When I taught my first undergraduate poetry workshop a few years ago, I was thrilled about the opportunity to foster creative writing. I expected to be excited about my students work and about my own work and to daily emulate my favorite professors. And it was all that.
I didn't expect to learn how to be more compassionate and considerate.
No, I'm not saying that all people should be treated like undergraduate writers nor am I saying that all workshops should conduct themselves in a considerate fashion at all times. Even deserving criticism is criticism. (And yes, I learned more on the day Morri Creech ripped up my workshop poem than I did on any other day that year, but that was graduate school.)
The point I am trying to make is that undergraduates have a lot of feelings and from leading poetry workshops, I have learned a few things about being considerate of a lot of feelings.
1. Remember that someone has worked very hard (maybe even sacrificed something for) whatever you're critiquing. This is actually when it's the hardest for me to accept criticism: when I've worked really hard on something and it hasn't turned out as well as I'd hoped. It's obviously good to be conscious of that feeling in others.
2. Eye contact should be given and received, and avoided, with genuine intention. During workshop, and even class discussion, I try to make eye contact with all of my students (those speaking and listening) so that they are equally privileged as both and communicating to each other as well as with me. I've found that giving direct criticism during office hours requires eye contact, but sometimes, in workshop settings, it's easier to "ignore" the writer so that they can observe how their work is discussed. Either way, be aware of what your eyes are doing.
3. Tone of voice can be easily misinterpreted. I'm Italian so this is one of my own faults; I tend to yell. I have a student who has a brash voice this semester so I'm reminded to keep my tone controlled. As a woman, this doesn't mean using my baby-voice, but it also means avoiding a bossy-tone.
4. Never ask for feedback on something that you can't hear feedback on. You shouldn't do this in workshop or to your partner. Hello. If you're feeling fat, don't ask if you look fat. Clearly, this is a hard on to learn. So keep reminding yourself; I do!
5. Don't dwell. This is really hard to control when there's a group of people who all want to reiterate their own opinions, but hearing that the grammar needs to be corrected once is fine; after hearing that you wrote "rains" instead of "reigns" five times, you start to doubt your ability to read, much less write. Nit-picky comments need to be kept to a minimum or (as I like to do in undergraduate workshops) kept to written comments. Don't beat a dead horse; the horse won't die again, but that's usually when feelings start to hurt.
And, as is true for workshop and life, if you can't point out the asshole in the room, make sure it isn't you.