I originally wrote this for my students in my Writing for the Mass Media course when I was teaching online for the University of Maryland University College, and then decided to post it on my former weblog, Random Acts of Love, with some revisions and additions. That blog is no longer available thanks to technological changes involving Apple’s move to iCloud. It is very pertinent to the focus of THIS blog, and so here it is.
Many years ago when I first started graduate school at the University of Iowa (for my Ph.D. — I already had a master’s) I had to come face-to-face with the reality that no matter how wonderful a writer I had been told that I was, I still had a lot to learn. And I will always have a lot to learn!
In the School of Journalism at Iowa, graduate students were required to participate in a “mock convention” where we presented papers to our faculty and fellow students in a manner similar to what was required at professional academic conventions. We had to present one research paper per year (they had just changed it from once per semester when I started — thank goddess!) that required us to go beyond what we had done in our other courses. When we presented our papers, we had “respondents” — one person from the faculty and one graduate student would publicly critique our paper and presentation.
For my first paper I worked so hard I barely saw the light of day. I took an idea that I had from my historical research methods course and did some fairly extensive research that required me to read hundreds of pages of microfilm from the New York Evening Post (which no longer exists), as I was studying the work of Rheta Childe Dorr, who became the first women’s page editor for that paper in 1904. (Dorr became a “muckraking reporter” who has been pretty much ignored by most of the journalism history textbooks.)
I know I worked twice as hard on my paper as my graduate school cohorts had done on theirs. And my advisor for the paper really loved it. So I thought I would be getting all sorts of accolades when it came time for me to present.
Contrary to my expectation, I was devastated when my faculty critiquer began his response by saying “This is a very ambitious paper. Too ambitious…” and from then on he essentially tore my paper to pieces. I was particularly hurt because my advisor said not one word in my defense.
I walked home from our “convention” in tears. That night there was an “after convention” party (as customary). I did not want to show my face there! But I finally pulled together the courage and went. There was no way I was going to let anyone get in my way. I knew that I had to go, no matter how I felt.
The real problem was that everything the professor had said about my paper was absolutely true. And it didn’t matter how hard I had worked on it, or how much more time I had put into it than my fellow students had put into theirs. It didn’t matter that I had wonderful writing talent. The paper was very flawed. It was, as the professor said, “too ambitious.” I had tried to do too much with one paper.
The issue wasn’t about whether or not I deserved an “A” for the paper — I certainly got that. It was about how much I still had to learn. After all, if I already knew everything I needed to know about doing scholarly research and writing for a scholarly audience, what was the point in going to graduate school? Why waste all that time and money if I already knew everything?
It was a hard and very painful lesson to learn. The lesson was this: sometimes your biggest critic can be your best friend.
Well, I showed my face at that party. And I continued to work very hard. And by my second year of graduate school I was presenting papers at professional conferences around the country. That was the whole idea behind our “mock convention” — that it would prepare Iowa SJMC graduate students to become scholars of the highest order.
In 1987, after three years at Iowa, I won my department’s highest graduate student award — for research. But make no mistake about it, even though my department recognized the quality of my work, each time I did a paper I still had lots to learn. And I came to value the criticism other people would offer. Sometimes I would ignore that criticism, because I determined that it came from misunderstanding what I was trying to do, or because it reflected an agenda of theirs that conflicted with my own. Even so, that criticism served to help me figure out how to do better what I had set out to do.
So remember: Sometimes critics can be your best friends. They call you to do and be more than you have ever been before. But while you are taking the criticism to heart, also remember — assuming that you did put in your best effort — that you did the best you could do at the time. And now, thanks to your critics, you can do better.