Communication and Confidence in Response to (Un)Constructive Criticism

By: Marie C. Martin, University of California, Riverside

What follows is an account of a less-than-enjoyable, skin-thickening experience and a lesson in audience etiquette, constructive criticism, power dynamics, and the value of a good session chair. I throw in a few cautionary tidbits on cultural awareness and American exceptionalism for good measure.

The conference presentation is a rite of passage for graduate students. An opportunity to showcase our ideas and intellectual efforts, a chance to develop our scholarly presence, and hone our public speaking skills. When I was a first year doctoral student, the thought of giving a paper presentation at a conference invoked a bizarre combination of sheer excitement and Pepto-Bismol necessitating nausea. Now, in the 5th year of my doctoral program, the urge to lose my breakfast before my paper sessions has subsided. At this point, I feel a bit like a seasoned vet. Nevertheless, several conferences and countless presentations later, I was not prepared to navigate a recent, difficult experience I had at an international conference which left me reeling and motivated me to write this blog post.

If a conference presentation goes well, the room will be full, you won’t need to fumble your way around the AV equipment, no one will fall asleep during your twelve minute talk, some members of the audience will ask useful questions that help you advance your research, and at the end you’ll shake several hands, exchange business cards, and expand your professional network. You’ll exhale a big sigh of relief that it is over and proudly strut your way out the door towards the evening reception with your free drink ticket in hand humming your victory tune (mine is Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.”)

But sometimes it does not go well.

This year, I had the opportunity to present a research paper at an international conference. A few slides into my presentation, two members of the audience began to talk with one another. Not whisper. Talk. In a large banquet hall it would not have been noticeable but this was a small, enclosed classroom that seated approximately 20 people. I was too busy thinking about what I needed to say to catch the details of their chatter, but I assumed they were just interested in my research or were engaged in a positive discussion about the slides I had spent a considerable time constructing; thus, I carried on. I proceeded as these two individuals talked for the entire duration of my presentation—even as audience members around them shushed and passed annoyed glances around the room.

When I concluded the presentation, the audience clapped, and one member of the chatty party-of-two shot their hand up into the air. I smiled and acknowledged them. I then stood there awkwardly and silently as the duo rendered a hyper-critical, not-so-mildly condescending review of my research. Let me make one thing clear: as a graduate student, I am not new to criticism. In fact, I welcome it. Peer review is the hallmark of robust and legitimate research. I welcome any and all feedback that can help me strengthen my work or that prompts me to think about my research design or application of theory in a different way. However, not all critiques are intended to be constructive. Elements of this situation (some of the details of which I will keep to myself) convinced me—and others who bore witness—that this particular encounter was intended to cut—not construct. Sadly, there are bullies in the academy—a phenomenon that has been documented not only by my own experience but through research (Lester, 2013; Twale & De Luca, 2008).

I have replayed this scenario several times in my head, and I have questioned whether or not my response to this situation was appropriate. Here is what I learned and what I might do differently if I encounter a similar experience anytime in the future.

First, I continued to give my presentation despite their interruptive and distracting behavior. This may have been my first mistake. At the time it seemed like the appropriate response. It felt confrontational to address the disruption. These audience members were established, well regarded scholars in the field. I felt disempowered because of my status as a graduate student. Ideally, a good session chair should politely intervene and ask the disrupters to curtail their conversation or hold questions until the completion of the presentation. However, in the event that a chair does not intercede on your behalf, I offer up a few alternative (direct and indirect) approaches that could be used to address the disruption respectfully. In the event that you encounter a similar experience—either in a conference setting or in the classroom—consider the following responses.

  • Pause and politely ask the disrupter(s) to save questions and comments for the end of the presentation so that all audience members can share in the discussion of ideas.
  • Gently interject into the conversation and say something like, “It looks like there is some lively discussion about my research, I look forward to hearing your feedback at the end of the presentation.”
  • If you are a feeling bold, or the disruptive behavior continues, politely ask that they leave the room if they wish to continue their conversation.
  • If you are not comfortable with the verbal approach, messages can be relayed through body language. One colleague recommended an approach he uses in the classroom with students: physically moving into the space of the disrupter. This can be done casually and quietly. As you are giving your talk, simply walk forward down the aisle or move to stand near the disrupter. This is sometimes enough to clue them in that their behavior is noticed and impolite.

The second mistake I made was that I remained silent in response to the unconstructive criticism. At conferences, it is customary to receive feedback from the audience or your discussant (in the case of ASHE). Indeed, you should receive feedback graciously and make attempts to incorporate suggestions into your work when appropriate. However, in the event that you encounter unconstructive criticism based upon biased opinion or hearsay, not data, I encourage you to speak up and defend your position diplomatically and academically using your knowledge of the research literature. If you are not comfortable doing this during your talk, consider approaching the individual after the session and having a one-on-one dialogue.

The third mistake I made was that I failed to educate myself about the cultural nuances associated with attending international conferences abroad. Different cultures have different approaches to providing feedback. Some are more direct than others. Feedback and tones that might be considered “blunt” in the United States might be interpreted as “gentle,” or normal, in other countries (or vice versa). It is absolutely necessary that you seek to understand the national, and sometimes global context, in which you are presenting. Without cultural context, you may inadvertently and naively stoke the fire of a heated topic on a policy that divides nations and set off an emotional landmine inside the conference room. This is not to say that you should avoid controversial topics. I simply urge you to take some time to read international journals and news sources and educate yourself about the perceptions and scholarship of those outside the United States. As well, whenever possible, be aware of the manner in which you frame your research and the words you choose in a presentation. If poorly worded or framed, what might seem like an interesting finding in the research about the unique way in which a phenomenon manifests in the United States, could be misconstrued as an expression of American exceptionalism.

I sincerely hope you never encounter a scenario similar to the one I experienced. However, if you do, I hope this post provides you with some strategies for handling the situation with confidence.

Marie Martin is a doctoral candidate in the University of California, Riverside’s (UCR) Higher Education Administration and Policy program. Her research focuses on the management of the academic profession and the role of faculty in governance and organizational decision making. Marie is employed full-time as the Director of Academic Services and Executive Assistant to the Dean of University Extension at UCR.

References

Lester, J. (2013). Workplace bullying in higher education. Routledge.

Twale, D. J., & De Luca, B. M. (2008). Faculty incivility: The rise of the academic bully culture and what to do about it (Vol. 128

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