When I was an undergrad, I spent a year abroad studying at a university in Scotland—one of the oldest universities in the U.K. During the orientation for incoming students, one of the speakers, a dean of some sort as I remember it, continued what seemed a long-standing tradition by reading aloud to the incoming class the toughest comments that students had received on their papers in the previous year. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember most of the comments, but I remember laughing at many, cringing at most, and feeling like all of them were unnecessarily harsh. “These Brits don’t mess around,” I thought. As the speaker progressed through his list, the room took on the atmosphere of a comedy roast, culminating in the comment of the year, which I do remember still. It was this: “The wheel is turning, but the hamster is dead!”
As an outsider, it seemed an odd tradition, and I could only guess the point was to fill incoming students with sufficient dread at the thought of receiving such brutal criticism that they’d step up their academic game, now that they were at such a prestigious university. At the time, I thought it was pretty funny and a bit old-school, and perhaps this made it seem appropriate to a university founded in 1413. In retrospect, as a teacher, it makes me cringe a lot harder. This time for a professoriat, who would not only engage in such behavior but celebrate it as some sort of ritual of the academy. No. Sorry. We should have come a lot farther as teachers in six hundred years.
I can understand the impulse. We’ve all been there—it’s nearing midnight, paper number forty-two, thirteen more to go still, and there it is, the worst-formed, worst-considered worst idea of the worst night of the semester. It’s just crying out for a dead-hamster caliber zinger, oh man! Just drop it, you think. It’ll feel so good.
Here’s the thing. Professors and instructors don’t get to be there when students read their comments. They don’t need to see the looks on their students’ faces when they read their feedback. As much as it may seem like good fun to have a laugh at the comments of the year, it’s all too easy to forget that there was a student on the other end of that dead hamster bomb. Talk to anyone who’s worked in a writing center. They’ve all consulted with students who’ve worked earnestly and tried their best and strived to impress their professors, only to be met with a crushing rebuke—and for the transgression of what? Not knowing everything yet? Is that education? That’s something different, something that has no place in education.
There’s a world of things to say on written feedback, and we’ll say a lot here at TCW, but we might as well start with this golden rule of feedback: don’t write anything on a student’s paper you wouldn’t say face-to-face to someone you care about.
This golden rule is probably not a revelation to most anyone conscientious enough to seek out ways to improve their teaching of writing. But it bears mentioning as a starting point, because it brings into focus the purpose of feedback, not as a tool for evaluation, and certainly not as an opening for one-liners, but as an opportunity for education. Being callous, overly harsh, or even dismissive of student work not only represents a missed opportunity for education, but it also represents a shirking of responsibility on the part of the instructor, who has an obligation to respond earnestly, with the assumption the student is putting forth their best effort and the mutual understanding that the student is there to learn.
If those things are true, then the worst thing we could do as educators would be to punish the student for doing that much. Any earnest effort at self-improvement should be lauded, not criticized.
None of this is to say teachers should patronize our students or be reluctant to correct mistakes that need correcting. For to do that would be a disservice of a different kind. Students are in your class to learn, after all, and your expertise is what brings them through the door. That’s what they’re looking for when they get papers back, and dead hamsters should never be part of that equation.
At TCW, we’re going to strive to discuss many different strategies for presenting feedback to student writing, from heuristics to rubrics to the intersection of assignment design and feedback. But all of that begins with the simple premise that every comment teachers write should be written with the intention that it will help the student in their quest to improve as a writer, thinker, and scholar.
And with that said, the hamster is truly dead.