Criticism – easy to give, hard to receive (Julianne East)

Photo by Shane Colella |
Curled up, with tears of shame and hopelessness, I had just received the latest response to my writing from my supervisor.

This may just be a memory now, but I can still feel the pain of being told that I didn’t have it right and that ‘the voice’ in my writing wasn’t meeting its mark.

Not so terrible when compared with the criticism received by one of my research buddies, who was told that her writing showed that she didn’t really understand what she was writing about. She had been researching the particular topic for a number of years and saw herself as having a deep understanding of the literature, but she had only recently started writing about it in English (an additional language for her). She cried from the frustration of not being able to communicate effectively in English.

Even now, I would love to receive a review of my writing that referred to my work with glowing praise, rather than focusing on my limitations. This has yet to happen, but I have found a simple strategy to manage criticism of my work, and I want to share it with you in this post.

During my PhD, I learnt an approach that helped me handle my grief at receiving heavy criticism about my writing. This writing, which had taken hours and hours of intense work and deep thought, and for which I had sacrificed sleep, time with family, and my social life, was all too often found wanting by my supervisors.

My supervisor would point out the flaws, and I would smile politely, acknowledge her wisdom, and hope she didn’t see the heat of shame rising in my face.

While doing research for my methodology section, something changed. I was reading about Gadamer and Habermas’s hermeneutic philosophy (see Laverty, 2003) for understanding texts, and found that by applying Radnitzky’s (1973) hermeneutic cannons for text interpretation to my own writing, I was able to move from being an emotionally invested author to being a dispassionate reviewer

The hermeneutic approach to text invites us to engage intensely in the writing, then distance ourselves from it, all the while acknowledging that language itself is both emancipating and limiting.

Our understanding is limited by the horizons of our world, but those horizons can shift and our understanding can expand. This triggered a lightbulb moment for me.

I felt empowered to put everything into my writing, to engage intensely in the process. But, once I’d submitted it to my supervisor, I considered it not as my work, but simply as a text that needed to be adjusted until it communicated effectively.

I could use language to change my experience. When I labelled my writing as ‘the writing’ it simply became a piece of text rather than ‘my work’.

Emancipated from personal engagement, I was more open to learning, and freed from feeling the pain of criticism, I could then focus on the role of editing the writing to make it communicate better to the reader.

Some readings on hermeneutic text analysis:

  • Geanellos, R. (2000). Exploring Ricoeur’s hermeneutic theory of interpretation as a method of analysing texts. Nursing Inquiry, 7(2), 112 – 119. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1800
  • Laverty, S. M. (2003). Hermeneutic phenomenology and phenomenology: A comparison of historical and methodological considerations. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(3), 1 – 29. Retrieved from
  • Radnitzky, G. (1973). Contemporary Schools of Metascience: Anglo-Saxon Schools of Metascience, Continental Schools of Metascience. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Julianne East is an Associate Director, LTLT and Head of Student Learning. The Student Learning team works with postgraduate and undergraduate students at all levels, on all campuses and in all faculties. This work includes teaching scholarship conventions and how they are enacted in academic language and assessment. Student Learning lecturers run workshops and thesis writing circles, provide individual consultations with referral, and develop resources   

Julianne has contributed to the literature on the roles of academic language and learning lecturers, student autonomy, and issues of plagiarism and academic integrity. Her PhD analysed the problem of plagiarism for university students and reviewed the implementation of academic integrity and its communication in higher education. This led Julianne to be an advocate for changes in academic integrity communication and practice at La Trobe, and to develop the Academic Integrity Module (AIM) for coursework students and staff.