This sentiment was said to me twice regarding my first assignment for my workshop class. I decided to make a comic deconstructing the Dirty Harry/Judge Dredd type of protagonist in Hollywood action movies and ’90s superhero comics: violent, brutal enforcers of authoritarianism and fascism masquerading as relatable anti-heroes. I was trying to critique the manipulation of sympathy in these stories by way of revealing these characters to be the kind of unsavory maniacs they would be in real life.
The first time, it was said by my professor who utterly failed to understand what my story was doing. But I admit that my execution fell short in the first draft and she was trying to be encouraging, after a fashion. It was a backhanded compliment, but still a compliment, so I took it in stride.
I heard this phrase again after a round of revisions, but from one of my classmates. This time, it was less compliment and more backhand. He didn’t like reading a story with such a cynical tone and unsympathetic protagonist, saying “this isn’t the part of your personality I find dope about you!. I think you can offer more as an author!”
Looking back, this assignment was a portent for all the problems that followed in my workshop course, and then some. I bring it up not to complain or be petty, but show to anyone reading this what makes a workshop, or any sort of artistic criticism, ineffective.
Critiquing a work not by understanding the author’s intentions and how well it’s executed along those lines, but by reducing it to what you liked or disliked. Dismissing the author’s intentions in favor of imposing your own particular tastes, preferences, or artistic agenda. Lack of interest in questioning or expanding said tastes, preferences, and agenda.
Reacting instead of responding. The former is emotional, usually overly so. The later is emotion tempered by critical thought.
Marked aversion to stories that are nuanced, unconventional, or otherwise ask the reader to make even the slightest bit of reading beyond the surface.
Critiquing the work, not the person. Yes, even this basic principle of respect was missing from this course. Obviously, part of the critique process is not taking it personally, but there were comments made that were so pointed, it was impossible not to take it personally.
I was a creative writing major in undergrad, so none of these issues were new to me. Anyone who’s been through the trenches always gets their share of unhelpful critiques or obtuse readers. It’s vexing, no doubt about it. But it comes with the territory, so you learn to roll with it.
But when the teacher also possesses all these shortcomings? That, I did not expect.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been “spoiled” by having good writing professors in undergrad, but I’ve come to expect my teachers to have some level of self-cognizance of their own bias and inclinations, and to have an implicit willingness to learn new ideas alongside their students. Call me idealistic, but I don’t think these are unreasonable things to ask for from any teacher.
Unfortunately, my workshop teacher turned out to be the textbook example of “unreasonable.” I’m not going to get into the tawdry details, only to say that my teacher made the workshop process feel more like a drumhead trial; our offenses, such as they are, being that our comics didn’t align with her particular sensibilities or worldview.
Further compounding the frustration was another rude awakening. In undergrad, I felt secure in that fact that if I had a problem with a professor, I could at least talk to them directly because all other things aside, the worst an undergrad professor could do was fail me, which a.) isn’t really that dire of a consequence in the scheme of things, and b.) even then, there are institutional safeguards to address something like that.
But in grad school, now everything carries real professional ramifications, and therein lies the rub. What’s there to stop a petty or egotistic teacher mistaking a student earnestly asking for help as some kind of disrespectful challenge to their authority, from badmouthing you to agents, publishers, or other important figures in your chosen field? What possible safety exists for any grad program do to protect a student from that kind of reprisal?
I don’t know. No other grad student I’ve talked to seems to know. And that’s what worries me.
[Photo Credit: Mraz Center for the Performing Arts]