how to criticize

Karen Lona Allendoerfer ka143 at
Wed Jul 22 00:13:51 EST 1998

Bharathi Jagadeesh wrote:

>I'm like to propose a couple of scenarios and get feedback on how one
>should tell someone their work is unsatisfactory, and then how you try
>to help them produce more satisfactory work. And, finally how to deal
>with work that remains unsatisfactory after you've tried to help improve
>it (because this will undoubtedly happen sometimes).

>A) A student of yours is writing a report/summary of work that will be
>turned into a committee (i.e. qualifying exam, etc.), and gives you
>something that you consider unreadable. You don't believe that it can be
>turned into the committee as is. Also, it would be unacceptable for you
>to re-write it yourself. On the other hand, you cannot give a writing
>course to the student. (Let's assume here that the student is a native
>english speaker, so we're not addressing the special circumstances of
>foreign students who do not yet speak english well). What do you do?

Well, it depends on just how bad it is, but, this is probably what I would
do:  1.  Tell the student that I didn't understand (the problem, the
question, the hypothesis, whatever was appropriate) that s/he was trying
to articulate here.  Ask "what were your goals?"  "what question were you
asking?"  If s/he comes up with something coherent verbally, use that as
an example and tell them to write that down.  This can also be done with 
"what were your conclusions?"  or "how do want to do that experiment?"  2.
Then tell the student that if this is unclear to me, then it is also
likely to be unclear to the committee, and this is not an outcome that the
student wants. If the committee senses vagueness in any part of
the proposal, that is where they are going to direct their grilling of
the student, so s/he had better do some rewriting if s/he wants to avoid
being grilled in those areas. 3. I have some examples of things like this
that I've written, which have at least resulted, for the writer, in a
passed qualifying exam and a Ph.D.  I would give these to the student to
read, as an example of organization and style. At this point they are old
enough, and out of date enough, scientifically, that the student wouldn't
be able to copy anything significant from them.  I might also give the
student other examples to read, written by other successful students, but
if they weren't mine, it might have to be done carefully and/or
anonymously.  As far as checking grammar, spelling,  style, etc., and
marking up the manuscript up with a big red pen, for some reason I
personally don't mind that very much and it doesn't take me a lot of time
to do so.  So I would probably just do it (i.e. mark it up--add or delete
commas, cross out words, make new paragraphs, etc.) and tell the student
to make the changes. You can also direct the student to things like Strunk
and White's _The Elements of Style_, which, along with any number of other
style manuals, is now on the web.


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