Saturday, May 11, 2013

Not going to survive this diet

I got your sammich, right here ... 
When we last left our aware and scared hero, attendance was required at a remedial promotion of student self-of-steam discussion. It ended with a requirement that a message needed to be sent to all students apologizing for not being timely with assignment return and a reiteration of utter devotion to facilitating the darlings' success. I also mentioned that work still needed to be of high quality.

A couple days later, I was notified that my message was reviewed and while it did contain the agreed upon ingredients, there still was a problem with tone. Apparently when one attempts to sustain high standards by mentioning that there are standards, that is vindictive.

So, despite having mentored new instructors myself, I have now been given a senior faculty self-of-steam tutor.

I tried ... really ... to keep a level head.

Maybe this colleague might have some different approach or a twist on an old one.

Then I got back a response to my mandated "reaching out" and my stomach just dropped.
I was actually given the recipe for a compliment sandwich.

(Sorry Beaker Ben, but yes, this is real)

For the love of Dog! Are there really adult human beings who fall for this drivel?

"I really liked how you summarized the assigned reading which we obviously all read because it was, yanno, assigned"

"But, you really should stop using 'loose' for 'lose.' I don't think it means what you think it means."

"Keep up the good work of crafting answers which are supposed to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your content knowledge no longer than a text message!"

Of course, no where was it addressed how I am supposed to get the flakes to actually access the feedback which apparently has harmed them all so. Yes, cats and kittens, I have hard data on how often students have either accessed or utilized feedback the provision of which (again ignored) is a major factor in why there has been a slow down in getting assignments back. (We'll skip over "my problem" of trying to earn a sustenance income cobbling together adjucting assignments which results in a course load that would make most t-t'ers cry.)

So, how many students are reading/using this feedback that is so star spangled important?

Less than 5%.

Yup, I'm being forced to jump through hoops because of one, maybe two, students.

I wasn't sure where I could interject something I learned at an actually informative seminar on avoiding conflict with students. After the usual (and already implemented) suggestions about understanding that online communication lacks body language cues, perhaps letting some time elapse before responding to a harsh message, or attempting to inject some humor there was a final message that I had never heard from the self-of-steamers before ...

"... ultimately, you have to accept that even doing all of these things, there are going to be some people who will, nevertheless, be angry. Just do your best to minimize the fuel for the fire."

Hmm, you mean there are at least a couple people out there who understand it might just be a handful of snowyflakes who are expecting too much?

I'm going to choke on this sandwich!


  1. More and more, I wish I could just make grades "compliment"-ary, as in, "Your A for this class? Totally comped! No, thank YOU for choosing Holodeck University." Would be less stress, anyway, while it lasted.

  2. I've spent the academic year fighting a "review" process that, while recently decided in my favor ("no further action required") still carries the potential of "voluntary" brainwashing sessions at the Center for Snowflake Appreciation. So on the TT side of things it is still possible to fight these things, and even "win" (in the sense of limiting the amount of self-debasement required to keep the job.)

    But what you describe is hell. And it's the kind of hell that I would interpret as "oops! Wrong job, even wrong profession". I don't know how old you are, but if we're at the point of enabling a dishonest enterprise, I would at least move as quickly as possible to one where the pay is better.

    So let me propose the "upwards" version of Ben's law:

    Do not take the integrity of the operation more seriously than management does. Play along while you need the job, take it for the joke it is, and work on finding other gainful employment as quickly as possible.

    1. What A & S described was the job I used to have.

      Soon after I started, I shared a course with one of my colleagues and I asked him one day about why I was having so much difficulty with them. He looked at me and said that I should always say something nice about what they did. In other words, if 99% of what they produced was rubbish, I should praise the 1% that was right.

      I thought he was off his rocker. I was teaching students who, upon graduation, were likely to go into industry. Out there, one is required to do whatever the job requires. If not, one can be easily replaced.

