don't necessarily like either--a budget cut, a requirement to accept more students, new faculty to accommodate, an edict to merge seemingly parallel bureaucracies into a new unit. We, as faculty, are great at offering critique. Sometimes--not always, but sometimes--we are also handled the pencil.
When we are, I hope we take the opportunity, not to write more critique, but to offer an alternative plan, one that might be able to offer others of us a way forward.
Photo: Creative Commons Licensed, courtesy of http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/photo-933207
Special thanks to Futures Initiative doctoral Fellow Allison Guess. When I explained my method after offering her comments on the proposal, she suggested I write a blog since she found it useful and thought others might too. Thank you, Allison!