My husband, Tim, and I are different.
One of my colleagues highlighted this difference when she said, “Tim’s nice. And Sharon, you have good ideas. Together you make one decent person.”
It’s become something of a refrain for us and we joke about it at odd times in that way couples do when the truth of what’s been said hits us between the eyes.
It serves to bring our difference into sharp relief.
Tim is nice.
And I do have good ideas.
In our work as teacher educators, we assess a lot of student work. Tim writes nice comments on the work he marks; his language is positive and his niceness exudes through his words. When students receive their assignments, they feel reassured.
He loads his presentation, gathers his papers and asks me if I’m ready.
I love listening to Tim’s presentations because his thinking is so clear, he uses language beautifully, and the connections he makes are interesting ones. His voice is soothing and controlled and warm.
My mind flashes back to November 23, 1999: the first time I heard Tim speak. It was his Honours presentation and I was impressed by the clarity of his thinking and the way he communicated ideas. Even though I didn’t know him then, I was determined to introduce myself to him afterwards. Three months later we meet again, both new PhD candidates, in adjoining offices. I listen to him speak on numerous occasions over the next few years and he impresses me each time.
This presentation is different though. It’s not Tim at his best. He finishes and looks expectantly at me.
I am not nice.
I load my presentation, gather my papers and ask him if he’s ready.
I start and a few slides in, I stop. I had had an idea. I tell Tim I’ll be back in a moment.
A few minutes later I am back, and I start again.
Tim listens respectfully. I finish and look expectantly at him.
Tim is nice.
I give Tim some feedback on his presentation: “I was confused by this slide because it didn’t reflect what you were saying”, “the information you spoke about [at this point] was very complex”, “on the fourth slide the information you present is in the opposite order to what you say and that distracts me”
Tim is upset.
“Do you have anything nice to say?”
Tim gives me feedback on my presentation: “It’s great. Well done. You’ll be fabulous. I really like how you have organised your ideas”
I am upset.
“Don’t give me nice. Tell me how to make it better.”
And there’s the difference.
Tim wanted me to be nice. He needed to be reassured.
I wanted Tim to be critical. I needed to be better.
Tim’s feedback to students reassures them. They feel that they can do ‘this’, that they can succeed, that they can achieve their goal of getting through university and being a teacher.
My feedback is anything but reassuring. It points out how they can improve their work, how they can communicate in writing more clearly, how they might connect their ideas in more logical ways … it doesn’t reassure.
I challenge and question.
I struggle to write nice things. I object to the ‘bollocks sandwich’ approach (as one student described it): the say something nice, then say something constructive about how the work could be improved, then finish with something else nice.
To me it feels like I’m writing platitudes and empty words: “Thank you for your submission. You have used a clear font and met the word count.”
It feels wrong to me, and not at all reassuring.
And it’s because I wouldn’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me stupid stuff, tell me what I can do to improve my work – don’t waste my time with things that don’t matter.
We are taught from a young age that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us.
But that’s quite patently wrong.
What’s really at work here is this: do unto others as they would be done unto.
When I ‘do unto others as I would have them do unto me’, I give the kind of feedback that I want to hear.
But there are plenty of students who want something different: they want to be reassured.
Tim is going to have to get more critical.
And I’m going to have to learn to be nice.
It’s going to be a struggle for both of us.