Ever know anyone who can’t hear criticism without taking it personally? Meet Julie.
Once again, the lock on my office door wasn't cooperating with the key. I felt like a safecracker. Insert the key just so ... apply just enough twisting force to feel resistance ... withdraw it gradually ... wait for the resistance to disappear ... then turn it all the way. This was my third try.
Maybe that's why I didn't see her coming. Just as the key finally turned, she came rolling around the corner like a small armored troop carrier. What happened when we collided was a perfect demonstration of the law of conservation of momentum. Body A came to a dead stop; Body B rebounded. Fortunately, Body B landed on his softest part. Body A stood horrified, mouth open, backpack clutched to her chest.
I looked up at her five feet, two inches. Julie. I might have known. "Never mind what they say on the artillery range," I grunted. "What you lack in mass, you make up in velocity."
"Professor Theophilus! I'm so sorry! Are you all right? Did you get hurt? Why aren't you getting up?"
Though I would have preferred to sit still for a minute, I got to my feet and limped into my office just to keep her from fretting. Gingerly, I sat down at my desk. Julie stood in the doorway uncertainly. "Are you sure you're all right? Can I do anything for you?"
"Yes, I'm sure, and yes, you can do something. First, you can pour me a cup of that cold coffee over there." She grimaced, but did as I asked. "Much better," I said, sipping. "Second, you can tell me what gives with the Girl-Shot-From-Cannon act."
"Girl shot from — oh." Julie's ears flushed pink. "I should have looked where I was going. But I'd just got my first essay back from Professor Thanatos, and when I saw my grade — I was so upset — I could hardly —" A new thought painted itself across her face. She sat down. "Professor Theophilus, would you do me a big, big favor?"
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that 'big, big.'"
"I know you didn't assign my essay. But would you read it anyway and tell me if you think it's really awful?"
"Julie, I try not to second-guess my colleagues' grading decisions."
"I'm not asking you to second-guess anything. But just look at this." She fished the essay out of her backpack and began to turn over the pages. "Page one, no comment. Page two, no comment. Pages three, four, five, no comment. See? Finally, bottom of page six, 'Weak argumentation, flaccid organization.' That's all. When I asked Professor Thanatos to explain, he just said 'This is the university, Miss Terwilliger. You must sink or swim.'"
Yes, that sounded like Thanatos. I sighed. "Hand it over."
Five minutes passed as I pencilled little check marks in the margins. "All right," I said finally, "let's talk." Julie perched herself nervously right on the edge of her chair.
"I won't tell you what grade I would have given the essay, but I can offer some basic critique."
"That's all I wanted."
"For starters, look at your introductory paragraph. There's no thesis statement."
"Thesis. You need to say what it is that you're going to prove. Even if you're not proving anything, you need to explain what question you're going to answer or what problem you're going to solve. But you don't do any of those things."
Her ears flushed again. "But I feel like I did. See, right here I say 'My essay is about the existence of God.'"
"An 'about' statement is not the same as a thesis statement, Julie. It doesn't tell me what you want to accomplish in the essay. I could read the whole thing and still not know whether you'd succeeded."
"But I feel like the essay itself shows what I'm trying to accomplish."
"You may 'feel like' it does, but it doesn't. See here, in paragraph three you seem to be asking whether God exists. But in paragraph five you seem to be asking whether most people think He exists, and in paragraph eight you seem to be asking whether people who talk about God all mean the same thing. Is there some big question that links these three little ones together, or are you just meandering? You never tell me."
Her flush deepened and began to spread.
"Here's another thing," I said. "Look at the argument here in paragraph four. You seem to be reasoning 'all A are X, and all B are X, so all A are B,' but that doesn't follow. It's like saying 'All dogs are four-legged animals, and all cats are four-legged animals, so all dogs are cats.' They aren't. We call that 'faking the connection.'"
Her voice went up a full octave. "I haven't faked anything!"
"I don't mean you've tried to deceive. That's just the name of the fallacy."
"But I don't feel like I've committed a fallacy! You're just not being fair," Julie complained. Surprised, I looked up. The flush had reached her nose, and her eyes looked moist. "I feel you're just looking for things wrong."
I set down the pencil, pushed back my chair, hooked my thumbs in my pockets, and smiled. "Well, of course I am. You asked me to."
"After all the effort I put into the essay, you say it's no good!"
"I haven't yet said whether I think it's good or bad."
"I feel that's exactly what you're doing."
"But you asked me to do that too." I opened the drawer and pantomimed lifting out a tape recorder and setting it on the desk between us. "Rewind. Stop. Play. 'Professor Theophilus, would you read my essay and tell me if it's really awful?'"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" she said. "I'm doing it again." I handed her a box of tissues. She blew her nose. "Just like I always do."
"What is it that you always do?"
"I always get like this when I'm criticized. Even when it's good for me and I've asked for it," she sniffled, "like today." She took another tissue. "Now that I'm in college, I'm always being judged. I love my subject, but sometimes I dread going to class. When I get criticisms from teachers or classmates, I just cringe." She wiped the corners of her eyes. "How can I stop being so hypersensitive?"
"Do you really want to know?" I asked. "It may feel like more criticism."
She blew her nose one more time. "Yes. Tell me."
"Then the first thing to consider is what you gain from your hypersensitivity."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that whoever criticizes you is punished with emotional recriminations. It's a way to shut people up before they've said all they meant to say, and it puts the blame on them. That makes you feel better, but you pay a high price, because you don't hear things you need to hear. Do you need the tissue box again?"
Her eyes went from my face, to the box, then back again. She shook her head. I smiled and continued.
"The second thing you need to do to re-train your attention. When I criticized your work today, you didn't talk about the work, but about yourself."
"But everything I said was about the work!"
"Play back the tape again. Listen to what you said. You 'felt like' you had made your thesis clear. You 'felt like' you had reasoned well. You 'felt like' you hadn't committed fallacies. None of those feelings were in the essay. They were in you. Julie, no matter what you're feeling when someone criticizes your work, don't make your feelings the subject. Make the work the subject."
"You want me to think less about myself," she said. "But it seems to me that I don't think enough of myself. If I had more self-esteem, then I wouldn't be so hypersensitive."
I laughed. "Nothing you've said suggests that you lack confidence. What you lack is the humility to hear criticism. Your problem isn't humility, but pride."
"But — but I don't think I'm better than everyone else!"
"Irrelevant. Pride says 'It's all about me.' That attitude can manifest itself in more than one way. If I'm selfish, I treat my wants as what it's all about. If I'm conceited, I treat my worth as what it's all about. You're not selfish or conceited, so you think you're not proud. Yet just a few minutes ago, you were treating your hurt feelings as what it's all about."
"You think that's pride?"
I shrugged. "It fits the definition. What do you think?"
Julie glanced at her watch, grabbed her backpack and stood up. "I have to get to class, but I'll come back tomorrow. Will you hold onto my essay for me?"
She paused on her way out and looked back through the door. "My arguments," she said. "I think I should hear the rest of your criticisms."
Copyright 2003 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.