Responding to Destructive Criticism

It's important to emphasize problem solving rather than blaming, while attending to the larger structures of power and privilege, argues Pamela Oliver.

August 30, 2018

In a previous article, I argued that privileged people should be open to criticism as a way to promote the inclusion of formerly marginalized people. That essay left out a lot of the complexity about destructive criticism as it is entangled with power and privilege. In this essay, I consider the problems of powerful destructive colleagues, inadvertent destructiveness, destructive subordinates (especially students) and classroom dynamics gone bad. None of these has easy remedies, but the best approach is to share collective organizational responsibility for remediating or neutralizing destructive behavior and for supporting its targets -- emphasizing problem solving rather than blaming, all the while attending to the larger structures of power and privilege.

Powerful Destructive Colleagues

Some colleagues are abusive toward staff members, junior colleagues or even tenured colleagues. There are many definitions of bullying, but the general idea is being critical of others in a demeaning, unconstructive way or seeking to control others’ behavior through intimidation. High rates of losing staff or assistant professors or graduate students are often symptomatic of the presence of bullies.

Any personalized and isolated hierarchical relationship is at risk of being abusive, and academic advising relations in graduate programs are especially so. The Me Too movement has reminded us of sexual abuse, but not all abuse is sexual. Being hypercritical, seeking to control a student’s research agenda, isolating a student from working with others and expecting unpaid labor or even personal services are also abusive. Apart from advisers, some classroom teachers use what can be viewed as abusive, hypercritical teaching styles.

It is difficult to rein in a powerful bully unless you have the support of other powerful people. My campus only recently passed a rule against bullying, and some people believe they have the right to bully others if they don’t discriminate along race or gender lines in their bullying.

If you cannot bring the person under control, can you work with others in the institution to neutralize their effects? For example, all graduate programs should ensure that all graduate students have multiple advisers or, perhaps, a faculty mentor who is not their adviser, to be sure that they have a recourse if they are feeling intimidated or exploited. All programs should encourage undergraduate and graduate students to report situations where they felt insulted or intimidated. And we should all remember that the same person may be kind and supportive to some people and abusive to others -- and never assume that our experience with someone is the whole story.

Inadvertent Destructiveness

Not everyone who behaves in a problematic way is an incorrigible bully. Many people do not realize the effects of their behavior on others and may be open to constructive criticism or feedback. Constructive criticism involves asking the person about their perception of the situation as well as reporting the perception of others. It invites problem solving rather than blame. Many people’s first response to critical feedback is defensiveness or anger, no matter how gently it is worded. But if you are willing to ride out the response and ask for their viewpoint, many people can shift to problem solving as the conversation continues, or possibly in a second conversation after they have calmed down and thought awhile.

It may also be worth reflecting on whether you have any habits that could be interpreted as hypercritical. If students cry after you talk to them or stop talking to you after you have criticized them, or you are getting feedback from others that your style is alienating people, maybe you need to look at how others might interpret your actions. You can ask others for feedback on this. If you feel that others are too sensitive to your well-meant criticisms, perhaps you can request help from colleagues or ask others how they would like to receive criticism. Remember that what seems like oversensitivity to you may be a learned response to a past abusive relationship or a lifetime of being the target of microaggressions. Telling somebody to be less sensitive is not likely to help.

And, yes, women and minorities can also behave in destructive ways toward others. At the same time, it is important to remember that women and minorities are much more likely to get criticized for their interactional styles than white men. Black people, for example, are often called aggressive or even threatening for body postures and voice intonations that are common among white men. Women are criticized both for not being aggressive enough and for being too aggressive if they are assertive. An older white male colleague once told me that I seemed problematic to other people because I would just walk up to people, stick out my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Pam Oliver.” Seriously. He confirmed that this was because I was a woman -- that the behavior would be OK for a man.

Destructive Subordinates

Another genre of destructive criticism occurs when students or other subordinates refuse to accept the authority of the instructor or leader. Professors of color are often presumed incompetent or biased by their students. I’ve dealt with cases where some white students simply refused to accept a minority TA’s authority over a class. Overtly sexist or racist comments on anonymous evaluations occur relatively frequently, and assertions of bias or incompetence of female or minority instructors are even more common.

Many white male faculty members do not realize the pervasiveness of students trying to subvert the authority of women or people from marginalized groups. Substantial research shows that people in disprivileged groups are judged more negatively for exactly the same behavior. Instructors from marginalized groups must negotiate the need simultaneously to retain authority and respect students while being subject to power-challenging attacks. Those can take the form of politely worded statements or questions in class discussions, as in this Twitter thread where a black woman professor has to answer a question about whether black people are less intelligent than white people.

Early in my teaching career, on the first day of a research methods class as we were going over the very mainstream syllabus, a white male student asked me, “Is this going to be one of those feminist classes?” I answered coldly, “This is a research methods class.” The student persisted: “Yes, but a lot of those woman teachers just talk about feminism all the time.” I said (again coldly), “There are structural reasons why women professors tend to be feminist. If you think I’m smuggling in feminism every time I use women rather than men in examples, then you may think this is a feminist class. This is a class in research methods.” That student spent the rest of the term dropping by my office to tell me how smart I was. But he might just as easily have complained to the dean about me if I had slipped at all in how I responded to him.

