Writers benefit from getting good feedback and can be severely hindered by bad feedback—issues that I have covered in previous blog posts, as well as in my book.
Recently I was speaking with a graduate student who once received feedback that the work was “pedestrian.” Not surprisingly, the student did not find this feedback helpful—indeed the feedback has been a positive deterrent.
My response to this feedback is to say, basically, “f—k that.” It’s lousy feedback, at least if your expectation is that a professor would give feedback from which the student can learn something. A pet peeve of mine is when professors waste their time (and their students’) by fixing grammar when they should be focusing on more important issues, like the content, But to call a work “pedestrian” is worse. It’s worse than useless—what possible guidance could a researcher gain from being told that their work is pedestrian? Complaining about grammar at least gives the writer something to work on (even if it’s wasted effort).
But saying that a work is “pedestrian”? What guidance can you get from that? Does it imply that they should just start over and find some different project because their current project is “pedestrian”? It almost doesn’t even matter if that professor gave other more constructive feedback because that overall assessment of being “pedestrian” discounts not only the value of the work already done, but strongly suggests that future work on the project is unlikely to lead to anything worthwhile. Seriously, I can hardly think of a response to that particular comment that doesn’t require profanity.
That comment is bad guidance for an alleged ‘teacher’ to give a graduate student writing a dissertation, especially if that student has been struggling. It’s a fail because it’s not realistic about what real scholars (including graduate students) do, and it’s a fail because it does not provide any guidance.
Firstly, it’s not realistic about the bulk of published work in research—most published research is pedestrian in the sense that it does not shake the earth—it’s what Thomas Kuhn might call “normal science”—the research that is done within a paradigm. Look at the best journals, even in those, there is work that may be interesting but isn’t earth shaking. Looking at less prestigious but highly respectable journals shows work of even less general interest. Every published work is supposed to be original, but published originality often includes small developments of previous work. This lack of a realistic view of the great bulk of research done by scholars is exaggerated when turned on a dissertation writer, because, realistically, for most scholars, the dissertation will be the weakest work of their career: how many scholars do their best work as graduate students and how many do their best work after graduate school? Part of the point of having students do dissertations is to help them learn to negotiate the research process, and setting the expectation that the only work worth publishing is rock-star quality is a lousy guide to how to proceed in a research practice.
Saying a work is pedestrian is just gilding the lily on saying “it sucks.” Using a four syllable word does not mean that it’s well thought-out feedback. If a reviewer considering a work for publication, wants to reject a work because it’s “pedestrian,” that’s fine: the reviewer considering a work for publication is responsible to the publication/publisher and has to allocate his/her effort accordingly; the reviewer does not have a responsibility to help the authors, and writing good feedback that gives useful guidance is hard. But a teacher? A professor working with a dissertation writer? A teacher does have a responsibility to the student—a responsibility to give the student guidance along the way (that’s what a teacher does!).
Can we turn “pedestrian” into something that can provide specific guidance? As far as I can see, not without additional detail. Suppose the professor means “not original enough”? Well, how do you assess originality. If the professor sees some similarity to a specific work or specific set of works, then it would be more useful feedback to explicitly mention the works that they see as similar. Does it mean “not ambitious enough”? Well, that complaint could certainly be delivered in a more constructive sense by suggesting the value of expanding the project. Does it mean “not interesting enough”? That’s a wasted complaint, especially in academia, where so much of the product of academia is writing that is only interesting to a very limited audience. If you’re a teacher and your only critique to your student is that you don’t find their work interesting, you’re not helping.
If you’re a teacher, then your job is to give constructive feedback so that students can learn. Saying that work is “pedestrian” offers no guidance on moving forward, while also insulting the student and deterring them from continuing to develop their project. If you’re a student, you have a reasonable expectation that your professors will give you usable guidance. If your professor tells you your work is pedestrian…well don’t say “f—k that” to their face, but…if your professor insults your work ask: “can you clarify ways that I could change my work so that it’s less pedestrian [or other insult]?”
(On a personal level, my response to that critique is not scholarly, but general: what the hell is wrong with being a pedestrian? I’m often a pedestrian, and I don’t think that makes me less—indeed the choice to walk rather than take some common alternative forms of conveyance is socially responsible. The idea that a “pedestrian” is lesser is classist, elitist bullshit based on conspicuous consumption. I choose to walk for several reasons, including the low carbon footprint (as opposed to driving, or even taking public transport). As far as I’m concerned, the world could use more pedestrians and fewer drivers right now. But that’s not really a response to the critique that a work of scholarship is “pedestrian.”)