Courtney Spence on How to Teach College Students to Take Criticism

In Chapter 15 of 16 in her 2011 Capture Your Flag interview, non-profit founder and executive Courtney Spence answers "How do you teach your students to embrace feedback without taking it personally?" Spence shares what she has learned about teaching creative college students how not to take criticism and feedback personally. She teaches students to embrace feedback by grounding the work in its fundamental and positive purpose, complementing it with a continuous improvement mindset built on giving back by making art. Spence is founder and executive director of Students of the World, a non-profit that partners with passionate college students to create new media to highlight global issues and the organizations working to address them. Spence graduated with a BA in History from Duke University.


Erik Michielsen:  How do you teach your students to embrace feedback without taking it personally?

Courtney Spence:  I think there’s always a challenge of – in any job that you do is taking criticism and feedback without taking it personally, especially if you work at a company or the way that you personally work is to take things personally, is to be emotionally invested in the work that you’re doing.  So, you know, that’s something that I still struggle with myself but that is certainly, you know, as we work with young, creative talent, young, you know, college students that, you know, are used to producing work for a grade or producing it for, you know, creativity for creativity’s sake, there is sort of a process that we have to go through with them, and not all of them. 

Some of them understand it, but some of them don’t, and it is ‘how do you take feedback and criticism on the work that you have done, the artistic work that you have created, and take that feedback, and then refine it to make something better?’  And I think what we always start with is the end goal, so we’re there to give back through media.  Some people build houses, some people teach English, some people provide, you know, aid and service. Our service is through storytelling, it’s through media, and if it’s not the best story it can be if it’s not accurately reflecting the organizations and the individuals that were on the ground, then we’re not doing our job.  And it’s really easy for people to get stuck back in to ‘but it would be so much more cool if we could do this’, or, you know, really getting into the creative element, but you always have to go back to that fundamental question, that fundamental purpose, and that is we are here to make a difference, to make a positive difference through our work, and through really focusing on the positive aspects of things that are going on in this world. 

So if you aren’t interested in telling stories of progress and if you’re more investigative, wanting to uncover what, you know, all the bad in the world, this organization isn’t for you.  And so, what I think we have done through our application process has really found students that do believe in the mission of giving back through art.  And so when we do get, you know, feedback or criticism of the work as we’re going through reviews, you know, we always kind of huddle together, and it’s like okay, listen, we’re here to make these stories to help make a difference for this organization to help them fundraise and they have to play an active role in how those stories shape up.  So it’s just trying to level it up to, you know, what is our greater purpose, and I think that has worked pretty effectively for students to understand okay, this is how – not only this is how the real world works but this is how I can contribute in the most effective way at this organization.