In-person critique more productive than written mudslinging

| Managing Editor

Take a look at the comments online under the first Student Life story about the winter tomato ban. You’ll find that it reads, “This is 100% unacceptable.” You’ll find that it reads, “It is not Bon Appétit’s place to make decisions like this. It is simply their job to provide us with food.” You’ll see, “This is simply a way for Bon Appetite to cut cost while keeping revenue constant.”

Then watch the Student Life video of student reactions to the tomato ban. You’ll hear, “It’s no big deal” and “I can do without tomatoes.” You’ll see, “I would like to have them, but I don’t mind not having them.”

Now, there are slightly more-heated opinions than that in the video, and there are much-more-measured comments under the online article. But I think there is a basic difference between the anonymity of online forums, and the medium of print in general, and the accountability that people find foisted upon them by the transparency of audiovisual recording: the tendency toward radical warmongering among written accounts, and the sensible, moderate consideration of issues among oral accounts.

There are two reasons, I think, for this disparity. The first is response bias. The kind of people who read an article and are moved to respond in an online comment probably feel more strongly about the issue addressed in the article than those who read it and move on, or than those who don’t read it at all. Video interviews have a higher chance of capturing the latter two types.

The second reason, to which I have already alluded, is the anonymity factor. I think anonymity is what allows those moved by certain articles to make the most shocking statements, things like “I think everyone involved needs to develop a thicker skin and just let it go” on the article about the Mothers bar incident. I imagine that it would be hard for that commenter to express him/herself directly in that way to the six students excluded from the bar.

This idea is not terribly new—that it’s the cowardly who shout most loudly from their keyboard, that those less opinionated are less likely to make themselves heard. But the disparity I am noting points to a trait that is prominent among, at least, Washington University students, but which is seldom conceptualized: We find it difficult to give valuable and constructive criticism in general, and we find it difficult to criticize at all people who are in the same room with us.

Have you been in a fiction writing class or another class where students workshop one another’s work? Such classes, teachers say, tend to be positively oriented, tend to shy away from what is wrong with each student’s story. “I really liked how x, y and z,” one might say, “but I was a little confused about the relationship between a and b.” When someone is just beginning their fiction writing career, the more valuable feedback might be, “I understand what this story is trying to do, which is x, but it does not do it, I think, because y and z.”

Now, face-to-face feedback is so valuable because it elicits this tendency to sugarcoat things; because you must take into account the intentions and thoughts of the human being whose work you are to critique, you moderate your own feedback in order to make it comprehensible to the person who has created the work. That value—the unavoidable, tangible, human presence of the object of critique—is exactly why we should learn to be better at delivering our evaluations, both positive and negative, of other people’s ideas and work. Because the person giving the critique must approach people critiqued on their own terms, discussion is likely to be quite a bit more productive, but only once we learn to formulate such critiques in the right way.

To take this a little further, I want to suggest that argument in the public sphere (in Student Life, The New York Times), which can be understood as a series of people critiquing each other’s ideas, would benefit immeasurably from the adoption of such a forum—but only if it were possible. If there were a way for people with different ideas to sit down in a room together and come up with a sensible understanding of the issue at hand, even if there are final disagreements in taste, we would all find ourselves more sensible people, for having such behavior as a model.

Unfortunately, I think the vapidity of argument in the public sphere is much more fundamental than the form it takes. It relies upon a collective ideological entrenchment that has itself developed into a matter of underlying values or, in other words, of taste itself.

When open minds meet, face to face, remarkable ideas can be produced. It is valuable that, at least, this can occur on a local level at Wash. U. We ought to practice such person-to-person critique more often.

Dennis is a senior in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at djsweene@artsci.wustl.edu.