Something interesting happened to me the other day: I received a student’s final reflection that included the suggestion that I “learn to accept other people’s writing as their own” when I make essay comments. In particular, I was admonished to remember that someone else was writing the essay, not me, and that “other people make choices in their essays for a reason.”
Under most circumstances, sure. But I’m an instructor; part of my job is to make constructive comments on essays and then ensure that changes are made that will strengthen those essays. That a student (who shows up on time, does most of the work, and generally has perceptive things to say in class) perceives my notes as combative or hostile made me, for a moment, question the entire purpose of my course.
What, I thought, was the purpose of a class in which students would arrive in the morning not to present unfinished work to a more seasoned instructor in order tomake that draft into a more professional piece, but to just kinda, you know, shoot the breeze with some guy at the head of the class? What’s the problem – is it a question of respect? Am I seen as too close to a peer, instead of as someone bearing the authority of information and judgment?
Or is it perhaps that I’m phrasing my comments as destructive? I usually make an effort to write approachable feedback, but in this case, I can see why the student might have had their feelings hurt. On the other hand, the comment I was making concerned part of the essay that was objectively misguided, and needed to be addressed. The student’s defense wasn’t that I had been unkind or unpleasant, but that I should have accepted their writing as-is.
That’s what really troubled me. I failed, somewhere along the line, to make a connection with this student that would have allowed me to convey the information they needed. I failed to educate, on a really basic level.
It’s not necessarily my fault, I guess, though I like many instructors tend to blame myself even for things that are clearly a student’s responsibility. This particular moment doesn’t seem so clear cut. It’s entirely possible that this student absorbed a “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” mindset from the culture at large that doesn’t differentiate between matters of taste and matters of fact. But if that’s the case, I wish I had learned about this earlier, so that we could have discussed it. I wasn’t expressing anything about my taste – I leave my politics, my preferences, and my cultural favorites at home (at least, as well as anyone can). This was about a particular choice that made the student’s writing weaker, less descriptive, and more contentious.
The purpose of this blog is not to serve as a platform for me to complain. I only included this admittedly unresolved anecdote because language and communication matters, outside the public sphere. Communication conflict comes into our personal lives, requiring thoughtfulness and quick response to resolve. Sometimes we get it wrong.