Dealing with Criticism

FENCING published in Harper's Weekly June 1890

It’s a commonplace that criticism is one of the hardest things we face. No one enjoys it, but shared correctly and viewed appropriately criticism is a powerful tool. For the fencer it can help to “unpack” criticism as it applies to us as student. This is as true for the researcher. Just as important as these two situations is an instructor’s ability to offer criticism well.  In each role we approach this differently, experience it a little differently, but in each case—as student, teacher, researcher—we’re in an endeavor that by definition includes correction. So, it’s worth reflecting on some of the ways we give and receive such evaluation.

Despite its etymology “criticism” generally connotes something negative. [1] There are probably multiple reasons for this, but one reason must be that so often people don’t offer these observations well, either in terms of kindness or effectiveness. It’s easy to take criticism personally, as an attack on our character, and when criticism is offered poorly it’s small wonder. One of my instructors many years ago—and since he’s still active I’ll not share his name—was notorious for his meanness in lessons. More than one student left a lesson in tears. He was less liked than he was feared, and while many of us did well, many more of us might have had he been more amiable. For me, having grown up within military culture, it was a little easier to deal with some of what he said (while my father was not draconian, I certainly heard a lot of orders given elsewhere that were brusque). I didn’t take it personally, not that it was easy sometimes. Two of the more memorable comments he made to me were “you move like a bovine,” during a lesson, and in coaching piste-side at one tournament “Grow a pair and hit that guy—my grandmother could do this.” Hardly inspiring.

In comparison to my other instructors, all of whom were task masters in their way, this one sharp-tongued coach stood out. He’s not unique. A friend of mine here in Portland was so scarred by a foil coach as a teenager than he left fencing all together until discovering HEMA. Hopefully your instructor isn’t like this—if so, I encourage finding a better one if that’s possible. If you’re stuck with a lemon, or, if you struggle with criticism generally, there are a few things to keep in mind that might help.

As Student
Looking first at proper criticism, i.e. the constructive, meant-to-help sort, the most important thing to remember is that learning includes getting things wrong. Correction is thus part of the learning process. We make mistakes, we mishear, we struggle, we forget, etc. and a good teacher points these out and helps us get them right. Usually our problem is less being corrected than how we are corrected. This is as true in fencing as it is at school or at work.

This said, even the kindest criticism can be hard to swallow. This is all the more true when we feel like we’re doing our best. We expect results from hard work, and that’s not wrong, but as a working hypothesis it needs refinement. Hard work on its own does little—it needs to be consistent, it needs to focus on the correct things, and hardest of all it takes time. Fencing is difficult. It is a highly technical art. If you’re going to assume anything—and assumptions are generally a bad idea—then assume years of constant, persistent practice. Be kind to yourself and give yourself room to mess up.

No one masters this stuff right away. Being armed with more realistic expectations helps a lot. Knowing that what you’re studying is difficult and time-consuming should temper the impact of criticism. When you expect it, it feels less about you and more about the process. Just keep at it. However dressed the critical assessment of your skill is at that moment looks less awful seen against the backdrop of long-term development. It’s a moment of time—you will learn to do X, and then find some new challenge. All of this requires that your ego is in check, that you’re less concerned with how you look in front of your peers, and that too takes work. Focus on the Art, not the perception others may have of you.

If your instructor is like that one I describe above, then you’ll need to separate out the emotional chaff from the constructive grain. This means ignoring any comment that touches on feelings and focusing instead on those that treat substantive issues. In the case where my instructor referred to my movement as “bovine,” he went on to have me do footwork for the rest of the lesson. I was plodding, not advancing, and so I spent a lot of time trying to make my front and back foot land at the same time (back foot to floor as front toes land). [2] I ignored his nasty comment and just focused on the skill. Easier said than done, true, but with practice and a good attitude it’s possible.


