Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Happy Sandwich Goes Wrong

We're so hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up for things that we would cheerfully dismiss in our friends and family, if we noticed them at all. I find most students are hyper-sensitive to criticism, not in a touchy way - huh, what does she know? - but in self-flagellating way - I'm rubbish, I write rubbish.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Last year I met one. This student had had some happy sandwich feedback on a piece of writing, and they'd only registered the nice top-and-tailing bit. In fact, the criticism had so not registered that they decided to submit the writing for another class exactly as it had been. And got me...

I obviously didn't use enough bread in my happy sandwich, and concentrated on the filling. Much of it consisted of technical points such as ungrammatical sentence construction, shifts in tense, inconsistent characters - things that are a matter of fact, not opinion. But there was some opinion in there too. It's sort of what I'm there for.

Oh dear. The student was not pleased. They showed me the first set of feedback (which raised the question of self-plagiarism but that was the least of the issues). I could see the first tutor had seen the same technical errors I had, had written them down there in clear prose. I pointed this out to the student, but the student instead pointed to the happy bit of the sandwich. That was all that mattered to them.

It wasn't a very successful session.

I've thought about it a lot, about the role of a creative writing tutor. Am I there to point out technical errors, suggest potential ways of improvement and help a writer move forward in their own way, recognising that their way may not be mine, and my opinions are just that, opinions. I've always thought that was it, but perhaps for some students that's wrong. They want bolstering up, confidence boosting, encouragement.

And given that getting published is so hard, is it wrong to encourage people to enjoy their work without regard to what is publishable? Except...if the course is part of an academic programme of study and not a leisure course, surely there have to be some standards that get applied. We can't all get prizes, not all the time. And it devalues the work those who want to improve, who strive to master technical problems, who put in the hours and are not content with acceptable.

The happy sandwich helps people accept criticism; this has to be a good thing. But I think as tutors we have to be aware that not everyone reads the sandwich in the same way.

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