Reading, writing, talking, and feedback; repeat. Every day we were doing one or more of these activities in the program I attended earlier this spring. Here’s where this cycle diverged from my prior experiences — feedback is the catalyst.

In grad school, feedback was a curse, a disease, to be avoided. Comments were either scathing or vague or destructive or baffling. It could take multiple reads to even begin to decipher the intention, leaving you questioning why you even thought you could do this in the first place. Whether intended that way or not, the result was destructive. Feeling humiliated and ashamed, work was thrown away.

What was different this time? There were clear rules around expectations for feedback. It’s not a chance to tear anyone down or be a terrible troll. We operated within a closed community; kindness and generosity were guiding values. Feedback was framed as an opportunity to question and persuade. Rather than telling someone you disagreed, disliked, and, therefore, devalued their opinion/work/how they put words down, the commenter could use the feedback to expand the conversation, ask relevant questions, and present their point of view. The goal wasn’t to shame the writer, but to open them up to other possibilities and discover the magic of changing your mind. I saw it happen with others and I experienced it myself. Feedback wasn’t a weapon, it was a catalyst for growth, a vehicle for sharing new ideas, and a collaboration tool.

Why did it work here, but we don’t see feedback used this way everywhere else? I think the answer is trust and vulnerability. Being fake takes too much energy, while being your authentic self, flaws and all, is actually more efficient. When you signal to others that you already know where you need work, they can move past it too; no need to point it out, no need to tear anyone down. Vulnerability is key. You have to be willing to let your guard down and trust the others to support you instead of constantly anticipating an attack. It took work; we took time to learn about each other and develop empathy, understanding that this was part of the process.

From a place of shared empathy and trust, writing feedback was viewed as a dialogue. We would write, then read others’ work and leave feedback, read through the feedback left on your own work, then write a response acknowledging and responding to the feedback left for you. It was up to you how to structure the response, but it was intended as a way to close the loop. Someone gave you the gift of their time, thinking about your work. You don’t have to change your mind or change theirs. Your response is a gesture of respect and an opportunity for growth, even if you disagree. There are no grades and nothing to get “right” or “wrong.” The social or community pressure keeps everything in tension, working together towards the common goal of growth and understanding.

While the readings and conversations could be challenging and the writing fulfilling or exhausting depending on the day, it was the way feedback operated in the system that pushed you forward.

Writer, researcher, observer