Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Thirsty: Oops, shouldn't have said that

Just got another one of those, you're a big ol' meany EMails from a   "Why aren't you telling me how wonderful I am?" protoflake.

Needy Nancy is upset because I have not been providing her with a consistent stream of formative feedback on her writing. Apparently in her experience, instructors devote hours to each assignment, deconstructing all student writing to the molecular level. Not providing this is "unhelpful" at best, "a failure to perform your duties" at worst.

Glossed over by Nancy, I do include feedback for virtually every assignment -- save for discussion posts (this is online) -- but for many of those as well.

Turns out Nancy just noticed that I have been providing this service. But, now that she's reviewed it, she feels it has been "harsh."

Following the advise of various CMers, I have worked to pare down my commentary to core issues and use Word's AutoCorrect to maintain a library of common comments which, over many iterations, have been honed and revised to be as concise and precise as possible.

Q1: How deeply do you self-censor your comments?

Sure, we'd all like to be able to fire off a "Were you high when you wrote this?" or "Are you really this clueless?" With those off the table, how much further do you water down the tone of corrections? Are you ever left paralyzed by self-doubt, staring at a comment on the screen, spinning over in your mind "How will this play to my boss and my boss's boss?"

Q2: How much do you temper the critical with praise?

I've been to the seminars. I know the recipe for the "compliment sandwich." But, given this is online, I also have an Intro English Comp amount of writing which needs to be reviewed weekly. By necessity, reviewing work does have to take on an assembly line approach. But, I try to start with each gradebook comment with a generic "Good foundation" or "Solid overall, but note ..." but Nancy still feels I'm harsh. Are we here to help students improve their scholarship or their self-worth?


  1. This sounds like a case of a student is not used to being told she is wrong. When I have these students I tell that that I provide constructive critism each week which provides them as a student the opportunity to improve their academic skills. They should view these not as punitive remarks but as learning opportunities which they have the choice to utilitize and possibly improve their next paper's score or ignore and run the chance of the same
    grade. This puts the ownership of the grade back on the student not on you as a grader.

  2. I don't really censor comments, but I do try to keep them professional, as hard as it may sometimes be. I hate the compliment sandwich approach, and never use it. If there is some thinking that is truly and honestly strong and well-developed, I say so. But there are plenty of times when I don't have a single good thing to say about a paper, so I don't. This has probably bred some resentment from students, but that's not really my problem. My job is not to make students feel good, but to critique their thinking and help them improve. And honestly, I'm sure students can see through the bullshit compliments anyhow.

    I would tell Nancy that she can think you're harsh, and can consider your comments or not. But they are what you believe an honest assessment of her work, and since your opinion is the only one that matters when it comes to grading, she should take them seriously.

  3. I know, I know, I KNOW we're supposed to balance praise with "constructive criticism" (this is good, this is bad, do this to make it good), but in my experience, none of this registers with students. If you go easy on the marginal notes, they challenge you to "show" how they "lost marks." Yet, we're told that too many marginal notes discourages their creativity. In any event, I've yet to meet with an unhappy student who took the time to read the comments, much less digest them.

    My take is that students treat comments like Gary Larson's dogs treat words (see : the only thing they see is the grade.

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    2. agree completely. And yes, I am sometimes hard-pressed not to use my WTF stamp:

      My students open their folders, look at the grade, look pleased/ shocked/ angry / despairing, then slam the folder shut. Each paper has marginal comments and an evaluation sheet that shows them where they went "off the rails" (or stayed on them). I tell them out loud that if the grade is not what they were expecting, they should make an appointment to see me for help. Usually 1 or 2 out of nearly 50 students will do so.

      I am working on a mid-semester assessment to find out whether or not they actually use the sheets and the comments as they are drafting the next paper. My guess is that some do, and some don't.

    3. I used to have the students resubmit all their previous work with each new assignment so I could monitor whether or not they had made improvements on areas of weakness. Not only did a number of them *not* take steps to investigate how to fix grammatical errors, but I also got to read their commentary on my comments: "Why does this woman want to change WHO I AM?" (really - that was one of the meta-comments).

    4. I have started requiring all papers to be submitted online, so I have a record of all my comments to them. It does indeed make it easier to pull out their previous paper and say: "Look, I told you to do this, and you didn't do it, thus the bad grade."

    5. "Why does this woman want to change WHO I AM?"

      Because this student is an illiterate bonehead?

      Sorry, but you did ask...

