Anyone who teaches or advises writers has experienced the infuriating déjà vu of reading a student’s paper or dissertation chapter and thinking, “I know I responded to this in the last draft, but here it is again…unchanged.”
This moment can generate something I call reader rage (basically road rage on the page). The brain whirrs:
Did they even read my feedback?
Do they even care?
It is worth spending the time to give feedback?
It is easy to conclude that a student who doesn’t respond to feedback either doesn’t care or doesn’t have the chops to cut it in graduate school. But after years of working with graduate student writers, I have come to believe that these are not safe assumptions. It is entirely possible for students to read their professors’ feedback and want to improve and still not know how to do meaningful revision.
It is important to understand the reasons students may fail to respond to faculty feedback.
I have seen students fail to revise for reasons as simple as being too humiliated to ask the professor to translate her handwriting.
At the graduate level, however, the reasons are generally more complex. Being able to understand a supervisor’s feedback fundamentally means being able to do what psychologists call “perspective taking.” In interpersonal relationships, perspective taking is necessary to establish social connections and develop empathy.
When we tell students to “write for your audience,” we are asking them to do a kind of rhetorical perspective taking—to understand what kind of written moves will satisfy the reader’s needs to know “where am I?” (context); to know what will happen (“signposting”); to know where the author locates herself in relation to her sources (authorial presence); and to help the reader make meaning of the data or ideas presented (analysis).
These are complex cognitive and rhetorical tasks.
If you have ever misread the tone or intention of a text or email, you know that interpreting writing in the absence of other social cues can be challenging. Students face similar challenges as they work to decode written feedback. For example, a student who gets the written feedback “unclear” or “confusing” has to recreate the scene of the reader’s confusion and has to experience the text from the reader’s point of view.
We frequently urge students to read their text aloud in hopes that they will catch their own errors, Escher-esque syntax, or logical fallacies. This is a good strategy, and in some cases it allows students to externalize their text enough to hear the problems. But other times students cannot intuitively discern what is confusing and in most cases are unwilling to ask their advisor “what did you find confusing about this?”
I see all kinds of students struggle to understand and incorporate written feedback, but the challenges can be intensified for neurodivergent students, for language learners, and for native speakers who are not avid readers and have therefore not internalized English syntax enough to know what their reader needs. In fact, I see students struggle with written feedback so frequently that I have begun to mutter that writing is a lousy medium in which to give feedback about writing.
For all of these reasons, I have created a resource sheet on supporting revision. If you find that students are not “uptaking” your feedback, these strategies will help you give clearer feedback and elicit meaningful revision.