Productive Complaining

Last semester was probably the worst experience I’ve ever had teaching a First Year Composition course. While I had hoped my students would see me as an ally, someone invested in their success, many of them never got over the feeling that – by giving them criticism and a grade – I was the “enemy.” This led to a certain sense of despondency on their part, one that I tried to remedy but could not. The written portion of their final evaluations revealed this most without ambiguity, as did this email that I received on Thanksgiving day regarding a recently returned paper (I’ve edited this somewhat to make it even more anonymous):

First  my works cited WAS indented before you converted it to a PDF. This seems to happen every time. Secondly  I was not totally rushed to write my paper. I do have other classes than yours, you know and I had two 4 page papers due that week back to back. I make 100s on all my other papers so I think you have a problem with me or you’re just to picky. I do what you ask me to do and I change it then when you grade it  so you must forget what you told me and you count off anyway. In all my other English classes I’ve made As and Bs and I’ve had many works published in books and Ive never had a problem until I took your class. 

It’s aggressive, angry, and on many levels, inappropriate. Yet what the student thought is that I was accusing her of things, rather than trying to help her. This was also the first “reflective” or “complaining” email I had received from the student, which suggests she internalized her frustration and let it all out at once. She’s mad at both small things (the fact that I told her to indent the second line of her works cited) and big things (I’m too picky). In my end-comments, I suggested that she might have been rushed in writing the paper – as I had some evidence that she wrote it at the last minute. This assumption clearly felt like an accusation, and I’ll never do it again. Her frustration probably built with each returned paper, before it exploded. And I should note that this is someone who, while doing poorly on this particular assignment, got a B in the course. Ultimately, I never got to address this with the student, because I told her to meet me in my office and she never did.

While you might see this as evidence of a student’s entitlement (I’ve made As and Bs), or pathology (that she never expressed her irritation before to avoid this blow-up), it would be irresponsible not to recognize part of this falls squarely on me as an instructor, and it’s prompted me to create the following reflective assignment: “Productive complaining”


—————————————————————————————— (note, after posting this, I see the typos; they’ve been fixed)

My opening salvo is the key to this exercise as a pedagogical endeavor: by complaining, students are practicing and employing a personal form of rhetoric, which is the primary goal of my class. But as is hopefully clear, the other imperative of this assignment is to have an ongoing conversation with students about how they feel being graded and critiqued, and about how I can best help them with my marginal- and end- comments. Hopefully, I’ve also formalized the process of complaining, establishing it as genre, encouraging it as an ethical practice, and using the mechanisms of the class to give it a channel through which it can occur.

Finally, it furthers the project that I always see myself engaged in: of de-centering authority and giving the student ownership over his or her education.

When I explained this to the class, I noticed that they were alternately delighted and confused. Some of the delight may have been the carrot-and-stick approach through which I’m encouraging them to complain initially by giving them a grade boost. And the confusion is most obviously related to the fact that I am a weird teacher who has already asked them to write three drafts of a a rhetorical analysis of a commercial and now is ordering them to complain about their grades. And I imagine there was some suspicion as well. A student from another one of my classes was nearby, waiting for her next class to begin, and immediately walked in saying, “Did I hear you right? Were you insisting that your students complain?!”

Yes. Yes, I was.

The complaints are not due until later today, but the first early-bird response I received suggests unqualified success:


I love this complaint. It tells me so much about how and why the student is concerned. Here’s what happened: the student got an “A” on the paper, which is the highest grade I gave. However, when he looked at his grade on Canvas, he was frustrated to receive a “95.” I gave him a “95” because that corresponds to an “A” in the gradebook, and Canvas has no way of merely entering and calculating letter grades. Therefore, I ultimately don’t stick hard and fast to numerical averages, mainly using Canvas as a place to store and record grades. He’s also confused as to why I gave him a “5/5” on earlier drafts; in fact, I was just acknowledging that he completed them and giving him credit for doing so. My comments, rather than the grade, reflected the quality. I can explain this to him, and he might not be totally satisfied with the answer, but at least there is an answer. This is clearly a student who is concerned about his grade, perhaps overly concerned, to the point where he’s managing every point and trying to figure out what he needs to do to receive that “A.” That’s something I can help him with by explaining the way grades work in my class; it also initiates a conversation about grading practices in general.

But as an instructor, there’s also this for me: I clearly gave this student nothing but “good job” type criticisms. In looking over the paper, there were places where I probably could have been specific and suggestive. This is problem for me, I think, with “A” papers: I tend to give them a breeze-by on the comments because they’re mostly doing everything right. Of course, their papers aren’t perfect, and therefore I can offer more constructive criticisms as a way of thinking about future assignments. I’m glad to have learned this.

So far, I like this a lot. I’ll be reporting back on my progress eventually.


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