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Friday, April 07, 2006

On Pre-Conference Feedback for SAA

This is a silly post. But I have a few thoughts that I want to share about one of everyone's favorite annual academic exercises: giving feedback to members of an SAA seminar. More specifically, here are two types of responses that I've been finding both annoying and amusing.

As everyone knows, essays for SAA typically run from ten to twelve pages. They're short, and they must be short because there are usually ten to twenty of them to read (translating into 100 to 250 pages of academic prose to digest). With papers that length, participants obviously haven't said everything they could say, or probably have to say, about their specific topics.

Therefore, when giving feedback on the papers of fellow seminar members, I try to stay away from comments like "the essay could have done more with Issue X" or "I'm not convinced by your argument." Tense here is everything: SAA essays, and conference papers in general, are always abstracts and brief chronicles of longer projects; they're works-in-progress, not finished products. Obviously every essay could say more about almost anything it contains. So is pointing out that there is more to say about Issue X really necessary?

Likewise, while I may not be convinced by everything in a particular essay, is it necessary to communicate that reaction? Perhaps, but I find these types of comments both more relevant and helpful: "I'm not sure I quite grasp this point, so maybe you could say more about it when the seminar meets"; or, "I found your idea about X interesting and would like to hear more about it when we meet"; or, "I think I see how this might be the case, but I'm not sure I get the connection suggested by the essay." This strategy has the benefit of a) giving us something to talk about for two hours at SAA, and b) giving the author the benefit of the doubt; it assumes she has more to say on a topic; and if she doesn't, it gives her something to think about before the conference.

And if there's some crucial part of the essay that I find particularly doubtful, I'll simply ask a few specific questions about that topic, thereby giving the author a chance to think about the issue I've raised and then to explain why I'm wrong (and lord knows I'm happy to give people that opportunity) or perhaps how she might change her argument.

The other type of feedback I find more amusing than annoying, and it's a move that senior scholars are especially prone to making. It goes something like this: "I wrote an essay on this poem twenty years ago. Why haven't you discussed the same issues in the poem as I did?" Or, better yet: "People used to talk about Issue Y in this play, but you aren't. Why not? Shouldn't you be?" While these types of comments are kind of lazy (I can't think of anything to ask, so I'll respond with a question about what's not in the essay), there are actually glimmers of an interesting discussion that could be had about shifts in critical interests. But instead of opting for the passive-agressive "you're not talking about what I did and you really should be," I think it's more productive and generous to frame it like this: "People used to talk about Y; now people are talking about Z; how do you think these two topics are related? Are they in fact related?" This move at least gives people a chance to think about the critical history of, say, a Shakespeare play and how their arguments fit into that history (and it avoids creating the sad impression that the field has passed by Prof. Sad Senior Scholar).

Blah, blah, blah. I realize all this is elementary and unnecessary. But having read through a bunch of essays and a bunch of questions about those essays, I've been feeling a bit frustrated by repeatedly encountering comments that I find unhelpful and, at times, unnecessarily snarky. Or maybe I'm just being excessively cranky in my old age.

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