Student Feedback: Encouragement and Professionalism – a Binary?

Greco S. writes about his experiences taking Intro to Fiction and Poetry (both I and II) at Johns Hopkins.  I commented on his post a couple years ago as a teacher, but I never really commented on my own experiences as a student.  Looking back at my experiences at Case Western, I wonder if the positive feedback I give today is helping my students as much as it should.

I know our job is to focus on encouragement – it was encouragement that kept me going, I think.  At the same time, though, what’s the role for style and mastery?  My first undergraduate workshops at Case Western were not focused “you’re already a writer!”

Instead, my first workshop professor was Steve Lattimore, a visiting author who had gone through the MFA at Iowa.  We knew him for his blunt-but-caring critiques of our work.  It was never personal, but he didn’t pull any punches.  In the Intermediate workshop, we built a kind of camaraderie around this – before class, we’d usually try to figure out the ways in which Steve would indicate “this sucks…”

Steve Lattimore on Amazon:

Although this is the antithesis of the approach I take now, I really do credit Steve’s advice with helping me understand the major shortcoming that long plagued my writing.  For our first workshop, I turned in a story I was super proud of, a piece from the perspective of the girlfriend of a divorced father who was dealing with custody.  Given the topic, I would have described the story as “edgy” or possibly even “experimental” if I’d been aware of those terms back then.  But during his office hours, Steve pointed out that the story was missing a key component.  Me, all wide-eyed and optimistic, was thinking it would be something easy, something like “your sentences need work.”  Instead, he gave one word: “conflict.”

Yes – a story about divorce and relationships fell apart due to a lack of conflict.  And he was right.  I had the setting, I had the descriptions, and I had the awkward social situation, but there was nothing really at stake.  The characters were just kind of there, existing on the page.

It was the kind of blunt criticism I have difficulty giving my own students.  I am always afraid that I might hurt their feelings, possibly turning them away from the art of writing forever.  And this is no small thing.  If you take a student who’s struggling to get by – the kind of student who is most likely to benefit from creative writing because he or she has something real to say about the challenges of living – then a good dollop of negative criticism may send the message of “hey, you also suck at writing – you should quit now, just like you’ve already given up on your other courses.”

But here’s the thing – Steve’s comment helped me become a better writer.  Not that year – not even before I graduated.  But it stuck with me for a long time.  And then in Afghanistan – some six years later – I suddenly saw what he was saying.  While deployed, I had written at book manuscript that was 190,000 words long.  And I was really, really proud of that book.  I had a powerful sense of accomplishment, let me tell you.  Until I went back to read it.  And then I saw, very painfully, what was missing: conflict.

And so I’m left wondering whether or not I’m doing the right thing, trying to offer encouragement.  Not that encouragement is wrong, but I’m reconsidering what counts as genuine when it comes to helping students improve their work.  I’ve always given good comments, but there is a trend where some students will ignore positive feedback.  It’s almost like they don’t hear it, like they think I’m patronizing them.  And I think it may come from this pedagogical tradition of “constructive” criticism, that “start with the positive before following with the negative.”  And so students are now programmed to see those positive comments as the prelude to “this is why you suck.”  And I don’t think this is just a writing classroom thing – I think this has become larger tradition, one that I remember at least from high school, maybe even grade school.

I had another course that was similarly blunt, the Intermediate Journalism Workshop with Ted Gup.  He also pulled no punches.  I struggled to get a B in his course.  But, to a large degree, I didn’t struggle hard enough, and I know that.  I didn’t read all the assigned articles from the New York Times, and I was genuinely afraid to conduct the kinds of on-the-spot interviews that provide real social context to a situation.  (I have a bit of social anxiety.  This is why I write fiction rather than news.)  But his class taught me so much about how to write a strong sentence. This was where I learned just how much space I was losing to adverbs and adjectives. And I still use too many. But at least now I’m aware of what I’m looking for, I can now see where and why I need to cut those needless words (per Strunk and White) even if I’m often too lazy to go back and do it.

Ted Gup on Amazon:


So the dilemma: how do I give students feedback that will be similarly productive?  The kind of feedback that will stick with them in the years and decades of writing still to come?  And how does this correspond with the divide between craft and social consciousness?  I mean, no, those two workshops didn’t exactly awaken me to the major issues of hegemony and marginalization surrounding us at the university, but they did help me better adjust my use of words to the point that outside people will now see me as a “writer” rather than simply a student.

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