One of the most important skills graduate students learn is how to receive, assimilate, and act on feedback from peers and mentors. Often, as with peer review, feedback comes anonymously, and in written form, so responses can be contemplated and thought through. But at conferences, seminars, and public talks, scholars have to respond in person and in real time.
Similarly, giving feedback in written or oral form is another essential skill and one that students do not often get to do in formal settings with peers (as opposed to when grading undergraduate papers!).
A workshop — essentially a venue for graduate students to present written work-in-progress — is the perfect place to practice both kinds of skills – receiving and giving feedback – and has the added bonus of also providing the recipient with comments on their current projects.
In the history department, we run four or five workshops a semester. These are not mandated, and happen on Friday afternoons, but all graduate students and faculty are encouraged to attend and to volunteer their work for presentation (For example, see the Fall 2019 workshops below). It is important for these workshops to include faculty presenters because it allows our graduate students to see how we work through the research and writing process, and it helps them understand that our work does not come out perfectly formed and that we too benefit from questions about form, content, method, and theoretical frameworks. We also encourage both MA and PhD students to share their work.
Ideally, the content is pre-circulated to the department a week before the workshop, and everyone who shows up reads in advance. This provides graduate students the opportunity to mark up the text, write questions or comments for the author, and collect their thoughts before the workshop begins. Faculty attendees do the same, modeling for our graduate students how to give feedback in written as well as oral form.
In order to facilitate discussion, one of the workshop conveners moderates the session. The presenter makes a short introduction — perhaps situating the paper in the context of the broader project, or highlighting some particular issues they hope to get advice on — and then the discussion is open to the floor.
One rule we initiated in the history department was that the first comment or question has to come from a graduate student. As a faculty, we realized that sometimes our enthusiasm for jumping in was making the graduate students hold back. When they go first, they get to set the parameters of the conversation. The workshop proceeds for about an hour, and in an ideal world, it becomes a conversation among all participants.
One of the skills that graduate student presenters begin to master as a result of the question-and-comment format is how to be open to critiques and suggestions and how to respond in a way that encourages further discussion. Rather than simply answering with one word or thanking the participant for the question, our graduate students learn to accept feedback in open ways, as well as to defend their analyses or approaches when necessary in a language and tone that is not defensive or combative.
In the same way, those asking the questions learn to do so in an open and generous manner. They also gain experience over time, often moving from asking fact-specific questions in their first few workshops to asking broader (but more productive) questions about sources, approach, scholarship, or format.
By the end of the session, the presenter will have more ideas and suggestions than s/he can possibly address. And this is where the next skill is acquired. Assimilating a wide range of feedback and deciding which is pertinent (or manageable) in the short, medium, and long term is a lesson that all students benefit from. Being able to adjudicate between good and bad advice is essential, not because the feedback isn’t well-meaning, but because it is important for the student to gain confidence in their own project and approach but also to be able to recognize and respond to weaknesses in their research and writing.
Normally we begin this process at the end of a session by asking the presenter to take a first pass at assessing which advice they are going to follow in the short term. But usually, there is follow up with the student’s advisor or the seminar convener so a more medium-to-long-term plan can be put in place.
Most graduate students who present at the workshop are nervous about doing so, especially when it is their first time. They are understandably worried about how their work will be received, what kinds of questions they will get, and whether they will perform well. Without exception, at the end of the session, they are happy about receiving so much engagement with their work, energized about the prospect of tackling revisions, and encouraged by the feedback. This means that the workshops not only help graduate students do better giving and receiving feedback, they also help them move forward in our program, produce stronger work as they do so, and be better prepared when stepping out into the world beyond UA.