Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When is Criticism not Criticism?

Criticism. We all dish it out, but loathe taking it. We tell people all the time what is wrong with them, yet we get rather indignant when someone mentions our flaws. When we see someone criticizing, we often chastise them for being critical. Someone who doesn't criticize often has a lot of friends because they are never rude enough to. Simply put, criticism is something we think about and deal with every day.

Once upon a time, yours truly was a master of giving criticism, yet never being able to take it. When you are almost always making perfect scores on tests, at the top of every academic list for achievement, and never get in trouble for behaviour, you tend to think you have all of the answers, and you often feel free to dispense it to those lesser souls whom you feel are in need. On those rare occasions where I did receive criticism, I didn't know how to react, and usually simply collapsed into an emotional fit, which usually consisted of me being pouty and moody.

Over the years, I got a little better at handling criticism, but where I really stepped up my efforts was in how I dished out criticism. On one hand I discovered that I actually did not know everything, so I limited my commenting to stuff I actually knew about, that way I wouldn't be considered a hypocrite. After all, everyone hates hypocrites. On the other hand, I really discovered the depths which I could shoot at folks through sarcasm and snark, and I got very good at that--much to the chagrin of people in my sphere.

Once I started teaching, I began to look at criticism in a completely different manner through two realizations. Over the past two school years, I've been scrutinized through informal observations at least once every two weeks, and had to sit on meetings where everything I did in the classroom was commented and critiqued upon. It was all done in a professional manner with the goal of making me a better teacher. Rather than get upset over it, I took it for what it is and I am now an exponentially better teacher than I was before.

The other thing that changed my view of criticism was how, through teaching, I began to notice that I stopped criticizing as much as I began to observe things--both right and wrong in everything I taught. I noticed that for all of the ink I spilled all over tests and projects that failed, I was spilling equal amounts of ink pointing out the things I liked in what I saw. Since I was spending the same amount of energy doing both, as well as the fact I was doing both without much compunction or bias (e.g. the positive and negative comments came without a care as to whose paper it was, which shocked a lot of my lower-performing students would find positive comments... and vice versa), I found that I had turned criticism into observation--and I have to say I liked that very much.

Recent events have made me wonder if I'm all wrong about this. As most of you know, I use Twitter all of the time, and I've begun tweeting what goes on in my local church service. I have to admit that I absolutely love livebloggings/livetweetings of events mainly due to the amount of wit and humour most bring, especially ones like the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports of football matches. I admit I try to emulate it in a certain fashion, but I find making my opinions really known to be hazardous to my mental health, so rather than be critical, I decided early on to just make observations, and leave their meaning to be found by the reader. For example, a couple of weeks ago, during the sermon a woman put on her sunglasses and started brushing her hair. Now, I could have tossed the lady under the bus, but instead I just mentioned it and asked the reader to make of it what they would. Some would laugh, others could complain about the distraction the lady was making, or I was making by sitting in the back corner of the sanctuary, or by not being 100% focused on the pastor, or any other thing I could come up with.

The problem is, of course, most people don't see things that way. I had an interesting conversation with someone on Twitter who was saying I was far more critical than I seemed. I must admit that I was impressed by the discussion because it wasn't a reaction per se, but rather an honest investigation of my motives and a friendly set of observations rather than pointed bickering and angst. Simply put, it wasn't pointing out flaws, it was just making an observation. Like I said, this has had me thinking for the past couple of weeks about it, and I think I've come to a consensus (at least to me) about what I view as criticism vs. observations.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK Edition), the dictionary of note for yours truly, I've looked at some definitions, and I found them to encapsulate my ideas pretty well.

Critical, by definition is (1) expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements. [sic] (2) expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.  

Criticism, by definition is (1) indicate the faults of in a disapproving way. (2) form and express a critical assessment of (a literary or artistic work).

Observe, by definition is (1) notice; perceive. (2) watch attentively; monitor. (3) make a remark; say. 

Observation, by definition is (1) the action or process of closely observing or monitoring. (2) the ability to notice significant details. (3) a comment based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed. 

So, having laid out these definitions, I think I can make a case for there being a rather distinct delineation between criticism and observation. The definitions clearly state that criticism means you're looking for negative things whereas observing requires you only to notice something, regardless of its positiveness or negativity. Even though people don't believe me for a second, in the end, that's what I'm wanting to do. I just want to see things and pass them along without passing judgment. Being a teacher, I'm finding that I have an obsession with observing but not criticizing because since most people mistakenly conflate criticism with emotional feelings toward someone, I want them to know that I am being as unbiased as I humanly can so they can see that I am trying to improve them in every way I can--regardless of whether I find their personal life or conduct pleasing to me.

Having said all of this, you can feel free to drop by in the comments section and tell me how deluded I am, how even though I "observe" things, I'm still only observing negative things, as well as how I did all of that research just to put a fig leaf over my critical spirit. You're perfectly entitled to do so, and I wouldn't mind if you did (OK, I wouldn't mind if you commented, not being a tool just for giggles). However, I went through all of this thinking in an attempt to make sure how I see things in both my job and personal life are in as healthy of a view as possible. I find it especially pressing as tomorrow I will be going to my year-end evaluation and hope my bosses will summarize all of their observations of me in this past school year with an equal eye for observing and not simply criticizing. Or if anything, be less critical of me than I was on my self-evaluation. There was very little observing going on on that sheet of paper, let me tell you!

Until next time.

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