      How was I expected to prepare those students for that type of environment if I was required to heap praise on them for something they did right when the rest was completely unsuitable? In the real world, if 99% of what one does doesn't meet the expected standards, one doesn't get paid and one may even get a pink slip.

      Of course, nobody who advises catering to the autoentropic vapour (self-s-steam) ever thinks that far.

    2. NLAA, indeed. All this emphasis on "retention/graduation/customer satisfaction" has a lot in common with "liar loans" in the mortgage crisis. If the admins produce the numbers by giving people who haven't learned much a degree, they get rewarded for it and then it becomes somebody else's problem (graduates who can't find jobs, or their future employers).

      Just keep the numbers up; who is going to know or care if they mean anything? Must be in every "how to succeed in business" self-help manual.

    3. I was once told by my former assistant department head that I, as an instructor, shouldn't have worried about how well the students did in my courses. They were all going to get "good jobs" (his words, not mine) and that they were going to be taught what they needed to know once they got hired.

      Really? I only spent several, often hard, years in industry--and a few even harder ones on the dole--before I started my teaching job. I'd seen what happened to people who didn't know what their employers thought they should. They got canned unless, of course, they were well-connected with someone high up in the company ranks, in which case it didn't matter.

      I'd also seen what happened if they had poor working habits. The same thing.

      I didn't see any concerns about self-esteem while I was out there. In fact, that was probably the least of an employer's concerns. Its objective was to make enough money to stay in business and, if it was lucky, make a profit.

      The grades my students received in my courses were a partial indication of whether they could get hired and maybe even keep their jobs. Somehow, my superiors for most of my time I was an instructor couldn't comprehend that.

    4. @NLAA: Yes to "autoentropic vapour". From now on, that is how I will think of self-esteem.

  3. One reason I always require students to write a real title (something other than "Poetry Paper" or "Essay 1") on the top of every paper is so I'll have an immediate reason to offer a positive comment. Even if the rest of the paper is total mind-numbing drivel, I can write "Great title!" at the top. Does this temper the impact of the caustic comments to follow? Don't know, don't care.

  4. I used to work at a place where we always had to use the "Compliment Sandwich." When our overlords were out of earshot, we all called it a "Shit Sandwich" too, because often times it was two pieces of Wonderbread covering up a pile of dripping shit.

    I learned the academic babble doublespeak. Everyone who got hired knew you had to have standards, but dear holy crackers, the bad writing I saw made me question what my degree from that same institution meant when those terrible writers were seniors graduating with high As across the board.

    1. Three cheers to the RGM who picked this up and added the graphic.

    2. Uh, PG, all due respect to the RGM, but I found the graphic. :)

    3. Oh, A&S, so sorry. Fantastic graphic.

  5. Ugh! Basically, what Peter K said in italics. Along those lines, it sounds like what you need is a file (or set of macros, or whatever your technology easily supports) of canned "shit sandwich" feedback, one very generic whole sandwich to go with each of the grade levels you can assign which will work for most assignments, and some individual pieces of "bread" and "filling" for when variations are needed.

    So: "Your comment displays careful thought about the issues raised in the reading, and the discussion so far. It would be even stronger with a few specific examples drawn from the text. Keep up the good work!"

    [Translation: "I know you didn't do the reading; you know you didn't do the reading; we both know you don't actually have to do the reading, or much of anything else, to pass this course. On with this farce!"]

    I really think we all have a duty to refuse to participate in such farces to the extent we can while keeping roofs over our heads, food on the table, etc., etc. So I'll add another clause to my own maxim-in-progress: Work as an adjunct only for experience (including to keep your hand in), never as a way to [try and fail to] make a living, and only at institutions that maintain basic academic integrity.

    It's easier said than done, I know, if most of one's experience is in academia, and at a time when the economy is terrible and scammy for-profit "institutions of higher ed" are on the rise (and many of the nonprofits are being pressured to adopt some of the same tactics, and in some cases are giving in to that pressure). Perhaps an improving economy will offer increased chances to just say no to this sort of shit? Because really, something like this (especially coupled with the realization that the students aren't even reading the feedback) ought to be the last straw, responded to with an open letter of resignation sent to the local newspapers and the appropriate accrediting agencies. But I understand why such grand gestures aren't always possible.

