Monday, 11 February 2013

You Don't Have to Agree With Your Tutor ...


I was contacted by a fellow correspondence course tutor this week (he works for another company) who was quite upset about a response he’d had from one of his students. This student had received the tutor’s feedback on their assignment and had taken offence. As a result, the tutor was worried that his criticism had come across as too harsh and was not constructive.

Receiving criticism is difficult, and all tutors are aware of this. But, hopefully, the criticism a tutor gives is constructive. It should demonstrate the steps that can be taken to improve the text, and then explain why those steps lead to better text.

Does a student have to agree with a tutor’s advice and implement it? No, not at all. It is entirely up to the student whether they take the action the tutor has recommended. Most tutors, though, are drawing upon their own (successful) writing experience.

One of the student’s complaints to my fellow tutor, was that he’d picked up on all of the spelling, punctation and grammatical errors, within the text. Surely, this wasn’t necessary when so many published books have poor spelling, grammar and punctuation within them. Sadly, I can see where this attitude comes from - only this morning, whilst reading a crime novel written by a well-known novelist, (and published by one of the big four UK publishers) I came across two spelling mistakes in the text. The first one was a little dismaying, but the second one, only a few pages later, was more annoying. I began to question how many more I might come across in the book, which I expected to be professionally written and produced. But this experience doesn’t make me think it’s okay to let my standards drop. I still want to write to the best of my ability, and to the highest standard that I can attain. And that’s also what I hope for my students, too.

It came across that the student’s response was one of someone whose immediate reaction had taken the comments personally. They’d not liked what they’d read and sat down and fired off an emotional response. Whilst understandable, it’s a shame, because that tutor/student relationship is now more delicate than it might have been. In the future, my friend is more likely to exercise extreme caution when marking this student’s work, (in fear of receiving further vitriolic responses), which means the student may not get the detailed feedback that could really help them. It would probably be better if the student asked to move to a new tutor, and created a fresh tutor/student relationship. Indeed, I’ve often said to people undertaking courses, that if they don’t get on with their tutor, then ask to be transferred. The tutor/student relationship is an important one, but it is also a human relationship, and not all humans get on with one another. You’re more likely to get the most benefit from your course if you have a good relationship with your tutor.

That doesn’t mean that a student has to accept everything their tutor tells them. Sometimes, students have disagreed with my advice. They’ve taken on board my comments and spent time making the changes I’ve suggested, but then they don’t like this new result. That’s okay. I respect the student’s decision, because at least they’ve had a go at making the changes I’ve suggested. They didn’t simply dismiss my suggestions; they gave them thought, consideration and then tried acting upon them. Because of this, they now have a ‘before’ and ‘after’ piece of work, to compare, which they didn’t have before they’d received my feedback. This enables them to examine the differences and ask themselves which bits work better, and why. Being able to say that, “this works better because…” means the student has still learned something in the process, and as a result, they will be a better writer. 

At the end of the day, everybody is human: students and tutors.

Good luck.

11 comments:

  1. As a writer, taking criticism (as long as it is constructive)is something that you need to be able to accept. My writing tutor (from another writing course) gave excellent feedback(both positive and negative) and I made sure that I took what she said on board knowing that it would make my writing better. Since then, I have been lucky enough to have had several short stories accepted by magazines. One in particular has, on several occasions, given me feedback as to how to make my story better. Having learnt on my course to accept feedback graciously, I was happy to make the changes and consequently make the sales. If my ego had allowed me to think that I knew better than someone more experienced in the market, I would still be unpublished.

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  2. Interesting post, Simon. I'm a tutor for a correspondence course and it's harder, I think, to give and receive 'criticism' because you're not doing it face-to-face and there's no body language to be interpreted. On the same day that one student thanked me for my 'sensitive' critique of her poetry, another one asked me to remember that she was 'just a student'. When I probed, she admitted that she thought I was expecting her to be better than she was and that she wanted me to try 'critique' rather than 'criticise'. Ouch! I re-read what I'd written and I didn't think I'd been too harsh but of course, everyone's different. What one student might find a little patronising, another, more sensitive soul, might find too hard! But I agree, the student-tutor relationship I now have with that student has shifted slightly and I feel very conscious that I can't say anything too 'negative'!

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    1. Yes, with correspondence courses, tutors can't see the student's reaction, so it's difficult to 'temper' our critique. And students want different things. Some want to be told, bluntly, what does and doesn't work, whereas others seek more gentler guidance. It's a fine line that both the tutor and student have to balance!

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  3. Teaching at any level and on any subject always throws up this dilemma, Simon. One would hope that someone embarking on a course voluntarily would at least approach things with an open mind and expect some negative feedback. Maybe this student has had lots of friends/relations telling them how good they are and they find it difficult to accept constructive criticism. Some people seem surprised to hear that writers need to edit their work. They seem to believe this is the job of an editor and maybe this student felt the same about spelling and grammar issues. Best piece of advice I was ever given on writing reports was always end on a positive note as that is most likely to be remembered and I suppose this applies to tutoring, too.
    Ann

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    1. Hi Ann,

      Yes, if you embark on such a course, the student should accept that their work is going to be critiqued and, hopefully, points for improvements will also be accompanied by points that work well.

      It could be argued that an editor's job is to edit the text for spelling and grammar, however these days they usually only have time for editing to their house-style. There's a lot to be said for first impressions, though!

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  4. Hi Simon! I enrolled in the Writers' Bureau course 2 years ago, sent you my first assignment a year ago (loved your comments and suggestions!) but haven't continued working with the course materials. I have, however, grown my Health Divas blog, and started writing my first book. I may need to contact you offline to see how I should best continue with the WB course. Having said that, I've been following your blog and tips, which are great! Please keep inspiring us with the good stuff!
    Best,
    Alex

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    1. Hi Alex,

      Good to read that you've been busy writing! Re the course, give Student Services a ring (0161 819 9917). They let you know what your options are.

      Best wishes,

      Simon

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  5. I belong to a group in which we give feedback on each other's work. I don't always agree with comments and suggestions but I think even the ones I don't agree with can be useful as they remind us that different people will interpret our work in different ways.

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    1. Hi Patsy,

      Yes, I do think in a group environment it is slightly different, because you're getting a wide range of views through the different individual's interpretation of your work. And because of that I think people are more likely to evaluate the criticism and then discard the criticism they don't feel is right and take on board the criticism that does feel valid to them.

      I always say that in a group environment it's useful if the writer can write down the feedback they're being given, rather than try to explain or justify what they meant. If the writer is having to do this then the writing didn't quite work!

      Simon

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  6. As has been said, correspondence critique can be a different thing from face to face. Rather like emails, when the tone of comment that would be obvious in real life, cannot be gleaned from words on a screen.

    However, if you enrol on a course, surely the expectation is for critique, not just winning praise? No one is perfect and no one ever stops learning. I think picking up on spelling errors, etc would be fair enough. I am amazed at the amount of people who still think it's ok to submit work with glaring errors because they 'think it is someone else's job'. But having had it pointed out, that fact should be acknowledged and used. I think you are right in saying that the reply your tutor friend received was a bit of a knee jerk reaction.

    We may not always agree with criticism. Sometimes it may be that it needs some clarification, so perhaps just leaving it a couple of days and then replying and asking if the tutor could elaborate on a comment rather than firing off a bitter response immediately may be a better path to follow?

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