Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimn√°zium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.

The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

I made a few revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.