Let’s make, and take, criticism in a light-hearted mannerSteve Johnson

How quickly the excitement of that acceptance email fades away, replaced by an inbox filled to the brim with essay deadlines and events. Our leavers’ hoodies are replaced by college gowns.

To our detriment, we often throw aside the memories of getting here, and dive straight in to the bubble, paying little attention to the bad habits that we may have formed along the way. Going to a relatively poor school, academic praise was never very difficult for me to find. Having achieved good grades, I believed myself a full proponent of the Socratic method, engaging in leisurely discussions with teachers about interesting topics. Excited and idealistic, I thought I was ready for criticism, claiming that my only aim was to challenge my ideas. Then I had my first bad supervision.

For me, admissions interviews were nerve wracking, but surprisingly fun. This only reinforced my preconceptions. My first couple of supervisions were great too: we just spent the hour having light-hearted discussions about political thinkers. But then, around week four, my supervision began with the words: “you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about”. Compared to the horror stories that circulate about the comments of certain supervisors, this seems like nothing, but it felt like a major blow to me. It was then that I realised I wasn’t as capable of taking criticism as I had previously thought. I loved discussion, but when my writing was directly rejected, I became incredibly defensive. It turned out I was best at taking on criticism in theory, but in practice my ego did not value intellectual honesty as much as I had naively believed.

“It isn’t easy to put your pride aside and focus only on challenging your ideas, but this is a muscle that must be strengthened”

This felt like a personal embarrassment, and I was desperate to write a masterpiece essay for my next supervision, fuelled by this criticism. But this desire is useless, because I can’t, and shouldn’t aim to, produce perfectly formed original ideas; they will always have flaws and I should want to explore these to improve them, to store away and use some other day. Yet when essays are given back with a score, it’s easy to aim only to increase this mark. While I don’t think we should completely reject the idea of grades, as they can be a great method of standardisation, we must engage in an individual struggle to ignore them and focus, instead, on development and change. It isn’t easy to put your pride aside and focus only on challenging your ideas, but this is a muscle that must be strengthened. Recognising the reasoning behind my most recent terrible grade, I was able to gain value and emerge with a new perspective.


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I don’t think it’s just me. We all competed in the admissions process and all came out on top. Now that we are at the top, the need to move further up the academic hierarchy doesn’t lessen. Supervisions often become a battlefield for attacking people’s points, as if we are all in a competitive debate rather than a place for a well-meaning chat about our ideas. Constructive criticism can feel like failure when you’re used to success in the educational competition, but it is something we must begin to truly value. I still wince at bad marks and harsh criticism, but I always try to remind myself it’s useful, and ignoring help is a move made by my ego to prevent me from improving.

Many other students I have talked to have recognised this feeling too: we need to keep reminding ourselves that university should not be a competition, Let’s make, and take, criticism in a light-hearted manner, and then render its effects positive.

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