For the past few months, I have been analyzing the feedback I gave first-year composition students during the spring 2019 semester—looking for patterns in my lexical choices, references, and syntax. Student progress that semester was uneven at best, and I want to know how students experience my feedback and whether or not what I am doing, especially in written feedback (I also give oral feedback in individual and group conferences), is accessible and useful to students? Do I need to make adjustments, or perhaps make the format and style of the feedback a matter of explicit instruction early in the term? In short, do I need to teach students how to read my feedback? I presented some of the findings of my research at the NOSS 2020 Convention in February, before our stay-at-home orders were issued, and there’s an article in process.
But one feature of my feedback is on my mind today. In a recent video chat with a student, I heard myself say, “So, how are we doing?” Most of the time I address students in a face-to-face conference using a second-person pronoun: you. So the appearance of that we made me wonder: do I use we a lot in my written feedback? If so, in what contexts? What does that communicate to students?
In one data set of 11,644 words—my post-conference written responses to 28 literacy narratives—the word you predominates in terms of personal pronouns: 535 uses, or 45.94 times per 1000 words. Given that I am speaking directly to students in these comments, there are also many instances of I/me: 210 tokens, or 18.03 times per 1000 words. But there are also many uses of we/us: 145 tokens, or 12.45 times per 1000 words.
Obviously, the first person plural pronoun includes the speaker/writer (in this case, me), and upon first glance, it seems that my feedback frequently emphasizes collaboration, showing that the student and I are working through the process together. But a closer look at the various uses of we/us in this particular feedback set suggests a much more complicated picture:
We=student and teacher
We need to work on verb tense here… we are working in the past.
We=generic (writers, speakers, people)
We can’t introduce the quote that way… we need to set it up differently.
We are articulate about something, which means we can speak well about it.
We=readers of this paper
We need additional detail here; right now this is difficult for the reader to follow.
Don’t leave the reader to wonder if we are going backwards or forwards in time.
We= the class
We will talk about this format in class.
I don’t worry that my students will misread these various instances of we; after all, we use the word in similar ways in speaking and in our online interactions. Of course, there are possibilities for awkward social miscues (“Oh—you meant you and John, not the three of us! Sorry!”), but I don’t think these would arise in the reading of the feedback.
Rather, the different uses of we in my feedback show (along with other language choices I make) that I am negotiating different stances with my students. At times, I am the expert, making recommendations I expect students to follow. At other times, I am a collaborator, brainstorming with the student ways to expand meaning or solve writing problems. Still at other times, I am a reader, giving feedback that represents what I think readers in general might experience when encountering the student text. I offer such descriptive feedback so that students can determine what they as authors want the text to accomplish.
Those of us with extensive experience in writing workshops, collaborative work, publication with an editor—we’re familiar with these various stances and can respond effectively, maintaining our own sense of ownership as we write with experts, collaborators, colleagues, and general readers. But do our students know how to read and put feedback to use when it comes from what seems like disparate and changing voices in the comment stream? The supplemental instructors and writing fellows who have worked with me in my first-year courses have told me that students are sometimes baffled by my feedback, and they aren’t sure what to do with it. Most of them, particularly in my IRW corequisite courses, haven’t gotten that kind of feedback before. They seem to be much more familiar with directive comments: “Aren’t you going to tell me what to do? That would be easier!”
Carless and Boud (2018) have developed a working model of feedback literacy, a model I want to apply in my FYC and IRW courses in future semesters. In the IRW course in particular, learning to read feedback and manage the stances negotiated within it forms a critical part of the academic reading we need to teach. The question, of course, is how best to model this reading and support students as they work with our feedback.
Do you teach your students how to read, manage, and respond to your feedback? What strategies have worked for you?