The stegosaurus strategy

The other day a student came to see me after his mid point presentation. He was upset because the panel chair had questioned the scope of the work and his ability get the rest of it done. The student felt the questioning was out of line. Who was this academic who hadn’t worked in a ‘proper job’ with real deadline for years and years to judge him and his capacities? He was no newbie – he’d had 25 years of professional experience for heaven’s sake! Wasn’t he best placed to judge his ability to complete the work?

The student was so angry he wanted this person could be kept off his review panel. He was somewhat taken aback when I suggested that such a person was actually ideal in that role. While I agreed that it was uncool for the person to be nasty in the way he gave the criticism, I saw no lasting harm if criticism was all it was. Yes, it would be difficult to have such a prickly, critical person as your primary supervisor, but having such people around does keep you on your toes and can be good for you.

The problem was that this student was used to collaborative, supportive workplaces where people worked towards common goals. He failed to understand that just about all of academia is in a state of endless, polite warfare. Arguing is the academic’s raison d’etre and spending time fighting this tendency is wasted energy. I suggested that the student adjust his attitude and start to treat this particular academic like an expert goal keeper in a football match. The idea of playing football is to work at landing the ball in the net, to take offense at the goal keeper’s existence.

Now of course many academics are moderate and helpful in the way they approach criticism. I’m pleased to say that a great many that I meet on review panels seek to have a dialogue with the student, rather than an argument, but there are plenty of exceptions. There’s a reason why a wise person once said that academia is like a group of warring principalities united by a common parking problem. Some of the arguing is the result of genuine differences of opinion; in other instances it is mere jockeying for power – either way, sooner or later, you’re bound to find yourself on the sharp end of it.

Although I am handing out this advice, believe me when I say I’m conflicted about comparing academia to a football game. I’m well aware there’s a downside to this culture of criticism.

I spent my first 8 years in academia in an architecture department where it was a perverse mark of pride to be ripped to shreds by a guest review panel. The guest reviewers were professional architects who had suffered through this system themselves and knew all the tricks. Some of them would become so angered by poor student work they would rip drawings from the wall and throw models on the ground. This kind of behaviour seemed, for the most part, to be viewed as theatre rather than abuse – which is a sad commentary on the state of teaching in the profession at the time.

The first time I stood up to defend my design work, some 20 years ago now, I had no idea what was coming and ended up crying in the bathroom, wondering, a mere 4 days in, whether was too early to quit my degree. A kindly third year student followed me in, handed me a tissue and gave me a pep talk. She told me that criticism can be helpful, but it is always hard to hear. She suggested that I learn to take it – or choose a new career, because what she had just witnessed me go through was mild compared to what I would face later.

I took her advice to heart, I learned to take it, but I never did get used to it. Something worse happened – I started to avoid it. I slowly learned what critics wanted to see and started giving it to them. In fact I became expert at  internalising the culture of the school I became a chameleon. I managed to graduate that degree with honours, but somewhere along the way I lost sight of me. It is hardly surprising that I didn’t last long as a practising architect: I was working from a place of fear, not love.

Other students reacted differently to this deluge of criticism – becoming increasingly combative, argumentative and reactionary. These students took up what I like to call the Stegosaurus strategy. When faced with a T-rex determined to eat you, grow armour and  learn to swing your huge spikey tail. During the review sessions the students would argue back, sometimes stalking off in righteous indignation. In my opinion being a stegosaurus is almost as bad as being a chameleon. One of two things seemed to happen to these people: either they become an outcast or they became one of the bullies. The problem is, if you get really good at arguing back, you are not spending time listening. Eventually no one dares criticise you at all and you miss out on the valuable correctives you need to make your work better.

Many new PhD students are not used to this aspect of academic culture and I have little of comfort to provide. Learning to exist and thrive in this culture can take some time and it pays to remember Machiavelli’s aphorism: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”. Learn from these people, but try not to become a chameleon – or a stegosaurus.

17 thoughts on “The stegosaurus strategy

  1. Great post. One of my supervisors is very critical in his comments and always has been. I found this very difficult at first and tears were shed at the return of draft chapters. One time I reacted angrily and tried to hit back and he explained why he did this. One of his academic heroes is Karl Popper and he dug up a quote of his which was something like ‘your worst critic is your best friend’. He rips it apart and exposes the weaknesses so that I can respond, make it better, start to anticipate possible problems, and – also – learn to defend my ideas when I don’t agree with him and make my meaning clearer.

