Collective specular sodomy

I was reading an article about creative writing workshops recently and I was struck by how similar their group seminars are to critical sessions in other “creative” courses, such as design and theatre, and how this is different to other types of education. And, also, how people with or without these experiences might differ in how they interact in the workplace.

From ‘They’ll Make You a Writer!’, reviewing The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Marck McGurl, here’s Diane Johnson in the New York Review of Books:

The writing seminar itself has developed a specific, venerated, and almost inviolable format. McGurl’s term for it is “collective specular sodomy.” A [student’s] work will be read by the class, and perhaps a few passages read aloud by its writer, who then is forced to be quiet while others talk about it. Experienced participants will begin by saying something nice about the writing, something they liked, something that works. This is positive and also has the virtue of softening the next phase, the criticism. Fellow seminarians will try to confine their remarks to technique and not judgment of the writer’s character or ability — nothing to suggest “you must be a horrible person to have written such a disgusting piece…” If you have to criticize, instead say, “the clumsiness of that passage may distract from your interesting theme of universal brotherly love,” or something else genial.

This process of accepting criticism from teacher and students about one’s work, and giving it to peers in return, isn’t unique to creative writing courses, and it would be nice to see it compared to similar experiences in other fields.

It is, for instance, very similar to the “crit” in design courses (going purely by my two decades-old experience) and, I guess other visual arts. At the end of a design project, when everyone has worked to fulfill a brief over a few days or weeks, students present their (hopefully) finished work to fellow students and their teacher(s). The teachers will give their opinion and ask questions, and students may be invited to join in. They might or might not agree with the presenter or teachers, but, as with the creative writing seminar, will hopefully restrict criticism to the work itself.

Both taking this criticism — learning to accept it as being about the work rather than a personal judgment — and making one’s own criticisms constructive are skills that improve over time. Diane Johnson again:

McGurl says the workshop dynamic is a manipulation of pride and shame, but this perhaps overstates its emotional intensity for sophisticated, experienced repeaters, who usually seem to deal with their peers with great aplomb. Being able to distinguish technical questions from moral judgments is a learned process that, little by little, people who have taken or taught writing seminars become good at — good at being seminar members and helpful critics, whatever their own writing is like.

The process can also be similar in acting education (again, based on my own experience). After performing something to teachers and fellow students, the performer(s) must listen to the resulting criticism (standing there, in their possibly daft costumes and make-up).

When I was doing evening classes at City Lit the feedback from teachers and students was usually fairly gentle, often including something positive, as Johnson described above. One teacher used the phrase “feedback sandwich”: Give some positive feedback, then the more critical comments, and end with something positive. I assumed this gentle approach was because most students were tentatively trying acting in their spare time and there was no point in scaring them off the idea at this early stage.

But even at City Lit there were exceptions to this softly, softly approach. Before I took any classes with one particular teacher I heard tales of how brutal he was with his feedback; he sounded terrifying. But, after your pathetic attempt at performing something, hearing him say, “That was fucking shit, get off!” was funny. And accurate, as you well knew.

Sometimes performers would try and rebut criticism, attempting to explain why what they’d done was actually good… Although this was common I understood from a couple of people that it wouldn’t be tolerated on a “proper” acting course; you would accept criticism and let it sink in rather than be immediately defensive, which sounds even closer to the creative writing workshop described earlier.

At LISPA, a full-time course, teachers were polite but firm. In fact it wasn’t unusual for them to stop one of our brief, self-written pieces part-way through if they thought it was unsalvageable. Being mid-performance and hearing, “Thank you! That’s enough for the moment,” could be either a heart-breaker (you’ve spent days on this thing and didn’t even get to perform it) or a relief (you’ve spent days on this thing and thankfully didn’t have to go through with the resulting shambles). Whether they saw the whole piece or not there was never any positive feedback. With these works-in-progress there was so much that could be improved it would be a waste of time to talk about the small amount that worked (which, often, you’re aware of anyway). You need to know what didn’t work if you’re going to improve the piece.

At both City Lit and LISPA we received feedback from peers and we also relied on that during the development of the pieces of theatre, not just at the “end” (they were rarely polished, even then). Fellow students who were good at giving honest and constructive feedback were invaluable while developing a piece and I think we got better at being constructively critical in return.

I assume there isn’t this kind of tradition on “less creative” courses (scare quotes; you know what I mean). Do student mathematicians critique each others’ equations? Do history students read and dissect their peers’ research? Do programmers have group code reviews at university? I’d be interested to know.

Whatever the skills taught on creative courses (writing, acting, etc) this ability to accept and give good feedback is a useful one in professional life, whether it’s a related field or not. But it needs three things to work well, none of which can be taken for granted:

  1. Everyone must be able to give constructive criticism about the work.
  2. Everyone must be able to take well-given criticism about their work.
  3. Everyone must acknowledge that this is accepted; the environment must encourage giving useful feedback.

If the first two points aren’t satisfied, some people may be hurt or offended. If a few people are used to “having a crit” and others see criticism of their work as the pointing out of their personal failings, it could, at best be an awkward meeting.

And so the third point is necessary — someone, or some people, must make this accepted practice if it’s to happen. They must create the environment in which criticism of work is accepted and done well.

On creative writing, design and acting courses there is a distinct hierarchy: the teacher is top of the heap. While their position and influence might vary from being very dominant to being just part of the group, they set the tone of what is accepted and should help anyone not yet used to the process. Also, students of these courses know what they’re signing up for; you wouldn’t start a creative writing course and not expect to get feedback on your writing.

I don’t have any experience of fostering this kind of environment in a workplace but I imagine it needs to be done explicitly, to one degree or another. Everyone must be on board, the tone must be set, participants must know what to expect, and someone should take responsibility for helping those having trouble with the process. (And by “process” I don’t necessarily mean workshop-style sessions; it might be an ongoing process as small pieces of work are done.)

I expect this is even harder in distributed teams, or those for whom much of their interaction isn’t in person — being careful about one’s tone when giving criticism face-to-face can be hard enough, never mind when hurriedly typing at someone who will read it at a time and in a place unknown to you.

I was interested to notice this common practice across differing fields. Maybe it’s even more common than I realise now. Maybe people already think a lot about this kind of thing in the workplace but I’ve never come across it. Feel free to offer constructive criticism.

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25 Apr 2014 at Twitter

On this day I was reading

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