Saturday, November 18, 2006

On bad reviews

I have always struggled with hearing criticism. I get very defensive – even when I understand someone means well. Little Katie had many discussions with Mom about being graceful when people suggested improvements. But if anyone suggested I put my toys away differently or allowed someone else to go first on the swings?

There was pouting. Or sharp retorts. Raised eyebrows that someone would dare correct me. It wasn’t good.

It still isn’t.

Now I realize we’re at war. I have concerns about global warming. People live below the poverty line when I have never worried about money. I work every day with cancer data – it’s truly a miserable disease and sometimes – many times – patients lack good options in fighting it. There are real problems in the world. I’m aware of them. I care deeply, though I don’t act as much as I ought.

The point of this blog is to honestly evaluate how I’m doing, what I’m thinking, what I want on a personal level.

The point of writing papers is to honestly record the purpose, method and results of an experiment that might have gone well.

Grants, in contrast, cover significance and purpose, methods and personnel behind a planned course of research.

We’ll do a bad-good-bad structure here, I think. (I'm upset and had a rather bad day for pretty lame reasons and still don't feel particularly well, so I'm going to rant. Please, feel free to skip this one. Just move along and come back tomorrow where I'll try to write a nice post about the new church I'm going to attend. It'll be great. I might even be a sheep again!)

Bad = Grant
I’ve taken out the dreaded grant reviews. When faced with Boss’s uncharacteristic insistence on making me face something I don’t want to do, I printed out the comment sheets from NIH Commons.

Then I stapled them together without reading any of the text, placed them face down on the far corner of my desk. With as much distance as possible between me and the evil grant reviews, I worked throughout the day, casting suspicious glances at the meager pile of paper.

I brought them home on Tuesday. I’ve had a headache ever since. I have an unfortunate habit of making myself very ill when faced with something I’d rather avoid. I’m not sure that’s what happened this time, but I’m not ruling it out. I really don’t want to write this grant again. I don’t want to be trapped underneath funding – stuck in an academic world that I’m not sure is for me. I tried. And failed. I’d like that to be enough.

Yet it isn’t. And Boss asks very little of me. So, armed with 2 colored pens, 2 markers and a highlighter, I have dissected the primary review and color coded the changes that are required. I made it partway through the secondary review before putting the pages down with shaking hands. It’s just very upsetting to me.

It came down to Primary not being very impressed. Some sections were missing. Others were inappropriately placed. The aims weren’t specific enough. Hypotheses were a bit weak and the testing would be too difficult. Goals were rather broad. Ack. I sort of hate Primary.

Secondary, however, gets me. She really read what I said and understood the overall plan. She liked the structure and complimented how I was going to test my hypotheses. The scope was broad, but important. With a couple of changes, an impressive candidate (that’d be me) was well prepared to embark an a significant research career. I love Secondary with all my heart and would like to buy her presents and send her candy.

I think it’s good to have 2 opinions. But – when given to a person like me – there is much pouting and sneering at Primary. And complete devotion to someone who likes me as much as Secondary appears to. Such an attitude - only liking people who like you back - speaks to my immaturity. I understand that. But...

“Didn’t read that very carefully, did you?” I say lightly, while marking a green line under one Primary comment. “I’ll make it more clear, but if you were a smarter reviewer, you would have understood. Secondary seemed to get it just fine.”

“That’s not fair!” I fume when circling something else in orange Crayola marker.

“Picky, mean-spirited bastard.” I’m muttering by the end. And I’ll pounce on anything even slightly incorrect for evidence as to Primary’s poor breeding, inattentive nature, hatred of everything good in my proposal and general meanness. Then I will call him more names.

There’s a difference between comments which improve the proposal and nitpicky bullshit (pardon me) that just bugs some people. But that’s life in the sciences, so I’ll deal with it. I won’t be gracious – especially not when alone or writing on my blog – but I will fix the errors (even those that Secondary said were lovely as they were) and write appreciative comments for all the suggestions.

