The past year has been a rather busy one for me for editing manuscripts, proposals, and other documents written by my students. It pleases me very much that my students are writing and that they are writing about such interesting things.
The general topic of scholarly writing (at any level) is of course studded with possibilities, and I have mused about different aspects of it at various times. Some of those musings could perhaps be described as rants.
Today I am musing (not ranting) about the different reactions I get from different students in response to my editing. I should say that I am a rather intense editor. I almost always have lots of comments to make, especially on early drafts. These comments range from those of a technical nature (misplaced modifiers .. lack of subject-verb agreement .. lack of verb .. paragraphs that are not paragraphs ..) to those that involve the content of the document.
I never make rude or insulting comments, and I mention the parts of a document that I think are well done (if there are any). I am in fact quite polite. For example, I do not write "Have you for some reason not figured out yet that word processing software has a spell-checking option?". Instead, I might highlight the first typo that a spell-checker would catch and write "Please fix this and other typos".
Although an individual student's response to being intensely edited can vary with time and mood, there tend to be typical responses from each student. These typical responses are no doubt related to very deep aspects of their psyches and stem from previous experiences with teachers, women (maybe even their mothers..), or anyone who has ever criticized their punctuation. Who knows from whence these reactions spring.. Whatever the source, it's kind of fascinating.
Below is a list of responses I have gotten from different students for approximately the same amount of editing (as measured by density and seriousness of edits/document). Despite holding editing density and intensity approximately constant, the rest of the variables are many and complex and relate to how the student and I have interacted over time, and how stressed the student is about the document, life, deadlines, career etc. The list must therefore be interpreted with caution, if at all.
Student responses to being intensely edited by their advisor (me):
1. Calm; pleased with the detailed comments; understood the comments and used them in a constructive way to produce a new and much improved version of the document; asked questions about any comments that were ambiguous or possibly showed a lack of understanding on my part.
2. Calm; pleased with the detailed comments; fixed all the technical problems indicated but had no idea how to approach the more cosmic issues regarding interpretations or other conceptual aspects; more drafts needed before these problems are worked out, but progress is made each time.
3. Very hurt and upset and angry at the comment density, which indicates a lack of appreciation by me for the student's efforts and shows that I am trying to impose my 'style' on the student rather than allowing him the freedom to be creative with punctuation, spelling, citation of the relevant literature, and fundamental scientific concepts. I must be a disturbed control freak. The student makes the changes anyway, eventually produces a decent paper (after more drafts/editing), but has clearly learned nothing from the experience (evidence: the next manuscript is just as bad in all respects).
4. Anxious because the document was not perfect and it should have been perfect the first time (note: this is the student's opinion, not mine). Angry at self; starts to be fearful of showing me additional drafts or documents. When the next draft/document is really good, doesn't believe me when I say so and asks me directly: Are you lying?
5. No discernible response. Not sure what the student thinks. Not sure that the student even looked at the comments. The next draft contains the same problems. Did the student send me the wrong draft by mistake? No, apparently not. Student has long explanation involving cars, dogs, weather, landlords, dentists, computer, software. Eventually fixes some problems, but never fixes them all in a single draft, and creates new ones in every subsequent draft. Do some people have phobias about spell-checkers? Do some people have separation anxiety re. written documents or a fear of completing something? Is it related to a fear of commitment? Has anyone studied this?
Regarding the ones who do not take criticism well, it is always my hope that they will become thicker-skinned with time. They must do so if they are going to survive in academia, or at least if they are going to survive happily. Professors are constantly barraged by criticism: of our teaching, of our grant proposals, of our manuscripts submitted for review, of our overall job performance (even if we have tenure), of our blogs.
Maybe because I am so used to being evaluated and having my own writing (and speaking) examined in such minute detail, I can no longer relate to being deeply upset by criticism of something I've written. Perhaps this has made me less, rather than more, sensitive with time, but if a student, however fragile, gives me an error-filled document, I'm going to make a lot of comments and suggestions. And, even if they are upset by this, I am going to do it all over again if their next draft/document is similarly problematic.
2 months ago