  4. That's one of the huge advantages to online submission; I can keep my own records.

    I give them a rubric that tells them how much each element is worth - spelling/grammar, style, organization, content and analysis (in ascending order of value). They get that rubric with the assignment and I tell them to look at it as they work and self-assess. Then I give them a score for each category. This keeps me honest too (since without it I tend to get blown away by excellent writing with no substance because, hey, great writing, kid! Organized and everything!) And they stop thinking that I'm being 'unfair' or 'harsh'. I can show them exactly where they fell down. "You repeated every plot point of the book but did not tell me why any of them were important to your argument, so decent score on content but 0 for analysis."

    1. Bit more background ...

      There is a university-wide rubric for writing. Also, in the comment box, I -- uniquely, I believe -- post a breakdown of the individual rubric scores in addition to the total which is entered in the gradebook.

      Also, after many experiences with Lucy of B/Larson's dogs responses to graded work, I post opening announcements clearly indicating that feedback would be regularly provided.

      Still, the Nancys of the world miss it (ironically as she claims to NEEEED it so badly) and I am still mean when it is found.

    2. Sounds a lot like what I do, too, in my F2F classes. Because I can tell them everything in a series of "lectures" but if they don't have the paper in front of them when they're working, they don't seem capable of remembering what they're supposed to do.

      This is the semester where I hand them the rubric on the day of their peer review session. Hopefully that will help forestall some of the "but you didn't tell us this" (even though I did). Mine's divided into Higher Order Concerns (Decent intro/ clear thesis/ clear organization / support) and Lower Order Concerns (grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.). I also have a "grading scale" that I have tweaked over the years that lays out characteristics of an "A", a "B" and so on, with a little asterisk at each one that leads to a footnote at the bottom: "*Simple inverse correlation: As the number of errors goes up, the grade goes down."

  5. There is such a thing called a "compliment sandwich"? God help us all.

    Thanks to Urban Dictionary, I now know that a compliment sandwich is: When someone tries to ease the blow of a criticism by delivering it between two insincere compliments.

    I propose a variation - the Atkins sandwich. No carb-loaded bread is allowed. You get the meat only. By the way, Atkins makes me cranky so the criticism is well deserved and delivered more harshly than usual.

    1. I've always heard it called a "shit sandwich"-- an unpleasant reality between two innocuous statements.

    2. My "compliment sandwiches" tend to be open-faced: I lead with the strengths (at least for passing paper; for failing ones, I usually go with a very brief acknowledgment of an intriguing subject or obvious hard work -- if any -- or something along those lines at most), but then go on to "what needs to be strengthened," without, in most cases, going back to "but this is really promising" (unless it is; the B+ and above papers are more likely to get a second "slice" of compliments). And that's only in the end comment; marginal comments are much briefer and to the point (but no "WTF"s; the closest I get is "I'm not sure exactly what you mean here" -- which, of course, translates to WTF?). And I use rubrics, so there's a visual breakdown of strong and weak points in the paper, and at least the illusion of a mathematical explanation for the grade.

      But really, if you're working with a university-wide rubric, A&S, and incorporating its terminology in straightforward formative comments, I'm not sure what more you can do. And any student who complains about a lack of comments, and then, when pointed toward the comments, complains about the nature of the comments, is showing a distinct propensity to complain about whatever she can find to complain about. My main response would be to monitor myself to make sure I'm not spending more time on a squeaky wheel than she deserves (though, yes, I'd also be imagining how my comments would read to a higher-up-the-administration audience, especially if I were in a job where micro-managing from that level was common).

  6. I quite frequently have students describe my grading as "harsh" in the end-of-semester evaluations. I've also had quite a few suggest that I balance my criticism with "more positive comments."

    I wish I could show those students the comments I make on the good papers. Like Curmudgeon in Training said, if there's something worth complimenting on a paper, I'm happy to write positive and complimentary comments. I write comments like "nice intro" or "good point" or "strong argument" on quite a few of my students' papers, and my closing comments always make clear what the strengths of the paper are.

    But the fact is that some papers really have very little that is worth a positive comment. Sometimes this is because the student clearly demonstrated no engagement or effort; other times, it simply reflects a depressing lack of knowledge or understanding or writing ability. I do try, even in my criticism, to be positive and helpful, and I always make clear that I'm happy to help students with their writing if they come to my office hours.

    I've been accused of giving "rude" comments, but I think that the only comment I've ever given that might qualify is when I've written, "The writing in this paper is not up to university standard." I've only written this on a few students' papers. One of the reasons I write this is to impress upon the students exactly how serious the situation is. If I don't make clear to them that they have problems, they won't know that they need to fix them.

    Also, given that I'm also trying (not always successfully) to avoid grade inflation, it would look pretty silly if the C's and D's that I handed out contained nothing but compliments. Students would then, quite rightly, wonder why they hadn't received a better grade.

  7. I agree with most of the above - I would just add that whenever possible, humor helps. Also, it helps me to remember that the students may not like the feedback now, but eventually most will appreciate the criticism.

