The Gift of Candid Feedback: 5 Suggestions to Get Beyond Grades

In 2019, when I heard about the retirement of Maurice Géracht, one of my college professors, I was inspired to write a letter to his final Composition classes. Pr. Géracht had a profound impact on me because he and Pr. Steve Vineberg, also from the College of the Holy Cross, were the first people who had the courage to offer candid feedback about my writing—something I did not come close to appreciating at the time. What follows is the letter I wished I could have read as a college freshman.

To the students of Pr. Maurice Géracht:

As clearly as if it were earlier this week, I can picture the warm Monday morning my confident, yet strangely nervous self, walked from Kimball Dining Hall up the stairs toward Fenwick for the very first class of my college career—Pr. Geracht’s 8am Composition course. I had every reason to be optimistic. With little to moderate effort, I had always been able to earn high marks in most any subject. The only exception was Latin. That was one of the few non-math classes in which my writing ability was powerless to compensate for my occasional lack of study or commitment.

When I walked into Pr. Géracht’s class for the first time, a part of me thought, “This is fantastic. At least I’ll have one easy ‘A’ this semester.”

That was my first mistake.

If I can encourage even one of you to stay present and cherish the moments it took me over 15 years to fully appreciate, this will have been worth the effort. With this in mind, I offer five suggestions to help you get the most out of this class along with the evidence that what you learn will make a difference well beyond this campus. Indeed, Pr. Maurice Géracht and Pr. Steve Vineberg (Theater Department) did more to improve my writing than all of the other professors and editors in my life combined.

  1. The more honest and vulnerable you are, the more people will respond to your writing.
  2. Be specific. Include details and evidence.

These first two points are closely related. Like many novice writers, I relied heavily on broad generalizations without ever giving readers a reason to connect or care. Years after my final grade in Composition class, I went back and reread my first paper. Only then did I finally understand what Pr. Géracht meant about the need to be more specific. Writing requires intimacy, not platitudes.

I mistakenly thought I was being vulnerable and open by writing my first paper about my best friend, Charlie, who had taken his life less than three months earlier—two short weeks after we graduated from high school. When that paper earned a “B-“, I felt angry and misunderstood. I’m sure I thought I was open to coaching, but the truth is, I wasn’t. I was too busy making my own rules. Pr. Géracht was the first person to care enough to seriously critique my writing. Since no one had ever done that, I arrogantly and unfairly concluded he was unreasonable and difficult to please.

When I reread that first paper years later, I was embarrassed to discover I had spoken in glowing terms about what a great friend Charlie had been without ever sharing a single anecdote that might make someone think, “Wow, I’d love to have a friend like that.”

Without genuine feeling and evidence, my paper had the warmth and charm of a parking ticket. Pr. Géracht was right all along. If anything, he was too easy on me.

  1. Writing is not a competitive sport.

When you sit less than two feet from your classmates, it’s almost impossible to avoid the inevitable comparisons that occur when you happen to notice their grades. If you do this, don’t make it mean anything. Any comparison you make is unfair to your classmates, to Pr. Géracht, and most of all, to you.

Since I am the guilty party in this case, I’ll explain. The most frustrating and painful memory I have from Composition class was entirely my own creation. One October morning, I found myself quietly cringing as I listened to the essay of a classmate who had a particular penchant for butchering and torturing the English language. Had I not been so judgmental and competitive, it might have occurred to me to be compassionate—especially since she had written her paper about a musician we both admired. Rather than properly channeling my energy to the business of practicing my own craft, I am embarrassed to say I spent several of the days and nights that followed complaining to friends and family about feeling slighted for what I perceived as a miscarriage of justice. What made me so mad? Her efforts received a “C+”, a grade that in my petty mind was only 5-7 points on a 100-point scale from the “B-” I earned.

Please don’t do this.

Comparing yourself to others is not healthy, helpful, or fair. It’s also obnoxiously self-centered, arrogant, and disrespectful.

Although I made no effort to do so at the time, reflecting on the situation now I can easily imagine more than a few legitimate reasons Pr. Géracht awarded my classmate the grade he did—and not one of those has anything to do with comparing her to anyone else. To put this another way, the only meaningful comparative measure is where you stand relative to your own potential. That’s what your grade is. Nothing else.

  1. Unless you are applying to a graduate school that requires perfect marks, no one will EVER ask your grade in this class.

If I happen to be interviewing you, I will ask what you have learned, but I won’t ask what grades you received. If your final grade is anything less than an “A”, it doesn’t mean you lack the potential to be a great writer; it means you have more work to do.

  1. Stay open. Be coachable. Relish the challenge. Enjoy the experience.

One of the great gifts in my life was learning from Pr. Géracht. If I had it to do over, I would soak up every moment of his coaching and ask for more. You would be wise to do the same. Once you fully grasp the value of his insight, you will feel cheated in other classes when you get high marks on papers that come back without a single comment. This should never happen, but it does.

At the beginning, I promised evidence that Pr. Géracht’s coaching makes a difference. Although I don’t recall my final grade—largely because it doesn’t matter—I can say with 100% certainty it wasn’t an A and probably wasn’t a B+ either. What matters is how it changed my life.

Mindful of the lessons I learned from Pr. Géracht and Pr. Vineberg, a few years after graduation, I set about writing a book on job search called Getting Your Foot in the Door When You Don’t Have a Leg to Stand On. During the editing process, NTC Contemporary/McGraw-Hill, the publishing company, had three different professional editors pour through the manuscript, each with a different focus. Denise, the primary editor, frequently shared ideas about content and structure as we worked toward publication. The more time passed, the more concerned I became about the fact that our conversations never moved beyond broad topics and chapter placement. After a few weeks, I worked up the courage to pick up the phone and initiate the conversation I feared most:

“So, Denise, when are the big changes coming?”

Denise replied, “What big changes?”

“The BIG changes. The edits.”

More confused than ever, Denise said, “I have no idea what you are talking about. What big edits?”

“Well,” I replied, “When people heard that McGraw-Hill bought the rights to my book, a few published authors told me to brace myself for a finished product that would look almost nothing like the original draft. Their exact words were, ‘Check your ego at the door. Writing a book can be a humbling experience.’”

At that moment, Denise burst out laughing. “Yes, Rob, that often happens, but you are already a fantastic writer so we didn’t need to do that.”

Before I submitted the book to McGraw-Hill, I used to the coaching and inspiration I received from Pr. Géracht and Pr. Vineberg to rewrite the book four of five times on my own. From a content standpoint, the published version is a 98% match with my last draft. That was the moment I finally earned the right to acknowledge myself as a better-than-average writer. For this, I have the man standing in front of you today to thank.

Make the most of this phenomenal experience. If you don’t feel like doing it for yourself, do it for the students who follow you because they won’t have the benefit of Pr. Géracht’s wisdom, insight, coaching, and brilliance. Pr. Géracht is far too humble to tell you he’s brilliant, so I will.

Above all, have fun!

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