Criticism and Teaching

Yesterday, I had an interesting juxtaposition of events. In the early afternoon, my students in 345/545 gave their status reports. Immediately afterwards, I went to a colleague’s class — a graduate course in architecture — to help review status reports there.

In my own class, the students had previously set goals for what they would accomplish before Spring Break. I think the teams had set (mostly) set reasonable goals, although several of them struggled with the concept of measurability. (As in, the goals had to be measurable.) The point of Thursday’s status reports was to briefly address how well the teams had progressed in meeting their goals.

While some of the teams had met their goals, I was overall disappointed with the progress. Some teams clearly misunderstood that there was no expectation in the schedule for work over Spring Break — although it was an opportunity to make up for lost or mismanaged time. Some of the teams have been struggling with the same technological issues since the beginning of the semester, and this is inexcusable. Fighting against the technology, there will be no progression into the deeper topics of HCI that I want students to explore through their projects.

However, I did not tell them this. I was mostly quiet during the status reports, offering little nuggets here and there. My thinking at the time was that the public shame of having missed even rudimentary self-imposed deadlines, and the peer pressure from their colleagues, would be enough to force them to move forward. In retrospect, I’ve been acting this way for weeks, and I’m not sure that this has been the right course.

I moved from this class to a colleague’s, in which I was one of several faculty and staff members who were providing feedback on entrepreneurial innovative ventures. Th best part was the discussion following the presentations. Without naming any names, I’ll say that I was vocally critical of one of the presentations. During the presentation, I recorded a page of criticisms. When we got to Q&A, I tried to gently address the shortcomings of what was presented, though I probably addressed only half of the items I had written down (and none about the dreadful infographics). I was fair, I think, and firm. Yet, perhaps not firm enough: the real problem was that the presenters had an idea but not a plan. Ideas are a dime a dozen: implementation is what defines success. However, I tried to criticize what was presented rather than the process I perceived; I did not want to come across as a jerk with an axe to grind when invited into another’s classroom. However, when the professor himself gave his closing comments to the team, he articulated very clearly what was really the essence of my piecemeal criticism: the problems of the team’s process itself rather than the specifics of their presentation.

As I reflected on this — and discussed it with my wife over dinner — I feel like I was two people yesterday afternoon. In my own class, I was standoffish, not even writing down the many and valid criticisms that could (and probably should) be levied on my students. My wife put it well when she suggested that I should have said, “It goes without saying that your work is unacceptable.” The problem is, I don’t know if it actually went without saying, or if my students are blissfully ignorance of their impending doom should they fail to pick up the pace.

Conversely, in the afternoon, I was diving into specifics, leveraging the critical power of the unknown professor to try to pry the best ideas out of these students who I don’t even know.

And this makes me wonder if this is the essence of the problem. I have gotten to like my 345/545 students, and I want them to succeed. I don’t really know how much criticism I can hit them with and have them still be inspired, rather than becoming disenchanted. I am reminded of a story that Hal Abelson told me about his mobile application development class: when one of the students listed “lack of time” as a risk, one of the professors suggested he either drop the course or deal with it. That’s tough love — I respect that, but sometimes I have a hard time doing it. I wonder if maybe I have coddled my students too much, given them a false sense of accomplishment where, in fact, I complain to my wife almost every night that I am concerned about their lack of progress in their projects.

From this cogitation, I have come up with two actionable ideas. First, the teams should be smaller. My initial vision for the course was that students would be inspired to take the initiative to explore the rich landscape of HCI, and that each would bring unique talents to bear on the success of the project. This has not happened, and I can’t help but blame The System: my students are being asked to do too many things in one semester for them to be able to focus on learning. (Learning in higher education?! No time for that. (That’s the topic of another post.)) As it turns out, some of the teams are just too big, and it opens up the possibility for miscommuncation, mismanagement, and blamesmanship in completely unproductive ways. If I cannot change the system, I can mitigate the problem with smaller teams, I suspect. The confounding corollary is that then I would have about twice as many projects and teams to keep track of, which would be very difficult for me, and again I can’t help but blame The System.

