The Pedagogy of Care
This time of year is dominated by assessment, by frantic emails, stressed students, and equally stressed teaching staff. Frances McCormack, Director of MA in English in NUI Galway discusses the need for patience and empathy in the run up to marking season.
Marking season is upon us. And things will happen that will make us all want to grumble. But:
- The student who emails me to ask about something that’s in the syllabus or that I’ve answered in writing to the entire group several times before may be stressed and in need of reassurance;
- The student who does something that I explicitly asked them not to do in class didn’t take that request on board, and there are a thousand possible reasons why;
- The student who doesn’t have a grasp of that thing I taught didn’t master the learning;
- The student who uses “would of” in their writing has either primarily assimilated auditory information about the conditional perfect, or is reflecting writing practices that are common among the people with whom they write most frequently;
- The student who is not using commas in the way I’d like probably hasn’t had anyone explain commas to them (or at least explain commas properly);
- The student who doesn’t know stuff is the reason I’m employed as a teacher;
- The students who aren’t “getting” the thing I taught them are the reason I need to re-examine course design and constructive alignment.
‘Tis the season for many posts on social media about how students didn’t pay attention or how the standard of writing is declining.
Let me tell you that as a hardworking student with lots of experience of (and an (annoyingly?) giddy enthusiasm for) learning, over the past couple of years I have:
- missed out important bits of instructions when completing tasks
- managed to implement learning in one task and completely drop it from the next when I was focussed on a new bit of learning;
- forgotten a familiar piece of knowledge every time I acquired a new one;
- overthought completely irrelevant details that for some reason seemed incredibly pertinent;
- used terminology imprecisely;
- got confused about what should be a priori knowledge and ended up in knots;
- made assumptions based on prior learning without questioning that prior learning;
- repeatedly used a term that I was requested not to use because of its imprecision;
- overlooked details that, when they were pointed out to me, seemed completely obvious;
- didn’t pay enough attention to a crucial detail and flubbed everything else as a result;
- didn’t ask a question because I got self-conscious about the number of questions I was asking, and ended up wishing I had asked the darn question.
Even though I know I have a substantial history of learning and know that learning is recursive and difficult, and even though I’d like to think that I’m a resilient and tenacious student as a result, I wouldn’t be able for the kind of scornful comments that I see people in Facebook groups saying that they write on student work.
So as we all head into marking season, may our feedback be rigorous but generous enough to make our students feel safe receiving it; may we resist the temptation to post their errors on Facebook; and may we never forget how difficult it is to learn something new in a standardised way and be tested on a very limited number of trials that may not suit our own preferred mode of engagement.
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