As Instructor

Photos-1858-Victorian-fencer

It’s in our own best interest to be kind when offering advice or criticism. Kind doesn’t mean talking around an issue or walking on egg-shells; it means sharing your evaluation in a way more likely to reach that student. Often the best policy, a la the Golden Rule, is to mix whatever analysis you have for them with encouragement. We know this stuff is difficult, we know it takes time, because we were at the same stage of development once—this should make us sympathetic.

Like anyone we can get frustrated. Maybe you’ve had a bad day, maybe the student doesn’t seem to be trying. Your job is to recognize that emotion, put it in place, and proceed without expressing whatever vexation you’re experiencing (if you are). It doesn’t help your student, and more than likely will only stymie them. As important as criticism is, so too are compliments were appropriate. Initially you may only compliment their effort or an aspect of one action, but with encouragement students are far more likely to press on, because they know you believe they can do it. This support is especially critical as they start—many new fencers quit not because they don’t like what they’re doing, but because it feels impossible. No coach should reinforce that idea. Your own training is proof it isn’t impossible, and with that insight your support is not empty, but informed.

Expect to repeat yourself, a lot, especially with younger students. Expect to repeat the same lesson often. Expect to work at new ways to explain the same thing. Patience is worth cultivating, and, it will help you and your students. Our enthusiasm, patience, our can-do attitude is everything, and it’s not a race: if it takes student X longer to master a specific technique, then it does.

Returning to my gruff former instructor, how else might he have addressed my poor footwork? Here is one approach, least it is close to the sort of thing I have found useful:

Halt! Okay, now when you advance listen to the sound. Good—you’re making a single advance, right? How many steps did you hear? Not sure? Okay, do it again. How about now? Two! Did you feel like you were smooth or sort of    bopping up and down? Correct, kinda bobbing, right? This time try to coordinate  the landing of the back foot with the front toes as they touch the floor. Watch me—I lift the toes, I glide just over the floor, and as my front toes lands so does my back foot. How many steps did you hear? One. And I wasn’t bobbing, right? Now your turn.”

In this example there were no ad homines; no questions as to the student’s simian ancestry, relation to barnyard animals, or quips about the student’s masculinity or femininity. This example focuses on the skill-set, on the specific actions, and explains them. The instructor demonstrates it, and then encourages the student to try again.

There are a lot of ways to do this, but whatever words you choose it’s best to build up, not tear down.

As Researcher

If you’re a researcher or translator you’re going to run into critics. There are different sorts, and happily many you can ignore. The ubiquitous internet “troll,” for example, the dolt who just has to pick something apart or disagree, isn’t worth your time. There are a lot of people in the historical fencing community with over-inflated notions of their own brilliance and/or importance, so chances are good if one of them attempts to heckle you that you’ve somehow put them in touch with their own insecurities. Not your problem. Be above that and avoid the intellectual squalor to be found in the fetid fen of the comments section. [3]

The only criticism worth troubling yourself about is proper, subject-driven, constructive criticism by credible people. You may disagree, or, have information that your reader doesn’t, and the situation may or may not warrant a rebuttal, but if you put your work out there you should expect that some aren’t going to like it or agree with your conclusions. For a quick example, an article I wrote for my graduate advisor’s Festschrift received some decent criticism. Now, the reviewer, since they didn’t deal with the editor of this book, couldn’t know what I did, namely, that the stuff the reviewer wanted to see in my article had been there, but had been excised for length. I wasn’t happy about that, but as the first academic article I had in print I didn’t know to push back, or, time-allowing, edit it so that all that could be there. The reviewer’s point is a good one, and my article would’ve been better with that information still there. We learn.

600px-Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods_Figure_5

The public nature of this criticism makes it all the harder to take. Where even a decade or two ago a review might only be read by those with subscriptions or access to the periodical that published it, today a quick search of your name and a title on Google allows the entire world to find it. Add social media sharing and that many more eyes are likely to see it.

