Negative Feedback, and Sea Anemones

I teach college writing in my free time. I start out every semester by asking students their goals, and they have always answered sheepishly that they just want to pass the class and get out. I riposte that I understand that and don’t care: my goal is that they will be much better writers by the end of the semester.

This year was different. After teaching at this college for three years, I got new answers.

“I heard,” one guy said, “that you really want to help us be good writers, and that’s what I want.”

“I like that you’re a professional writer,” a girl said.

I was a bit startled, because as you can tell that was kind of like my opening joke. I didn’t have a good response for new lines. I told Rosie about it, and she briskly said, “Rate My Professor. Maybe word of mouth.”

“This is why I welcome negative feedback,” she continued. “People see positive feedback saying that you really work hard with the students and negative feedback saying you expect them to work hard, and it winnows out the ones who won’t be a good fit in your class.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. I don’t do any marketing as a teacher. I’m like a sea anemone. I do a good job in my classroom, waving the old tentacles as it were, but that’s it. Anything that swims in, I teach it. I don’t go out prospecting for the dedicated students. Not a bad idea, perhaps, but I never thought of it.

And yet, as Rosie gave examples from business, what she said made a lot of sense. If you have positive feedback saying you have a top quality product and negative feedback saying that you cost too much, you are likely to have fewer prospective customers who can’t afford your wares. If you have positive feedback saying that you get jobs done quickly and negative feedback saying you don’t work well with corporate offices, you’re likely to appeal more to a small, agile company.

Three years is about how long it takes for a new company to become established (or go under). Three years at the college must be how long it takes for word to get around, so that instead of an entirely random group I have students who have intentionally chosen my class.

I don’t know whether this thought will change how you respond to negative feedback, but it could.







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