  6. I have to admit to skipping the compliments now that I have tenure.....sometimes. I do work in a place where self of stream is taken fairly seriously, and I don't like to get shit from folks.

    A&S, I am so sorry. You are in a shitty situation. I have trouble giving passing grades to complete dolts. I really do. And I have trouble dumbing down my assignments (although I realize this has happened sort of without my realizing it, and that bugs me too).

    Here are some compliments I have used when I thought everything sucked to hell in order to make the classic shit sandwich, for what they are worth:

    "Your work is thought provoking."

    "You have chosen interesting quotes from your sources."

    "You have a knack for creating voice----your personal voice comes out loud and clear here. This is might serve you well in a creative writing class. "

    "Your sources are diverse and represent a wide variety of views on this topic."

    "You have a sold sense of organization." (often even the horrible essays have a clear intro, body and conclusion.)

    Good luck, A &S, and I hope can escape that horrible place soon!

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Bella.
      To paraphrase M. Poppins, these might be just enough sugar to make the bitter pill go down.

      Ironically, in the very class that prompted this shitstorm, I did post a class-wide commendation because, lo and behold, a recent batch of work was legitimately praise worthy.

      Unfortunately, the bigger conundrum for me is:
      1) The aforementioned program is the best paying of my current assignments;
      2) The department chair initially articulated a clear "Hold 'em to the highest standards" edict (but has been chipping away at it ever since); and perhaps most odiously
      3) The University recently was awarded a big-fat re-accreditation and was commended for its "integrity."

      When the supposed independent quality assurance folks are just as complicit in this charade, to where can one escape?

    2. @A&S: I'm sorry you have to deal with this. Again with Peter K's advice.

      From what I've seen of the accreditation process, success means that the admin jumped through the hoops and wrote an organized report. We get rewarded for saying we've made an "honest appraisal" and solicited "frank feedback" from "every constituency" in the "college community." And, of course, for appearing to care about SLOs.

      Some, of course, do care about SLOs. But I've yet to see the frank feedback reported honestly to the accreditation commission. The various teams' self-study drafts (themselves carefully worded) are sliced and diced at the highest levels of admin into a carefully constructed sandwich with just a soupcon of shit.

      Apropos Bella's list, here's one way I deliver the steaming wheat thin of feedback to students: "Keep working on your writing so that people pay attention to your ideas."

      Presentation is everything.

    3. A&S, I am not sure where you go from there. At my institution, if you play along for a while, you end up off the radar (all the admins have such short attention spans). I hope you are off their radar soon!

  7. Augh! I am always rushing through things when I post here. I regret it.
    "This might serve your well...."
    "You have a solid sense...."
    Capital effing O.

    Augh Augh Augh.

    1. Oh my...."This might serve YOU well...."

    2. Typos or not, I like these, especially "your work is thought-provoking." I have all kinds of thoughts while grading, some of them printable/shareable with the student, many not.

      But I wonder whether A&S is supposed to avoid "you." I've been told that that helps with students' tendency to confuse themselves/their self worth with the quality of their work, but I don't know whether it's true (and if anything the self-of-steam movement seems to encourage the confusion). It does, at time, result in ridiculously convoluted and unclear sentences -- somewhat similar to those written by students trying to avoid "I" -- which is one of the major reasons I regularly fall off that wagon, when I try to stay on it at all.

    3. CC ...

      Yes, I have been advised to avoid first person in feedback unless, of course, praise is being provided.

      Can there be any more of a grotesque application of self-of-steam lunacy that we encourage their claiming of the good while divorcing themselves from anything that isn't?

  8. Wow. I'm realizing my comments are pretty scathing:

    "This is not college-level writing," for instance. I do try to say one nice thing to open up, but my comments may actually look like a Wheat Thin sitting on top of a pile of steaming manure.

