Making students cry: being honest about substandard work

I was speaking with a friend recently, an instructor of Spanish from Argentina, as she bemoaned an American educational culture that she believes makes it difficult to correct students. “We are not supposed to tell them they’re wrong,” she said, “or to call really bad work ‘really bad.’” I shared that I too feel the pressure to “soften” that seems endemic to higher education. Instructors, perhaps people of color and white women in particular, feel they must be hyper vigilant about hurting students’ feelings.

I am, myself, from the U.S., from a childhood home that included, um…., direct and unequivocal feedback about my behavior and projects. My parents never soft-pedaled their assessments of my work when they noticed it, be it my performance at a softball game or an article for the school paper. They might have remained utterly silent about it, or cheered it on occasion, but I do not ever recall either my mother or father trying to make me feel better about what they saw as poor or unremarkable work. Due to some combination of nature and nurture, then, I’m deeply habituated to be non effusive and direct with others, a tendency that has served me poorly on many occasions, especially with students.

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My directness led to experiences with students that weren’t just memorably unpleasant, but also shocking; I have, on occasion, been unable to fully comprehend a students’s forceful reactions to my acknowledgement of what I have seen as quite obvious facts. For example, years ago I was speaking with an advanced undergraduate student about an essay she submitted that was just barely on the north side of literate. Having learned something about softening over the years, I began cautiously. “To what extent does this essay represent your best work?,” I asked. “Oh, I’m very proud of it,” she said. “Are you able to see that it contains lots of grammatical and proofreading errors?,” I continued. “Well, I guess there are a few,” she replied, and I could hear her flag of defensiveness begin to unfurl.

As our conversation continued, the student shared her plans to apply to a graduate program in English, shortly after which I euphemistically said that this essay did not, from my point of view, “fully qualify as college-level writing.” Before I could proceed to discuss strategies for developing this critical skill, the student erupted with the equivalent of “How dare you!” and, in a flood of tearful rage assured me that she knew damn well she was an excellent writer, that “no other professor has ever had any problem with my work.” I replied gently that if this was the quality of work she had been submitting without receiving critical feedback, she had been poorly served by her previous instructors.

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Of course, I didn’t really believe that no other instructor had ever pointed out her writing weakness, but I do believe that none had expressed it to her quite so directly. And looking at her transcript, I could see that she had earned satisfactory grades all along, including in some writing heavy disciplines. In other words, it was probably as reasonable for her to believe that she was talented and skilled as it is for those shriekingly off key talent show singers whose feelings have been spared by “supportive” others.

Obviously we shouldn’t aim to make students cry. Perhaps most of our energy should be put into overtly building the confidence of insecure students with sincere, warranted praise. But we shouldn’t be freaked out by the prospect of tears either. We are pressured to keep students happy, to soft pedal our feedback so that we won’t piss them off or “damage their self-esteem.” And I won’t lie. I kind of wish my parents had been a little gentler and more forthcoming with their praise of my childhood work. Maybe I would have gone on to become a virtuoso trumpet player or a great mathematician. But I’m also glad they didn’t overstate my brilliance. I don’t much enjoy critical feedback, but nor does it send me into a tailspin of denial, self-loathing and self-justification.

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