I just finished marking an enormous amount of essays. Some good, some middle-of-the-road. Some were trying too hard to please the marker, and others were not even trying. Some had a true spark of insight. Some were a real pleasure to read. As I was typing my feedback, I remembered of one of Peter Elbow’s footnotes in Writing with Power:
Part of the reason why inexperienced writers benefit so little from the corrections of teachers on their essays is because the teacher is usually trying to correct flaws in an argument, while the student hasn’t yet learned simply to engage in sustained argument by himself on paper. The student experiences the feedback as a double-bind. “You ask me to engage in sustained, abstract, solitary reasoning – something that is difficult for me – and when I do you punish my behaviour” (p. 68).
Elbow does not offer a strategy to avoid the double-bind. Feedback is a delicate matter and deserves to be handled with care. It might even remain in the student’s memory for years. A friend of mine still remembers after 15 years the feedback he got after an assessed performance: “a wee bit wooden”, he was told. The teacher might not even remember the comment, but my friend most certainly does.
Assessment is required, but it can interrupt the pedagogic dialogue. Ultimately, critical thinking is the ability to sustain a conversation with the material, to interrogate it, to ask questions, to find connections. Unfortunately, assessment is so much part of our educational paradigm that a significant number of students when invited to engage critically with something, automatically look for flaws and inconsistencies. The assessment breaks two dialogues: the one between teacher and student and the one between student and material. It freezes the conversation in time and sticks a number on the output.
Teaching and learning are balancing acts. Beyond the marks and the feedback, there are people, there is thought, and there are subjectivities in flux (the learner’s and the teacher’s). I’m not sure if can can dodge the double-bind. At the time of typing up that feedback and sticking that number on the work, I need to squint and see past the anonymous essay, listen to the voice – no matter how faint -, appreciate the tussle with the material, and the labour that went into putting the essay together. Then the dialogue might, just might, not turn into uncomfortable silence.