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Writing in tribute: Don’t wait for the eulogy!

Recently I received some professional praise and recognition. One was in public,  the TAA Mike Keedy Award and the other was in private, a few sentences in an other-wise business-as-usual email. At first, I felt simply flattered. How nice! But as I reflected on the comments, I realized they were more than just sweet talk. The remarks confirmed that I am making progress toward accomplishing what I have set out to do at this point in my career. They helped me confirm priorities and set steps for continued improvement. In the digital age, we can write, post, and give webinars. We can read site analytics, but we can’t read the audience. Are they paying attention or are eyelids drooping? Are they reading or just scrolling? In absence of visual cues, it helped me to hear that my messages are getting through.

This experience made me think: how can we do a better job of celebrating each other? In this era when the public discourse has become coarse, how can we be kind, generous, and supportive of others in the field? How can we build the confidence of courageous individuals whose work breaks new ground or takes place behind closed doors? How can we press colleagues or students to persist after disappointment or failure?

Writers and academics are accustomed to peer review, and the important role of critical and constructive feedback. Critical review is an inherent part of the work life of a professor or committee member, editor or peer reviewer. Typically, we evaluate others’ writing using a set of criteria or a rubric, to make sure specific elements in the writing align with the institution’s or publication’s guidelines. We are not accustomed to giving appreciative feedback, with wider consideration of unique characteristics of the author, social contexts, or potential implications of the work that might extend beyond the present circumstances.

How can we pay tribute to others who have inspired, motivated, or supported us in some way? Tribute, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an act, statement, or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect, or admiration.” Here are a few ideas, and I hope you will share your own examples!

  • Be specific. While I am happy when someone says “loved your book!”, such comments don’t help me. Better to say something like, “I tried the recommendation you made about X in chapter 5, and this happened!” If you have suggestions, state those too, for example: “I tried therecommendation you made about X in chapter 5. A downloadable template would be really helpful!”
  • Convey personal, 1-1 messages. A simple thank you! can mean a lot at a critical moment. However, try to beyond a simple “atta boy” or “you go girl!” Describe the impact the person or their work had on you, how you changed as a result, and why it matters to you. An email might work, but if you want to catch someone’s attention, get out a pen and write a note.
  • Applaud good work in public messages. Point toprofessional contributions made to the field, or to improvements to practice. Share links on social media with personal note about why the source is of value to you.
  • Spread the love around.If you are involved with a blog, newsletter, or other professional publication, create regular features that applaud work of those who aren’t recognizable superstars. Introduce new researchers, writers publishing for the first time, who may otherwise lack a following. Bring attention to writers from other disciplines or cultures. Highlight books or articles that may have been missed in our information-overload world.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that we gloss over weaknesses, or methodological or ethical shortcomings. When we take on the responsibility associated with scrutinizing others’ work, it is our job to turn over every rock. What I am suggesting is that criticism should not be the only type of feedback we give.

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.