How to ask for my feedback - J. Nathan Matias

jaune, rouge, bleu by Kandinsky

As an academic who collaborates with the public, with journalists, and with civil society, I am often asked for feedback on reports, ideas, and investigations. As a Guatemalan-American academic who studies diversity and cares about it, I also get asked for feedback and input on diversity initiatives. These are all things I care about, and I’m occasionally able to fit this into my schedule.

I recently realized that one reason I’ve struggled to offer feedback as well as I hope is that most people don’t take time to structure their requests. They send me a document or an email and ask for my thoughts without giving me guidance on how best I can help. As a result, I either never get around to it or it takes me several times longer than it should, as I play twenty questions with them or try to imagine what they wanted from me. I’ve also been in situations where I put in hours of work for someone who didn’t define their question, sent feedback, and left us both disappointed because they never explained (to themselves or me) what they wanted from me.

In future, I’m only going to take on requests for input that provide me with at least the same level of structure and respect they would provide to someone they were paying, or to a student in the classroom. I hope this guide helps you structure your requests more clearly.

How to ask for feedback

In an email, explain:

Up-front details:

  • Specifically what you want from me
  • How long you expect the task will take
  • What part of my expertise you think is especially relevant (see my CV for more details on my expertise)
  • Specifically what you DON’T need from me
  • What format you want the feedback in (inline comments, an email reply)
  • When you need it by
  • Is there compensation or not? (If you are a tech company, you may donate to one of these organizations)

Example opener:

Hi Nathan, might you be able to offer feedback on a strategic plan for my organization? We have a section on citizen science and we want to make sure it reflects the latest scholarship. If you were to take 20 minutes to skim that section and suggest 3-5 references we should read, it would help a lot! Please don’t worry about grammar/structure/etc- we want your ideas. We would need it by June 30th, so if you’re not sure you can do it by then, no worries! We have an honorarium of $X we can offer.

Further details:

  • What is the purpose of the document/project?
  • Who is the audience for this, beyond just “academics” or “the public?” Help me understand who needs to see this and why.
  • What genre/format constraints are there?
  • Do you plan to acknowledge my contributions?

You should also:

  • Include the most recent copy of the thing you want my feedback on, or a link to it, confirming that I have access to the document.
  • Include links or attachments with any context I would need (information about you/your organization/your work etc)

If you’re at a stage of thinking that’s too early for any structure and want to brainstorm together, there are a select group of people I reserve that kind of support for. This group includes students at Cornell (see my office hours), PhD students at other institutions that are interested to have me as an advisor,communities that want to work with CAT Lab (Contact our research manager), regulators (contact our Deputy Director) and other academics who want to collaborate.

Image credit: Jaune, Rouge, Bleu, by Kindinsky (Public Domain in the United States - Wikimedia Commons)