And what if it had been a class on gender? Or what if I was a racial minority teaching a class on race? Student assertions of the instructor’s inherent bias happen often in classes dealing with controversial issues and are particularly common if the instructor is from a marginalized group. People from marginalized groups do sometimes respond with anger or sarcasm or in other negative ways when they are insulted or challenged by students. Other times they get defensive or become emotionally withdrawn. Of course, this affects their teaching.

These dynamics create an extra burden for instructors of color of all genders and sometimes for white women -- especially younger women -- as well as people who are visible members of sexual/gender minorities or identities. It adds an extra layer of stress to people’s lives that is often invisible to others. Colleagues and administrators should be attentive to these issues. You can ask after colleagues’ well-being. You should consider these dynamics when reviewing student evaluations or getting reports from students complaining about their competence or bias.

Although most criticism and challenge flows from the more privileged toward the less privileged, sometimes people from marginalized groups do feel empowered to criticize more privileged people. Sometimes they do it in ways that seem destructive to others and, in rare cases, can even escalate to the level of harassment or threats. Students also harass or bully each other along lines of difference that may flow in multiple directions.

Instructors who have been subject to insults or destructive challenges from students should report them to their chairs or other administrators. For one thing, white administrators need to know what their instructors of color are dealing with. For another, you can be sure that if students are willing to insult instructors of color, they are surely willing to insult fellow students of color. White administrators can do their part about soliciting information about these problems as part of improving campus climate and their colleagues’ work environments.

Instructors from privileged groups who are struggling with challenges from students about their insensitive or domineering interaction styles should remember that it isn’t just privileged people who are challenged. Rather, privileged people are less used to being challenged. If a student criticizes you or your class for being Eurocentric or mainstream or insufficiently attentive to the position of marginalized people, you can remind yourself that you are not the only instructor being criticized and remember to treat the critics with decorum and respect. Reports from white or male faculty about students being upset with them can also provide systemwide information about problems. Treating these as collective problems to solve seems more constructive than suffering alone.

Destructive Group Dynamics

Sometimes the group dynamics in teaching situations can create destructive situations. I have been a student in, have taught and have observed many situations in which a class has turned on an instructor. Usually, it begins with some legitimate grievance, but an outspoken ringleader or a group process leads the class to become collectively hostile and makes it essentially impossible for the instructor to recover the goodwill of the class. I’ve alienated classes by rolling my eyes at a student’s question or giving one exasperated response or berating students for not remembering last semester’s statistics concepts. My freshman Western Civilization class in college was all drawn from the same dorm and turned on the instructor, in part because he could not tell the two black women apart. Once the dynamic sets in, the instructor can feel the negative affect of the students and can’t help but react, and the entire situation spirals downward. These are horrible experiences to live through as an instructor. If you are untenured, it can be terrifying, because you worry you will lose your job.

Ideally, you avoid getting into the situation in the first place. You work on impression management early in the term, seeking to convey competent authority and caring about students, especially if you are not a white man who can be automatically presumed competent and isn’t required to care about students. It is important to train yourself to respond calmly to criticism and even implied or overt insults. As necessary, practice nondefensive assertiveness. Provide channels of communication for students to tell you early if they are aggrieved. If you said something that got people very angry, a contrite apology early on is much more likely to calm things down than digging in your heels. Most students complaining about a specific incident or concern respond well if their concerns are listened to respectfully, even if you don’t do much to respond otherwise.

If you realize you have a hostile student on your hands and your initial attempts to communicate don’t seem to work, ask for outside assistance from a chair or colleague or a dean. I have done this myself on several occasions, and it helped. Once I told my chair that a student was writing increasingly hostile comments. She called him in, told him that I thought he seemed unhappy with the class and listened to his complaints. That was enough to calm him down. He still didn’t like the class, but his hostility declined. Our student services office has helped often with disruptive students.

The goal is to try to notice problems early and deal with them before they become worse. I do understand that some organizations are toxic and will blame rather than help, so I suggest talking to people before you need them to find out who seems to understand that every classroom instructor sometimes needs advice or intervention. For their part, administrators hearing student complaints should also adopt a problem-solving rather than blaming approach.

But sometimes the whole semester has gone bad, and you can’t do anything to retrieve it. Then it is important to treat it like one giant criticism. Give yourself time to calm down. Try to reflect on what happened and notice whether you could have responded differently at certain points. Did structural issues make the class problematic (e.g., a required class that students are not prepared for)? Are there things you can do to affect the structure? Can you make changes in your presentation of self that can help the problem without diminishing your sense of self? Can you talk to people to get more information about what went wrong to look for ways to improve? Or can you give yourself permission to let it go and prepare for a better semester the next time?

And for everybody else, when a colleague’s class has gone bad, can you respond constructively? Choosing sides and blaming either the instructor or the students are generally not constructive responses. Instead help look for root causes. Was it a one-time occurrence for a usually good teacher? Can specific things be fixed? Does everybody who teaches this class have problems? Why? Were race or gender issues in the mix? What can colleagues and the broader community do to help the instructor feel better, and do better, the next time? What can you do to respond to students’ underlying concerns that fed into the rebellion?

Destructive criticism is real. As much as possible, it seems best to treat it as a collective problem to be dealt with by improved communication and problem solving. Everyone should take personal responsibility for noticing possible destructive situations and seeking to remediate or neutralize them. People whose behavior seems problematic should be helped and encouraged if they are willing to change. At the same time, we should always be attentive to how the larger structures of power and privilege, those that affect who is more likely to get criticized, impact each situation.


Pamela Oliver is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This article is based on an essay available on SocArXiv.


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