But it sucks. It may improve my proposal (I’m sure it will), but it also makes me feel badly about myself – sick to my stomach, headachy and small – and I get defensive and start calling people names that are not so nice.

Good = Paper
Criticisms of a completed experiment can be easier for me to read. There's simply less that can be altered because some data don't exist. There is a critical flaw in part of my thesis research. (Well, there’s more than one, actually, but let’s try to focus here.) I don’t have this whole section of information that can validate my theory and it’s really hard to sneak that by people. Which is why this particular paper keeps bouncing back with rejections from multiple journals.

Boss has taught me that you can work around flaws in the research. But you have to place words and ideas very carefully. I would say that having a flawed project has made me a much stronger writer. I’m very critical of what I know versus what I think since I have such a good case study of the difference between speculation and actual knowledge. I can state the significance of this work very well because it’s been a struggle to make people listen. I see where I hide important ideas and can pick out places where paragraphs should be broken up and highlighted.

So going through the review process for this paper – getting the squeaky toy so far and learning to walk with my eyes open at first, now getting my nose off the ground – was actually pretty pleasant. I have decided this particular reviewer (my favorite from the first two) really wants the paper to be good. He’s picky – change the word in line 42, move the sentence in line 316 to the beginning of the paragraph to increase clarity, change one statistic to reflect an earlier method.

So even when I disagreed, I worked and thought and analyzed to find a way to incorporate his changes. When confident that he had my best interests at heart – that he, like Boss, wanted to see the paper published in the most positive light possible – I became eager to hear his ideas. Nodded over the critical comments and wrote sincerely appreciative responses to his reviews (except for that one point, where I tried to explain what the goal was and told him to check a few paragraphs of the discussion. Honestly – I’m so right about this one thing. He's, um, so right about the other 15 points.)

And apart from some random swearing and severe sickness when working through these grant comments, I congratulated myself on my progress. I’m like a grown up! Who can hear negative thoughts and incorporate what seems true and blow off what doesn’t. Yay For Me!

Personal = Bad. Bad, bad, bad.
But, OK, look.

The blog is the place where I don’t pretend. Or where I try not to. It’s very honest and sometimes doesn’t reflect so well upon what I think or who I am. And I can say that’s OK all I want – I can note that you can read and not like me. It’s fine if you arrive every day to feel superior that you’re so much more mature and balanced, settled and beautiful, smart and poised.

Honestly? I don’t like it. In fact, I rather hate it.

You should like me! I can’t even make some bold statement about how reading my blog doesn’t indicate you know me. How there are only certain facets of my personality that are revealed and therefore your opinion of me is based upon an incomplete picture. If you’ve read me for any length of time, you probably understand me pretty well. And it’s not all good. The honesty that I prize so highly in this space means that you hear when I feel vindictive and hateful. And when I’m small and sad over something insignificant.

But I like me – think I’m charming and sweet, caring and lovely, funny and rather eloquent. The effort is there and when I’m writing this stuff, I hope I’m making progress. That someone who might be struggling can read what’s here and not think “oh, I suck – she’s so much stronger than I could be,” but rather “Huh. I’m not so alone after all.” So in presenting what is rather than what should be, I’m open to some bad thoughts. Some well-meaning yet rather insulting “Please get over it.” emails. A comment that "a bit of perspective is perhaps in order" for me to appreciate that my problems aren’t very important. A concern that I’m rather unstable and should be avoided to some degree. (I’m not referring to any one person obviously, so if you’re not impressed with me, you’re definitely not alone.)

It bothers me. Deeply. I wish I could get over any number of things. It took me nearly 8 years to think of Gabe without a painful stomach cramp. Stuff just doesn’t go away for me. And I’m older now – there’s less hope and more resignation that life is now how it might be forever. And that’s disappointing. So I will write about it all I want. Not at all because I'm proud or think my way is the proper way to live, but because this space is mine and I have issues and writing them out helps me.

I understand the desire to help. I have the same urges when reading blogs sometimes and spend considerable time worrying that what I offer will be taken incorrectly. Because I obviously want people to think well of me.

