The Best Worst Feedback You’ve Received from a Teacher


As we saw in the discussion of last week’s post about Harry Frankfurt’s recollections of Max Black, some of you recall hard-ass professors you had as being among your most effective teachers and you think of them with appreciation and fondness—and some of you, not so much. Despite this difference, one thing seems to be certain: many of you have been poked with the pointy end of some professor’s pointed remark.

[photo by J. Weinberg]

Noticing this, John Doris wrote in with a suggested topic for discussion: examples of the best of the “worst” feedback you’ve received from teachers when you were a student.

What we’re looking for is the most outrageous or harsh or funny or insulting or rude or clever-at-your-expense or ridiculous or devastating or infuriating remarks teachers made to you in response to your written work, participation in class, comment in office hours, question at a talk, overall performance as a student, etc.

Let’s hear them. And if you feel like sharing whether they were helpful, hurtful, both, neither, or something else, you’re welcome to.

 

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Matt L
8 months ago

In grad school, on a seminar paper writen for a professor who was notorious for very high standards, both for himself and for students, I was told (something like), “This was very nicely writen. So nicely written, in fact, that I almost thought the argument worked.” It made me smile, but has encouraged me to try to make sure I am not hiding less than happy arguments under nice writing.

Matyas M.
8 months ago

“You are using highly controversial premises to argue for a trivial conclusion.” (funny, helpful, and accurately captured what I was doing in the paper)

FormerPhDStudent
8 months ago

Almost every time, my phd supervisor would end our meetings with “Your accent is improving.”

(I think it was meant to be a nice thing to say?)

Matt L
Reply to  FormerPhDStudent
8 months ago

I doubt I’d be brave enough, but in those cases what I’d like to do is pat the person on the back, smile, laugh a bit, and say, “Yours too! Yours too! Keep working!”

Keli Birchfield
8 months ago

The graduate head off my philosophy MA program told me it was a waste of my time and money to be there and a waste of the faculty’s time for me to be there, even though I had an A in her husband’s class (comment in my paper for him was “strong discussion!”). I complained to the head of the department. Her response: “Oh, this has been one big cultural misunderstanding. You’re Southern and worked at the Cracker Barrel. She’s basically a European princess. You misunderstood what she meant.” 😳

Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

Not sure if it counts but…

I gave up on walking home from the pub one night during my last year of undergrad and passed out on a couch in a university building instead. This was at Gonzaga University. One of the Jesuit professors I knew found me there in the morning and said to me “Shay, I’d say you’re bad example, but I know that nobody looks up to you.” He then wandered off.

Paired with the hangover, I kinda just wanted to die.

JDF
JDF
8 months ago

Chris Korsgaard encouraged me to submit an essay for publication with the line “I don’t think you’ll be embarrassed by it in five years”. It’s been five years, and she was mostly right.

On the Market
8 months ago

My advisor wrote in the margins of my notes “SHIT!” and then in small handwriting “I didn’t think of that!”

It was a compliment, but my heart might have skipped a beat on first glance.

She had a very stream of consciousness way of making margin notes. Very useful for anticipating referee objections.

Moti Gorin
8 months ago

At my proposal defense a professor recapitulated my central argument, asked me if his summary was accurate, and when I said it was accurate he replied, “but that’s preposterous.” He was right. I reworked it.

When I was a MA student a professor once commented on one of my term papers that whenever I was getting to the core of some objection I was raising I tended to “lapse into metaphor.” Very helpful criticism at that early stage in my career, and since it wasn’t a continental department I knew it wasn’t a compliment.

Timothy Sommers
8 months ago

Derek Parfit wrote this on my final paper.
“If you expect to remain in philosophy, you are going to have to learn to write in a very different way.”

Catherine Womack
Catherine Womack
Reply to  Timothy Sommers
8 months ago

Yeah, I got that from Dick Cartwright during a first year proseminar after I offered an analysis of a Tarsky quote. He said, “You’re going to have to learn to talk the way we do if you want to be in our club.” 40 years later, I’m still here.

William
8 months ago

As an undergrad, I took a course on myth, religion, and literature. We were reading about Gawain and the Green Night. Out of the blue, the professor pointed to me and asked a question. I blurted something out. He replied, “You don’t know *shit* about the Bible.”