  8. I'm going on the job market next year (and therefore have to worry about evaluations) so currently all my comments are of the ponies-and-rainbows variety. Last semester I was a little more "honest" in my comments, and I paid dearly for it. When I told a junior English major that she might not want to "borrow" interpretations from the internet or write things like "Ray Carver is a whiner" in a formal academic paper, I was told I had caused her to "shut down emotionally."

    I just graded a stack of papers yesterday. The worst papers I've ever seen. After puffing up everyone's grades and giving them bland but encouraging feedback, I needed a strong drink and a hot shower.

  9. I agree, she's obviously complaining about the grade, not the comments. For known difficult students, try writing down a slightly lower grade then you want to give e.g. C minus, then cross it out, and then write the grade you want to do give e.g. C. Might make them feel they already got a concession, and keep them from whining?

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    1. Geez Frod, did you hack into my laptop???

      Your list of comments is practically word for word my library of stored Word AutoCorrects!

      I can't staple a brochure from the Writing Center for my online students, but I do have a standard "Please consult with the Writing Center" comment for insertion.

      It is (somewhat) gratifying to see that I'm not the only one out there grappling with directness being conflated as meanness.

    2. I'll tell you where the biggest source of pain in this regard has been: e-mail! It is -so- easy to sound nastier than you are over e-mail, and I have gotten so much trouble because of it, for many years now. This is why I usually delete angry e-mail sent to me: answering it often can cause more trouble than it's worth.

    3. What gets me is how CHILDISH they are. I have 100 students in the general-ed class for non-majors, and 80 students in the physics class for engineers and scientists, and every last fucking one of them wants to be praised, for doing what they're supposed to be doing anyway. It may be my navy background, but I'd have expected praise only when I'd done something outstanding, and frequently not even then. What REALLY gets me, though, is that so many of the so-called adults go for this, hook, line, and sinker.

  12. 1: I do my best to keep the tone as objective and professional as possible. However, as a professor of physics, I am apparently too socially inept to be much good at flattery. It may be that my service in the U.S. Navy in my youth conditioned me to be impatient with it. Sailors are noted for their colorful use of language, you know.

    I constantly get complaints that I am “harsh,” “intimidating,” and “rude.” I nearly was denied tenure because of it. So did Peter Sachs, in “Generation X Goes to College,” particularly when he tried to make his introductory class for journalism majors rigorous, because he viewed it as a “boot camp.”

    A2: Again, I do my best, but science is fundamentally about truth. Another way to say this perhaps is that my social skills are too poor for me to be able to lie to anyone convincingly. Still, I’d much rather be called “harsh,” “intimidating,” and “rude” than “incompetent,” “ridiculous,” or “stupid.”

    Whenever grading papers, I mark them up thoroughly. I spend lots of time doing it. It’s disheartening that only a few students ever seem to read the comments, much less act on them. The real use of this apparently is to cover my backside, since if students don’t like their grades, all the errors are circled, so they have a harder time claiming I'm "unfair" or "that's just your opinion" (not that this stops all of them, of course).

    About half of the comments I make are for the same 6 or 7 errors, made repeatedly, so I had stamps made up for them. It cuts the time needed for grading by about a half. They say:

    These digits aren’t significant. Don’t write them, they’re probably wrong. (I use this more often than I like with the science majors.)

    It’s = it is.
    Its = possessive of “it,” as with hers or his
    Please avoid this error.

    Spelling error

    Grammar error

    How do you know? Please cite a reference.

    Avoid colloquialisms and clich├ęs.

    Avoid affecting a breezy manner. Serious writing needs to be more formal than the average e-mail message.

    Avoid opinion: let the facts to do talking.

    Omit needless words.

    Please read the instructions carefully.

    Please get help with your writing, you are not writing at college level.

    Whenever I use this last, I staple a copy of the flier from our campus Writing Center to the assignment. Almost never does this produce any discernible effect.

    1. You're absolutely right. Why flatter the little pieces of shit? I'm not even close to rude on my papers; I just circle every error, as you do, and then write them a short note at the end of the paper telling them their main problems to work on. I usually preface it with something like "Good ideas here, but you need to work on..." Even that amount of ass-kissing makes me want to puke, but I want to defuse any rage in the student, if possible.

      Like others have noted, we're not teaching in order to make people feel good about themselves. We're just presenting information so that students can LEARN what they need to learn. In other words, it's not charity--it's college.

  13. Copy/Paste" complete.
    How should the citation read ?

  14. I have a sheet that has all of the things I say repeatedly pre-printed at the bottom. When necessary, I circle the appropriate one. I like the stamps idea.


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