    1. I'm with you, Frog and Toad.

      I've written "This is not college-level writing" or something similar on plenty of papers, and I always get rewarded on my course evaluations with complaints that I am too harsh, that I never have anything nice to say, and that I grade "like an English professor" when it comes to grammar and sentence construction.

      I am happy to praise stuff that is good, and I'm even happy to find the decent stuff among the dross, but I refuse to call shit Shinola just to keep them happy.

      One thing I would love to say to my classes is, "You wanna see a compliment? There are about five students in this class who received A's for their paper. Ask one of them if you can see their work, and you'll not only see a compliment, you'll also see the type of work you have to produce in order to get one."

      In fact, I have, in a few classes, distributed an "A" paper to all the students (with the permission of the A student, of course), in order to show them what good work looks like, and to demonstrate that I'm not just being tough for the sake of it. I think that they sometimes feel as if everyone else in the class is as useless as they are, so it helps to show them what sort of work can be produced by someone with real understand and application.

    2. Of course, "understand" should be "understanding" in the previous post.

    3. This is, of course, the sort of topic that guarantees that we will all make numerous silly typing errors as we reply. There's a relevant corollary to Murphy's law, I'm pretty sure.

    4. Also, I'm enjoying picturing the wheat thin on top of the manure pile. I think there's a fly rubbing its legs perched on top of the wheat thin. Of course, the manure pile makes me think of composting, and the garden . . . .summer really is almost here.

    5. Oh yes, compliments. On the rare occasions I see an original or clever solution to a homework problem I write: good! next to it.

      But my more typical comments are:

      ??? Why? Does not follow. More detail needed. This is what you're trying to prove! ??? Why? Basic algebra! XXX No! X Wrong problem. ??

    6. I hear you F&T.

      Remember, I teach clinical Care & Feeding of Wombats so we use a lot of case study vignettes as source material.

      I cannot tell you the number of times my original comment was along the lines of "WTF? Where in the case study was this even suggested never mind explicitly stated?"

      An extrapolation of the self-of-steam arrogance is the tendency to skim over the first couple of words and think they know what will follow so they don't need to spend the time actually reading it. Instead of examining the clinical implications, they puff out their chests in fallacious righteous indignation about how this, that, and no other thing should never be allowed to happen.

  9. I do show them A-level fact, I post one or two sample A papers on our LMS, open it up in class, point out what makes them A papers, recommend to individual students that they look more closely at the sample A papers, and then end up in a face-to-face conference with a student who doesn't understand why hir load of disorganized drivel didn't get an A. "Let's look at the sample A papers and compare," I say, but inevitably the exercise results in one of these responses:

    1. "I like my way better."
    2. "I don't see how that's different from what I did."
    3. "But you never told us you wanted that!"

    1. I do the same Zora.

      You should be happy that you get those arrogantly ignorant rejoinders.
      Much more commonly in my experience, they go ignored -- as do my "Don't make these mistakes" slideshow, "It's not personal, it's writing" essay, and the piles of sterile feedback I do provide!

    2. Ah, gods, I read this post and all the comments and all I could think is that this is just so fucked up, it defies my ability to understand it. Because it sounds like you are not being permitted to give the kind of feedback that might actually help them. What. The. Fuck.

      My rubrics are posted in the LMS, and they have 5 ranges for whatever criteria I a am assessing: exceptional (A), successful (B), developing (C), underdeveloped (D), and unacceptable (f). That last is the one that is causing me problems, as the standard feedback says "This is unacceptable for college level work. Please see the instructor for additional assistance if your grade on this criterion falls in this range." They NEVER see me, but they do complain to people in administration about how unfair I am.

      I thank the heavens I am tenured now, and I am sorry, A&S, that this is your lot currently. I hope it gets better.

  10. @Aware and Scared, I skipped right over the comments to say:

    Fuck that. What bullshit.