I recently received a draft of one of my dissertation chapters back from my advisor. As always, he provided copious comments -- advice on improving the coherence of my argument, smoothing out some ungainly syntax, and choosing more appropriate words. My advisor is scrupulous, perhaps excessively so. I have learned a great deal about how to think and write from his comments.
But my advisor is also a tough reader, and I find that after all these years of being a student I am still learning how to take criticism. To wit: in my recent draft, written in bold, red ink is one word that succinctly represents what he thinks of the passage -- “drivel.” I quickly forgot all of the good things he had said about my argument as I focused on this one word, brutally penned in the margin. My incisive points, my elegantly constructed sentences, all reduced to a one-word judgment.
I knew that drivel meant nonsense, but shame prompted me to consult a dictionary. I learned that its meaning was a metaphorical extension of its more literal definition: to let saliva dribble from the mouth. Nothing more vividly represents brazen stupidity than the image of someone drooling. There is something intrinsically repulsive about the act of drooling and as I thought about how that metaphor might apply to my writing, I literally gave a small shudder. Ouch! Was my prose the equivalent of drivel? Analogous to an unconscious trickle of spit?
Yes. My advisor was right. What I had written was drivel. The passage didn’t meaningfully contribute to the argument. In fact, it didn’t seem to be saying much of anything. When I looked at the passage more closely, I saw that it was largely comprised of a loosely stitched together sequence of conventional phrases: “it is the fact that,” “of course,” “indeed, he goes on to argue,” and “on the one hand,” “on the other hand.” It was the utter conventionality of the writing that made it drivel. The passage represented writing on auto-pilot, requiring little to no consciousness on my part. I might as well have been slobbering onto the page. Somewhere behind all the nonsense, I had an idea, but what it was I could not say. Responding to the simple, severe remark felt something like going through the stages of grief. I moved from denial (“surely it’s not that bad”) through anger (“what nerve!”) and toward acceptance (“yup, it’s bad”).
I thought about this experience in the context of my own work. I teach writing and literature at Salt Lake Community College, and every semester I comment on student papers. I identify flaws in their reasoning, give advice on style and punctuation, and even point out when they’ve made an original point or turned a neat phrase. I have never written the word drivel in the margin of one of my student’s papers, but I have been tempted to do so on more than one occasion. I believe almost every writing teacher has felt the impulse to heap ferocious criticism on students. Those who haven’t are far more saintly than I.
I suppose after I achieved acceptance came a feeling of admiration. By God, I wish I had the guts to write the word drivel in the margin of a student paper! Of course, I don’t include these temptations in the class of my finer instincts. The temptation is more on par, I think, with the cheap thrill I get when an action-hero utters a powerful one-liner. Sometimes I just want to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of writing teachers. But I am not Arnold, nor was meant to be.
The experience prompted me to entertain some more serious lessons about how my experience as a graduate student may translate into my work as a teacher. As a teacher of writing, it’s good to be put in the position of student writer, to experience all of the fear, anxiety, and hopefulness that goes into producing a piece of writing that will be judged by an authority figure. It is both humbling and instructive to be told that you are wanting, that what you’ve produced isn’t up to par. Being both a student and a teacher has made me more sympathetic to my students. I know what it feels like to be criticized and I am more likely to consider the consequences of harsh feedback. In other words, it’s a way of inoculating myself against my adolescent, writing-teacher-as-action-hero fantasies. My experience speaks to the benefit of occasionally subjecting ourselves to the rituals of performance and assessment that we ask our students to perform. We do this, of course, with conferences and papers. Becoming an active participant in disciplinary conversations not only helps me build on my knowledge in the field, it makes me feel like a student all over again.
Yet I am reminded that criticism is a form of praise. My advisor cares enough to call my writing drivel when he sees it, not because he thinks I’m stupid but rather because he believes I am capable of producing something better than drivel. I did not ultimately wilt at the word. I do not believe that I possess a special inner strength that makes me uniquely capable of withstanding severe criticism. Perhaps, then, we are not harsh enough with our students, that in our well-meaning effort to encourage them we end by being less than honest with them.
But maybe there are no life lessons to be drawn from drivel. Drivel is irredeemable. One can’t turn around and reclaim drivel. Never, we can hope, will there be an endowed chair of Drivel Studies. And I don’t believe that drivel is one of those terms that one can, with a bit of vernacular judo, turn on its head. Can I imagine my son saying in his teenage years, “That’s so drivel! It’s wicked drivel!”
There is finally no way around drivel. I find that I am refreshed by the honesty of the term. It reminds me of the uncomfortable fact that my interaction with students will always be structured around criticism, though we sometimes attempt to disguise this basic fact. I think students sometimes understand this better than we do.
Jason Pickavance is an assistant professor of English at Salt Lake Community College and a graduate student in American studies at the University of Utah. Despite his occasional lapses into drivel, he plans on defending his dissertation this year.