Later, one of my undergrad profs encouraged me to apply to one more grad program, at the last minute, so I sent a writing sample to one of the profs there. After he received it, we spoke on the phone. He told me, “This paper is all wrong, but you’re exactly the kind of student we want here.”

Fellow Hermeneut
Fellow Hermeneut
8 months ago

The most constructive criticism I received when I was still a smug graduate student was a simple corrective written in the margins of my first paper for the first assignment of my first graduate class.

“Learn to be charitable!!!”

The comment stung at the time, but it has served me so well. I have since tried to follow her advice by summarizing my interlocutor’s perspective/position as charitably as possible before adding anything even remotely critical.

Aaron
8 months ago

A professor whose approval I craved responded to one of my papers through a third party, “well he knows a lot of dates…”

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
8 months ago

No harsh criticisms to report but a couple of mortifying experiences.
1) As a postgrad I developed a critique of Kripke’s modal argument for the senselessness of names by inventing an embryonic actuality operator. I was promptly told that I had been anticipated by by Crossley and Humberstone.
2) A bit later I delivered a critique of Plantinga style ontological arguments by using an embryonic version of S4 Semantics. Again I was told that this was was old hat.
Nowadays when I have a good idea I do at least a preliminary check to make sure that I have not been anticipated.

Cecil Burrow
Reply to  Charles Pigden
8 months ago

There is definitely nothing wrong with a graduate student unknowingly re-inventing the wheel in a term paper. I would never criticize a graduate student for re-inventing good work, though I would direct them towards it, and invite them to do a compare-and-contrast.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Cecil Burrow
8 months ago

It wasn’t a term paper (I did a thesis-only PhD on a different topic) but something I was working on off my own bat. And people were very nice about it. They just let me know when I was discussing my ideas over morning tea, that I had been anticipated. (I got a very extensive philosophical education as a graduate student by hanging around in the departmental common-room at La Trobe and chatting to staff). I can’t even remember now who it was that set me straight, though it may have been Robert Farrell or John Bigelow. So Cecil (If I may) thanks for the sympathy but I really don’t deserve it. I have nothing but praise and thanks towards the la Trobe philosophers who educated me/helped me to educate myself all those years ago.

FomerColumbiaPhD
8 months ago

Christopher Peacocke once returned feedback on a paper I had turned in a year prior – after quite a few email reminders. He first said, “You turned this in quite late didn’t you?” (I hadn’t) “I don’t know why you’re interested in Bayesian epistemology. That field is going to be gone in 10 years.” That was the end of the feedback.

Cecil Burrow
Reply to  FomerColumbiaPhD
8 months ago

Was that more than 10 years ago? If so, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Cecil Burrow
8 months ago

He could’ve said 2 years.

Cecil Burrow
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
8 months ago

Then he would have been even more badly wrong.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  FomerColumbiaPhD
8 months ago

I hope he did not criticise you writing style. That from him would have taken real chutzpah.

noah
8 months ago

things i have been told by philosophy professors:

  1. People like you shouldn’t be philosophers.
  2. You’re not clever enough to have written this.
  3. You are a psychoneural freak.
  4. You’re really weird. I’m weird, but you’re really weird.
Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  noah
8 months ago

I had my work called “weird” in grad school. I hope my work is till weird, despite the fact that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.

another grad
another grad
Reply to  noah
8 months ago

Jesus Christ what’s your research like?

Kav
Kav
8 months ago

“Oh! You need rare and beautiful thing – you need an *argument*”

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
8 months ago

”You have just committed genocide against populations of straw people.” [name withheld to protect the guilty]

Doris
8 months ago

Undergraduate instructor on a paper:

“You do not address, or even seem to see, the main issue.”

Graduate instructor, on my “character skepticism” (which became my first book):

“I don’t know what you could say to convince me of this.”

Graduate instructor on my qualifying field exam in the history of philosophy:

“Once in a while we get a really impressive paper; yours wasn’t it.”

I seem to remember a lot more zingers than positive comments; I don’t know if this represents the actual distribution, or a sampling error.

