On taking criticism of your work, or No post on Sundays, or Off to the garden

During a break on a ‘garden day’ at my son’s preschool on a fine October afternoon, sipping bryggkaffe from a paper cup, I see an email from my supervisor flash on my phone screen.

‘I have struggled with your draft. I found it difficult to read…’, she writes. This is as far as the email preview allows me to see. Ok, I will have to return to it later, now time to get back to the garden work. On with the garden gloves. Sure, my supervisor must find it difficult to read. I mean… yes. That’s alright. It’s not a death sentence. Where’s the spade? I thought I’d put it around here. Here it is. No, there surely is nothing wrong with my supervisor struggling with my draft and finding it difficult to read. Neither the first, nor the last time. I wonder if it’s a good idea to hack at the roots of this poor old hedge the way I’m doing? I will hack the life out of it. It is alarming though. If my supervisors find it hard to read, what will say all the others, who have not taken on the ungrateful task of supervising me? My discussant at the political science workshop didn’t find it hard to read though. But now I realise, he never said he found it a good read either, the way everybody said about everybody else’s drafts (including me saying it about a few people’s drafts – because they WERE a good read)… Where have all the garbage bags gone? Where am I supposed to put the weeds I have chopped out from under the hedge? In any case, I’ll say it again: this is not a life sentence. (I think it was ‘death’ last time.) I just need to work a little harder. I will go through every sentence (life or death) and check the length. My other supervisor told me to stick to twenty. He can’t have been serious, of course. Can he? I don’t even SPEAK in sentences that are twenty words long, let alone write. Does he? No-one does. Not even Hemingway did – I’m sure, all the daiquiri and standing up and typing and all. (Next Google search: ‘the longest sentence by Hemingway wordcount’.) Anyway, I just need to simplify, and simplify. It’s not a big deal. Just a couple of extra shifts. Ok, all these bags are full now. I never thought leaves and weeds can be so heavy. Aren’t they just grass? I wonder what she means though. Difficult to read… because my sentences are too long? Because the structure is confusing? Or is it because I’m jumping from one thing to another? Is it because I have no proper argument? Yes, this must be it. I won’t even hear something fancy like ‘Your argument is flawed’ – there is no argument to begin with!!! Now I know what my discussant at the political science workshop meant. He was saying he wanted to hear more of my voice. Now I realise, he was too kind. What he actually meant was: ‘You have no argument, and your research concept is meaningless. You are a fake’. This is a farce. Ok, I’m done here. I mean the garden work – I will never be done with anything that has to do with research, the way I’m going. Looks like everyone is wrapping up – I just need to finish sweeping this parking lot.

After some vigorous sweeping I am ready to go. I keep ruminating about my draft the whole way home. I keep saying to myself that I’m not going to look at the email until Monday morning. Tomorrow morning, tomorrow morning, tomorrow morning, I keep repeating as I am climbing up the stairs to my door. As soon as I am through the door, I flip open my laptop.

And then I laugh. A bittersweet laugh of relief, irony and realisation of ridiculousness of it all.

I am kidding. Not a laugh. A wry smirk, while I’m untying my shoelaces.

‘I have struggled with your draft. I found it difficult to read. How silly: I should have switched off the mark-up – it was distracting. Good I looked though, because many of my earlier comments I think are resolved. Other than that, the text flows and the structure seems to work; elegant and advanced discussions, too!’

I know that attached is my draft riddled with bullets comments, but I can’t contain the wry smirk. It’s just too, too indulging. (I self-indulgingly re-read the word ‘elegant’ a couple of times, wondering if it’s a typo. Did my supervisor mean ‘IN-elegant’? ‘Irrelevant’? ‘Arrogant’? ‘Ignorant’? ‘Negligent’? ‘Delinquent’?)

Morale: Don’t look at your supervisors’ emails on a Sunday. Think of it, don’t look at emails on a Sunday at all. Just block that function on your smartphone to save you some adrenaline.

Deeper morale: But isn’t it the adrenaline though that we crave? The ups and downs?

After my ego has had its dose of dopamine or whatever it feeds on and had a little trip all the way up the hill, and as I go about the rest of my Sunday, a nagging feeling returns. Deep down, I don’t believe for one second that anything in my text ‘flows’; any of my structure ‘works’; and as for ‘elegant’ and ‘advanced’ – such epithets simply don’t exist in a vocabulary that one might want to apply to my clumsy draft with very long sentences, riddled with my supervisors’ bullets comments. And even worse: I doubt, doubt deeply that anything will ever ‘flow’, ‘work’ or approach any kind of ‘elegance’.

Garden work, however, is good. At least there I don’t need to pretend as if I am acquiring any kind of competence – I can be as inapt at it next year as I am today, as long as I show up. Besides, ‘previous research has shown’ (citation; citation) that fresh air is good for health and helps prevent anxiety resulting from (incomplete) reading (of) emails.

All up from the desks and off to the garden! And as much as it warms my heart to think that my supervisors save the utter ‘pleasure’ of reading my drafts for their weekends, I can’t help quoting JK Rowling: ‘No post on Sundays’.

What are your experiences of criticism – real as well as imagined?

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