Giving, and Taking Time

It’s been a while since I read Bourdieu’s critique of Mauss’s theory of gift giving. As I recall, Mauss reduced gift-giving to an economic transaction–receiving a gift obligates you to return one. Bourdieu pointed out that this forgets the role of time. If you give someone their gift back later the same day, you aren’t really giving them a gift. Rather, you are misunderstanding the institution. The whole point is to give them something else and at some other time. But both the difference and the deferral are not specified in some set of explicit rules. You work it out by feel. I’m probably butchering Bourdieu’s subtle notion here, but this “feel” for the institution of gift-giving is shaped by experience, what he calls “habitus”.

I was talking about this recently and realized that the notion of time plays a significant role in my understanding of “giving” feedback, or what might be called “the gift of feedback”. If someone spends weeks and weeks on a paper and asks you for feedback, and you look at the first page and grunt your disapproval, we can all agree that you haven’t really given them anything. (Even though you arguably gave them that tiny bit of your attention entirely for free.) But the same is true if you overdo it. If I spend a few hours on the weekend throwing together a draft introduction and you hold on to it for two weeks, finally identifying every error, tracking down every source, and completely destroying my argument, you also haven’t really understood what I was asking for. There has to be some proportion between my effort as a writer and your effort as a critic. Otherwise the feedback just doesn’t feel right.

This is why I always propose carefully measuring your effort and that of your reader. You spend 27 minutes writing a paragraph and you imagine your reader taking about 1 minute to read it. When you ask someone for feedback, you’re of course asking them to be a bit more than an ordinary reader, so let’s say 9 minutes per paragraph. You’re asking them to spend 1/3 of the time you spend writing something, perhaps reading it out loud, trying to identity the key sentence, and making some judgments about how well it all works. You can imagine this being done with a single paragraph, or a series of paragraphs, but the important thing is to imagine your reader/critic devoting a reasonable amount of time to the task, an amount that stands in some measurable proportion to the time you spent writing it…

…and to the time you will spend re-writing it. To receive the gift of feedback is to spend another three times as long as your reader writing the text again, one paragraph at a time. In any case, feedback is a gift. It takes time.

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