The second action item is to specify milestones for the second half of the semester. Some of the teams are doing an exemplary job of managing themselves, but many still have not seemed to hit stride in this respect. By giving some concrete milestones, I am wedging myself in as a manager in a way I was hoping to avoid, but it seems to be the lesser of two evils. Figuring out where these milestones should go will be a topic for this weekend’s consideration and Monday’s work.

A third idea, on which I may or may not take action, is that I may need to create more explicit rubrics for my students to let them know what I think about how they are doing. They are right now conducting peer evaluations, using a painstakingly-designed rubric. I could adapt this to let them know how I see their team work, presentation skills, technical progress, and understanding of key HCI concepts. I suppose I should first set up their milestones, and then figure out how to best give them the feedback I think they need.

Moving forward, I am going to try to be more cognizant of my own feelings with respect to the critical feedback I give my students. If I’m not giving them the criticism they need, then I’m not doing my best job for them. I will try keeping some notes about my feelings and fears as I observe these status reports, and hopefully that will guide me.


As always, my wife is a font of wisdom. How she does so with the chaos of two young boys, I cannot fathom. In any case, in conversation with her I realized that I was probably trying a little bit too hard to try to undo the effects of years of brainwashing from our culture and ridiculous industrial educational system, and accomplishing this in half a semester may have been a little optimistic. This forces me to acknowledge my own fears, that if I comply with the system — as my students (potentially subconsciously) want — I will forget what it is that is so fundamentally broken about the system itself.



6 Responses to “Criticism and Teaching”

  1. Education discussion in Linchpin « Paul Gestwicki's Blog Says:

    […] Paul Gestwicki's Blog Stuff. And Things. But mostly stuff. « Criticism and Teaching […]

  2. Jaek Smith Says:

    Have you found any interesting differences between how the students who have mainly met their goals have worked compared with how the students who have not met their goals have worked? (Not sure if that’s something you can sense?)

    What fundamental issues caused by the system are at play in relation to the issues with the students achieving their milestones/learning? If these issues were not present, would you still have milestones? If so, how would they (the milestones) be different?

    • Jaek Smith Says:

      BTW, “Not sure if that’s something you can sense?” would be better phrased “Not sure if that’s something you can sensed in this situation?”. (Wasn’t trying to imply that you personally are unable to sense such, but rather, whether you see much of the work outside the milestone products).

      I speak, therefore I miscommunicate. ;)

  3. Paul Gestwicki Says:

    Sorry it took me some time to make time to write… time.

    I only have anecdotes and suspicions about the behaviors of the achieving teams vs. the non-achieving teams. The teams are essentially managing themselves, so I see very little of how they work. I often find myself wishing I had a better mechanism for gathering data, so much so that I’ve contemplated creating a “virtual stand-up meeting” Web app, through which students could say what they have done each day, even for classes that meet only once or twice a week. This could be elegantly combined with an instructor’s dashboard to look for patterns. In the absence of data like this, I hesitate to make any generalizations from my limited observations.

    For what it’s worth, there’s a wide variation in my seven teams. One team has hands-down the best project manager, and that team is falling apart due to (I suspect) member apathy. Another team has been completely silent, never coming to me for help, never inviting me to a meeting, and its composed of students I barely know, who themselves have a wide range of GPA and grade level. They show up regularly with amazing results, and I have no idea where that comes from. (I mean, it comes from hard work, natch, but I don’t know how they are structured as a team at all.)

    The question of fundamental issues is an interesting one, and one I’ve pondered quite a bit, as well as discussed with some of my most respected colleagues. In fact, yesterday I challenged my students to get into interteam small groups to discuss issues such as the dichotomy of acting like a consulting company while within a university course setting. I look to models like Stanford’s d-school for inspiration. However, I note that they have the advantage of being exclusive, prestigious, and a graduate program.

  4. Jaek Smith Says:

    The ‘virtual stand-up meetings’ reminds me of the DPRs (Daily Progress Reports – quick status emails) our group (at work) sends to each other at end-of-day. (We also have standups in the morning).

  5. Writing, Scholarship, and Software « Paul Gestwicki's Blog Says:

    […] year. In Fall, I felt productive and I also felt that I was learning. In much of the Spring, I was frustrated. (Interestingly, as I look back at the past semester’s writing to pull out […]

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