October 24, 2004
Stubborn Positive Feedback Interpreter
On Thursday I had a student come in with a law school application essay. He came in because his advisor had read his essay, and in a round about and encouraging way, she had told him that his essay was sub-par and that he should take it to the writing center. So he didn't really come on his own accord, and he didn't really think that his essay was that bad. But, in my opinion, he was wrong. His essay didn't really have much structure and was written pretty informally. I, practicing the technique I have been working on, told the student the good qualities of his essay and that he doesn't necessarily HAVE to make the changes that I am suggesting. After a while, however, I realized that he wasn't one to take a hint. I spent a lot of time explaining the sort of restructuring that would make his paper stronger, and then he says "So I should just, like, add another paragraph at the end that explains exactly what I learned through my experience?" He had already told me that he thought his essay was a little too long. "Yes," I said. "It would benefit your paper to add this paragraph at the end, but it's already too long and you say a little about what you learned in all of the other paragraphs. Maybe you want to limit the other paragraphs to one type of idea in order to save space." He didn't want to do this. He continued to ask questions which attempted to solicit a quick fix for his essay, which I didn't really see possible. Then he gave me a sob story about all the other stuff he had due for school, and he just wanted to be done with this pesky Law School Application. You would think that he would realize how imperative it is to make your law school essay as good as it can be, but I think part of the problem is he interpreted all of the positive feedback from his advisor and from me to mean that he didn't HAVE to do anything to his paper. It was fine the way it was. In his intro paragraph he quoted Webster's definition of the word "law." I told him that it might be a little cliche. "Yeah, that's was my advisor said too. She said everyone does that. But then she said that I relate it to myself in a unique way, so I figured I could keep it in there." I didn't know what to do. He wanted a quick fix, I attempted to give him one but strongly suggested that he spend more time on it. On his way out I said "I really think you should work on it over the weekend and bring it back in on Monday. You could even make an appointment right now." "Uhhh, I gotta get to class, but maybe I'll make another appointment later," he responded as he ran out the door.
To me, the point of positive encouragement alongside the suggested improvements is to let the student know that he or she is capable of great writing. But what happens when they interpret it to mean that they have already produced great writing? Do we then have to shift solely to negative feedback for the given student? How do you tell them that their essay NEEDS a lot of work without breaking their spirits? Or do they just need a broken spirit in order to move forward?
Posted by hoga0094 at October 24, 2004 3:48 PM
What I try to do is say something like, "I really like all the ideas you've got here, and I know what your're trying to say. And I think it's good, but I think we can make it even better. Can you think of a more formal/informal/less passive/etc. way to say this? I think it might make the tone of the essay more suited to the audience, because sometimes a law school application/personal narrative/lab report needs to be written a little differently than other kinds of writing."
That, and using, "to me, as a reader, blah blah blah..." because it doesn't make it personal.
Stressing that a law school essay, or whatever they are writing, requires more formality (or whatever their writing needs) than a personal narrative is important, I think, because first of all it's what they're using to get into law school and I'd rather offend them a little bit then pussyfoot around and then have them not get in based on the essay. But also, if no one has told them that application essays need to be formal, I see it like someone has to, so I might as well because they'll probably need to know at some point. I don't think that's spirit-breaking or mean if you don't say it in a mean way. And if they do feel a little put-off or offended, obviously I would prefer it if they didn't but I think the important thing is that they have the information they needed to make their writing better. I'd rather have someone a little offended and in law school than thinking, "How come I didn't get in with my kick-ass essay?"
This is a good point Stephanie. I think we have to avoid giving people a false sense of confidence. I know I had one on my literacy autobiography, and if I wouldn't have gotten the honest (but what I interpreted to be negative) feedback I would not have changed it. To put it another way, the only way I got "the information [I] needed" was from hearing the criticism, even though it frustrated me. But I got over it, and I think most students will too.
This also sounds like an "Engaging Reluctant Writers"
thing. The student so busy with all of his other stuff, being "suggested" (unoficially forced) to be at the writing center, ....
Yea, it seems like this student's prof wanted us to be "bad cop" to her/his "good cop": "I don't want to break our spirit, but go to the writing center where they'll do it."
Like Stephanie, I use my stance as a "reader who cares" to let the tougher comments fly: "I'm not on the committee, but if I read 100 essays before this one, I don't see why I would be interested in yours. Honestly, this essay sounds like something anyone could have written, so I'm worried that you're missing the chance to really impress me with something revealing about YOU." I really try to keep the focus on you are more interesting than this essay reveals instead of your essay sucks, but I'm not averse to some tough love. You all might want to look at the How to Write a Winning Personal Statement book, which shares pet peeves of reviewers (let them be the "bad cops").
I'm really turned off by professors using us as the "bad cop" to their good cop. When it comes down to it, most students will use professor's comments over yours because the professor is more credible/the one grading it/ has a wizened look about him that gives him insane amounts of power. Whatever.
I recently had a session where it seemed like the professor had just thrown up his hands and told the student to go to the center with help on interpreting what the assignment meant. And that ticks me off at the professor. We can give our opinion on what someone meant when writing, but we can't be any kind of cop when the student is unclear on what is being asked and the assignment sheet isn't available or is written by a professor we just want to scream at.
I got off track, but it's Friday afternoon. C'est la vie.
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