Miriam Moore

Talking through Some Teachable Moments (Dealing with Difficult Comments)

Blog Post created by Miriam Moore Expert on Nov 6, 2019

In my last blog, I wrote about the frustrations of dealing with difficult student questions (“So what are we doing?”) and the possibilities for instruction embedded in those questions. Similarly, I’ve addressed the challenge of responding to student comments comparing current instructor practice with their experiences in previous courses.

 

An unfiltered response in both these scenarios might be snarky or rude at worst, and unhelpful at best. As I wrote before, these difficult comments and questions can be teachable moments—both for the student and for myself—if I can filter the initial knee-jerk reaction and think through what I could say to engage the student for deeper thinking. Can I open what Jesson et al. (following Wegerif) have called a “dialogic space,” where “the teacher’s and students’ contributions serve to drive thinking forward” (157)? If my response shuts down the conversation, that space contracts—or disappears altogether. Moreover, those unfiltered comments do not invite the kind of on-going development of talk about writing and language—meta-talk—that I want to foster, explore, and evaluate in my classes.

 

Recently, I encountered another of these difficult interactions. A student (who had already conferenced with me and received feedback concerning a developing text that did not address the parameters of the assignment) submitted an intermediate draft without any substantive revisions to content. When I asked the student about notes from our conference (since the work submitted for review did not reflect thoughtful response to the comments I had made), the student replied that one of the upper-level writing fellows working with our class “said it was good,” so the student assumed no revisions were needed.

 

I have heard such comments before: someone else—a writing center tutor, a friend who is an English major, a high school teacher, a parent, or even another instructor—read the paper and said “it was good.” 

 

What would your knee-jerk response be? “That other person didn’t write the instructions.” “That other person isn’t going to be grading this paper.” “That other person doesn’t have my degree.” “That other person may not have been honest with you.” “I don’t care what that other person said…” 

 

I suppose our response would depend on the context—first, intermediate, or final draft, for example, and what we thought the student was hoping to achieve by reporting on someone else’s assessment of the piece, generally a more positive assessment.

 

In considering my own response to the student (which was to ask for a conference during office hours), I began to wonder what a thoughtfully-filtered response that opens dialogic space might look like. I considered the talk-encouraging questions I might ask:

 

      
  1. What specifically did the writing fellow tell you was good about the paper? Did you take notes? If not, would it be worth asking her to discuss it with you again?
  2.   
  3. What did you ask the writing fellow to look at when you went for your conference?
  4.   
  5. Did you discuss my comments with the writing fellow?
  6.   
  7. Did the writing fellow make any specific comments or recommendations we could talk about?
  8.   
  9. Why do you think different people sometimes give different feedback? How can you handle the differences, as a writer?
  10.   
  11. How would you define good when it comes to writing? How does context affect our understanding of what good is? Could our comments about the piece actually both be reasonable evaluations of it?
  12.   
  13. What do you like about the piece as it stands now? Are there parts of the paper that you can build on for revision?
  14.   
  15. What did you hear when I gave you feedback during conference?
  16.   
  17. Knowing that the paper does not currently meet the requirements of the assignment, what information from me would be most helpful to you?
  18.   
  19. What sorts of things could you tell the writing fellows to help them target their feedback on the next draft?

 

I recognize in myself a tendency to allow frustration to stop conversations. And yes, some of the frustrations arise from student apathy, laziness, or forgetfulness. They have told me as much: they didn’t take notes, they forgot what we discussed, they wanted not to have to write again. And at times, especially for some of the students who find themselves in my corequisite sections, the problem stems from the overall culture shock of college. But perhaps those students need me to filter my responses the most—and they need an opportunity to talk about the writing a little bit more. 

 

What comments and questions from students cause you the most frustration in your corequisite writing courses? What strategies have worked for you in responding?

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