But there was this on a short coursework assignment, from my dissertation director, Allan Gibbard:

“As you move towards writing publishable papers, you will need to increase the density, or quality per page. This is a matter of art, about which I don’t have anything useful to say.”

I repeat that one to my own students.

Laura
8 months ago

The most famous philosopher I ever took a graduate course with wrote this on my term paper: “you are the victim of similitudes”. It was both good and true advice; I was ashamed but couldn’t help finding it hilarious.

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
8 months ago

When I was a graduate student, I wrote a thirty-three page literature review. My (then) supervisor wrote, “After the first ten pages, I just lost interest, so I didn’t read anymore. A”.

At that point, I changed supervisors.

My dissertation advisor, Steve Darwall, told me, “you’re not a creative philosopher, but you’re a good interpreter.”

I was thrilled! I didn’t really notice the first part of the remark until I conveyed to my friends, who pointed it out to me. Later on, I privately thought to myself, “I’ll show him!” and I started writing non-interpretive, creative philosophy.

I think I did show him, because, although he was right that I really wasn’t a creative philosopher, he was wrong that I was a good interpreter.

Sebastian Zoetesuikers
8 months ago

I was told my paper was “quaintly aspirational”. I asked what that meant, and was told, to “look it up in the dictionary.”

Philoscopy
8 months ago

I had a philosophy professor who habitually laughed in her students’ faces. I had another philosophy professor who took it upon himself to tell me that he laughed while reading my CV. This behavior may not be clever, funny, or devastating, given that it was unaccompanied by even the bluntest of articulate criticism, but it is certainly harsh, insulting, and rude. Then again, if I didn’t want to have to deal with that sort of thing, I would have avoided academic philosophy altogether. Whatever else might be said for or against them, professors from other humanities disciplines (comparative literature, English, history, etc.) are, as a general rule, consistently warmer and kinder than philosophy professors. This isn’t to say that I haven’t had lovely philosophy professors as well — I have. The point is that I haven’t met a single professor from any other humanities discipline who would relish putting down their students for the sheer fun of it, yet I’ve encountered two in philosophy alone. Not to mention that this charming pair are just the most flagrant offenders from undergrad. (I also limit myself here to examples which lack even the barest semblance of constructive criticism. Gratuitous cruelty is seldom so blatant.)

Graham Harman
8 months ago

It might not have been rude enough to make this list, but I found it very helpful. From an undergraduate music teacher: “Always delete your opening paragraph, especially if you’re proud of it.” It was great writing advice for a 19-year-old.

Gorm
Reply to  Graham Harman
8 months ago

This is quite common advice to would-be writers. A friend of mine was talking a fiction writing workshop and the leader of the workshop said they should discard the first chapter of their book manuscripts. The general point is that we often do not know how to begin a narrative, etc. Think: “Since the dawn of man people have been thinking about self-driving cars …

Asian Bayesian
8 months ago

On a term paper in grad school: “is there any argument for this near-incomprehensible view???” (Yes, there were multiple question marks.)

Matthew J Brown
8 months ago

When I was in graduate school, near the end of the academic year, all of the faculty would get together and review all of the 1st and 2nd year students (after that it was up to the student’s committee to evaluate their progress). This would be written up into a report by the DGS. Both my first and second year reports, after some praise for my ability, said some version of:

He has an unfortunate tendency towards heterodoxy for heterodoxy’s sake.

Now, while one of the things that attracted me (still attracts me) to philosophy is the creative play of ideas, I always felt that this was both hurtful and untrue. My attraction to heterodox ideas was not in virtue of their heterodoxy, but in service of seeking the truth! I always found the attempts to enforce orthodoxy to be the more corrosive attitude in that respect. It was not a particularly educative experience to be belittled in seminar because my intuitions were not what Kripke wrote that they ought to be. Better to explore a wider range of ideas and by comparison better understand even the more familiar ones, it seemed to me then and still seems to me.

I was lucky in that I was too arrogant as a young man to be dissuaded by this criticism. I continued to pursue those ideas (heterodox though they may be) that seemed right to me, found faculty advisors who would encourage and support me (who themselves were not exactly on the side of orthodoxy), and have made a reasonably successful career out of it. (I think/hope I lost the arrogance along the way, after I no longer needed it to protect me.)