At the end of last week, I got my first ever bit of listener feedback (family members not included).
From time to time, I get asked to opine on the local BBC radio station on matters of local and national importance. It’s a good way to engage with our community and a good opportunity for me to practise speaking off-the-cuff, since we don’t rehearse the questions beforehand.
Any how, this time I was being asked about a change in policy by the leadership of the County Council on personal allowances. This followed a bit of a campaign by local media, which I’d noticed at the time, but not fully explored, as it’s not particularly relevant to my research or teaching.
So on I went, talked about how I saw it all and what was at work here (media pressure, internal party dissent, etc.). The presenter seemed happy, so job done.
But when I arrived at the office, there was a voicemail waiting for me.
The caller introduced herself as the mother of someone thinking of coming to study with us, and said she was concerned by my ‘simplistic’ analysis of the case. She knew someone involved, who had told her that there was some personal politics to the whole situation and that this was the main driver of the change in policy. She was concerned that all our teaching might suffer from such over-simplification. Her sign-off was “that’s just something I wanted to say, so thank you.”
I found this really frustrating, on a number of levels.
Firstly, while I was happy to accept that I had simplified matters, especially as I was ignorant of the factor she mentioned, I did feel that not to have mentioned something that is not in the public domain (and I checked) was a bit harsh. Highly popular as I am, I don’t have contacts in the local Tory party, so I was being judged by a yardstick that I would struggle to attain.
Secondly, the linkage between what I said in a radio interview of 3 minutes and what I might say in a module with 22 contact hours, assorted online work and other activities seems tenuous. Sadly, I’ve now done enough media to know that interviewers are looking for brevity and conciseness, rather than endless nuance. Likewise, I’ve certainly done enough teaching to know how to use the time available to maximise student reflection and criticality, so that anything I contribute is dealt with in a considered manner.
And thirdly, the lady didn’t leave me any good option for talking with her about it. She’d expressed an opinion, I would like to respond to it, but unless I can get the radio station to broadcast an appeal for her to phone me back, I’m left with writing this post instead. If we’d been able to talk, then I might have been able to talk it through: that would be partly to reassure her about her daughter’s education with us, but more to talk through her understanding of the original story.
All of this clearly relates back to how we deal with students. Do we evaluate students on an equitable basis? Do we extrapolate unfairly from individual incidents? And do we provide means to continue the dialogue with the student?
Each of these questions needs to be considered when giving feedback, so it’s worth spending some time reflecting on it. Addressing them isn’t that difficult, but it’s also easy for us to forget that often we will have access to privileged information that’s not generally known, or that we often see the feedback form as the end of matters, rather than a beginning.
Ultimately then, the feedback I got has been of use, because it’s helped me share the wider point with you. I’d still like to talk with the caller, though.