So let’s be clear. I want to be over the whole thing about the guy. Very much – that was kind of the point of last night’s post. It is not easy for me. It does matter. I wish I didn’t think about it when I hear certain songs or see certain TV shows and hear specific words. I, however, do. It will ease in time – and has eased so far – but it’s not immediate for me. I understand that some of you are concerned. Hell, my friends want it not to have happened at all, and I don’t want them to worry, so it’s forgotten. We don’t ever speak of it.

But when it takes up space and hurts me, it goes here. Because that’s what this is for. So I should gracefully accept that there is a population of people who shake their head over me. Instead, I’m likely rolling my eyes like a child and calling you names. Picking out any weakness in your argument so that I can be vindicated that you’re really wrong about any criticism.

It’s not something of which I’m proud. I really do wish I were settled and balanced and gracious when hearing advice – some of which is likely true. But I’m guarding my ability to be honest here rather than forming an additional area of my life where I smile politely and nod gratefully when someone corrects me.

I do that at work, and it’s hard. It's effective, but very difficult for me.

When I discuss personal issues, I don’t expect you to solve my problems. I have to accept that people will read and sneer or laugh. I’ll never like it, but it’s part of the game. But in my mind, unless confronted with evidence to the contrary, it’s all benevolent. You read because something here is compelling. Even if that’s false, that’s my story. I’d rather you let me have it.

Because now I have to go make notes on grant improvements and I don’t want to. It’s making me very pissy and defensive and awful.

Now I'm uncomfortable since I don't go toward ranting so often. And 95% of the comments and emails are encouraging and gentle and perfect, and I'd miss them if they went away. They really do help me and I love some of you dearly. So the mature thing is to accept the bad (even when it's just the tiniest bit bad) with the good and stay quiet. But the bad is easier to remember for me, and I've written this post and failed to publish it 3 times over the past months and I just can't tolerate more criticism right now. So I waited too long already to say something and got all upset. So now it's confirmed. I'm immature and fragile and will probably cry if you tell me you're not impressed.

So there.


StyleyGeek said...

I accidentally posted my comment to this in the thread below. Sorry.

Lucy said...

I'm rolling my eyes at your negative commenters, too. And not just because they'd probably be even more annoyed with me. How can they not see how likeable you are? And how thoughtfully and eloquently you are as you work through the difficult things?

I suck at accepting negative feedback, too. I'm not great with positive either, actually, at least in person.

Anonymous said...

its understandable, i always get really defensive when i hear any sory of criticism, constructive or not, so i know how you feel.

and you are a great person! I am so glad that I know you, though it is through blogging. and people who read your blog and think otherwise are wrong.

i went back and looked at my comments, and i'm not sure, so in case i did say something bad, i am very sorry, i don't want to hurt you.

life_of_a_fool said...

well, there are reviewers who aren't very helpful and do nitpick and miss the point. It's isn't necessarily all your reaction. I think I am generally very good at receiving constructive criticism -- but sometimes it's not presented terribly constructively, even when there's good in it. Then, it's frustrating and annoying. And, at any rate, in the best of circumstances and with the best criticism, I think it's perfectly normal and understandable to react emotionally, deal with that, and then proceed forward.

As to the personal commenters making what sound like self-righteous comments in the guise of "helpfulness," I'm with you there. My closest friends can call me on my shit pretty effectively, and in them I value it highly (and offer it up to them). But a relative stranger on a blog? Yeah, I'd be annoyed. Even if it's meant well, there's no context, no tone, no mutual understanding and history.

(besides, you do come across as extremely honest here, which I think makes you look. . .honest? human? self-aware?).

Anonymous said...

Dear Katie,
You are ADORABLE! Sometimes you remind me so much of my closest friend from undergrad. Anyway, if it's any consolation, I definitely can sympathize with you. There are some situations that irk me and will continue to until I leave this town for good. It's as if the negative stuff has been branded into my brain with a hot iron and the scar is permanent, refusing to leave, even when I wish all the bad memories would all just go away. It is doubly frustrating when realize what a waste of time and energy and mental space the negative stuff has been.


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