How we react to criticism says a lot about us, so it’s worth reflecting, even preparing for various scenarios. Good criticism is always nice, and being gracious about it is important. However, dignity, grace, and measured reactions to a bad review or criticism are as important, maybe more so since people are far more likely to notice and remember fireworks than a thank-you. If the evaluation is accurate and fair, if the criticism leveled at your work stands up, then it behooves you to make changes and re-share the work. Own it—there is no shame in admitting we’re wrong when we actually are. If it’s not possible to fix or reshare the work, then you can write something else and discuss it there. I’ve had to do this, even preemptively, when I’ve noticed an issue in my own work. [4] Allowing poor work or a mistake to stand or worse digging-in and trying to justify it are unwise. Maybe you have supporters, maybe you don’t, but if an error you’ve made has been demonstrated sufficiently, the better part of valor (and scholarship) is to own it, then fix it. [5]

Knowing what is fair criticism or not, what is accurate or not, can be difficult. To state the truth not all professional reviewers are as balanced, fair, or objective as they should be. Some have their own agenda and their criticism, as such, is more “you didn’t do what I would have done” than anything substantive about what you actually produced. It’s not fair, but nothing is fair. In cases like these it can sometimes be important to write a rebuttal. One must be careful to separate personal embarrassment in making errors from chagrin with one of these critics. Each situation is handled differently.

Understood, accepted, and used as a tool for growth effective criticism can be valuable. It helps when that criticism focuses on the task, not our character, and when it is shared in a supportive fashion. If you fence, and it doesn’t matter what style, you will have to find ways to handle being evaluated. The good news is that it does get easier over time. With practice it’s far easier to focus on what they’re attempting to help us do than anything else. Pick your instructor well, realize that they’re doing what your hired them to do (teach), and remember that there is “no growth without assistance.” [6]

———-

NOTES:

[1] Our word “critic” derives from Latin criticus, itself a loan from Greek kritikos, “capable of judging.” Context is everything, but as a general rule, for most American speakers of English anyway, “criticism” is a word that most interpret negatively without further clarification.

[2] This is a very useful pedagogical tool. Students tend to make smaller steps, tend to coordinate their feet better, and in time improve their advance as well as retreat. In practice, during a bout, one doesn’t necessarily move as nicely as this, but one will move better for having worked so hard at it.

[3] I’d rather not name the people, one in particular, that seem to make an effort to disagree or undermine anything I say or post on social media or elsewhere, but they’re good examples of insecure people with ego needs that outweigh their ability to reason or play nicely. Unless there is a reason to correct them, I ignore them. Arguing with the village idiot, as the old saying goes, only creates two idiots.

[4] A fun example, and one hard for me not to enjoy given the irony of my interest in historical fencing, is a line that was misprinted in Artifacts from Medieval Europe (2015). On page 32 the line “Like the sword discussed here, they were still broad enough to cut, but also had a strong, rigid diamond shape that enabled the sword to punch through plate like an awl.” The word “plate” should have been mail, for while it is possible to pierce armor with poor heat-treat—a friend of mine has done this with a dull spear-head—swords in the age of plate weren’t used against armor, and when they were, they were used like a pole-arm to stab into those sections not as well-armored, generally of cloth and/or mail.

[5] A good example of this problem is the debate, such as it is, between two translators of the same rapier text. One of these translations, made by a well-respected scholar, is certainly freer in expression in some places, but is far and away a better version than the other. The author of the less successful translation has attacked his rival on a number of occasions, but to little effect outside of his little collection of supporters. I’ve read through the criticism of his work and the complaints hold up. Even when called on it he refused to accept it. Don’t be that guy.

[6] So says the character Li Mu Bai in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiuQNFiEmMs

IMAGES:
First — scene entitled “Fencing,” in Harper’s Weekly, June 1890.

Second — “Victorian Fencer, 1858,” https://www.leonpaul.com/wordpress/fencing-history-fencing-in-the-19th-century/

Third– modified image of a print, by J.C. Woudanus, 1610, of shelves in library of the University of Leiden: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods

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