    After a rocky start then, he has become my best friend (academically speaking!). I know if I can convince him, I can convince most people! Recently he wrote on something that it was ‘astonishingly well-written’ (before criticising it, obviously!) and I realised that this was ten times the worth of most praise because I knew he really, really meant it. Instead of becoming a stegosaurus or a chameleon, the trick is to consider each criticism as part of a process of making your work better and developing as a scholar. This can only take time and involves some hardening of the skin – maybe the defensive plates of the stegosarus without the spiky tail!

  2. Thank you. This post was useful to me because I hate attack and criticism, but at the same time I’m not prepared to be a chameleon. I think at last I’m old enough to take the approach of using the benefits of the criticism without being crushed. But I’d still prefer the praise. There is a skill in learning from what is useful and not being hurt by negative input. There is also a skill in delivering constructive criticism that benefits the student without destroying them. The description of the ‘theatre’ of destruction in this post is horrific, and I hope most in the teaching profession have moved on.

    Love the knitted stegosaurus!

    My hat for our Melbourne Cup part today was not unlike a stegosaurus, but it seems I can’t paste a picture here.
    Linda

  3. Hi,

    Dealing with feedback is a very important part of the learning process.
    It took me a while to understand it is not personal. But i still believe that they way criticism is delivered is very important. especially when dealing with students from various cultural backgrounds.

    Thanks for the post

  4. Im in my final year of my PhD now and I used to hate the criticism at the start. Now I love it! As long as I can get something useful from it, the harsher the better – it makes the viva at the end seem less daunting. I would rather have supervisors that were criticising me all the time as opposed to a supervisor who couldn’t care less and said nothing.

    Great article!

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  6. My supervisors have been great and deliver a feedback sandwich – positive comments, followed by constructive ( and tough) criticism and wrapped up with a summary of the progress but what still needs to be done. Then we discuss what I propose as my next steps.

    However not everyone is a good educator, imparting knowledge (sharing power) is a real skill that not everyone has no matter how knowledgeable. Unfortunately some incredibly knowledgeable academics are the least equipped to impart their knowledge with many working in institutions with a supervisory remit when all they want to do is research.

    This can in turn add to their frustration and ultimately their approach to working with students.

    Enjoyed the article and the very honest post ‘Academic Arrogance’ that led me to it.
    Thanks
    Anita

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  8. Hi Inger,

    Thanks for the great post. I am glad that I read this article. I been going through rough phase lately with my PhD and my “beloved” supervisor. I been always meek when it comes to PhD discussion. I afraid to argue with supervisor. I always shake head (we Indians love to do that). So what the result? After one year of PhD journey, my supervisor decided that am no good for pursuing PhD and recommended that I should think about some thing else since PhD is not my cup of tea;(. I pleaded to reconsider the decision but its of no good. After every meeting I will come to my room as if I am the most “stupid” person on earth. I was so ashamed to expose myself for criticism.
    Finally in the last meeting I muster all my efforts to argue (since I thought I have nothing to loose since in any case my fate is decided and why I should afraid to talk) with my supervisor about some of the points that I felt useful for my research. While arguing I apologized 1000 times (you see, we, Indians are not trained to argue against seniors especially teachers….arguing against a teacher is sin…taboo). While arguing my points I noticed that his hands slowly reached the report (yes, the report I submitted to him) and he started looking on the report. Then supervisor told me….Thanks for that, now I can see your point. Then he gave me some valuable points. After coming back to my room I realized that I should have done this an year ago……….Still waiting for his final approval whether am capable to do PhD;(

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  14. Thank you for this article. I’m a Master of Landscape Architecture student who is having a hard time dealing with this culture of criticism. A classmate explained to me that the professors who I am upset with belong to the old class of architects who believed in the asshole approach from 20 years ago. I have a professor who continually uses fear to motivate people. I mostly hate it because it makes me question what I did to deserve that treatment and I start to question myself as a person. I completely identify with your stegosaurus identification, mostly because I refuse to give up my identity and become a chameleon…. How do you refuse both of those and still make it through an architecture degree???

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