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The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.
However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.
Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?
Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.
In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive. Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.
But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!
I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.
I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.
Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.
I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.
What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.
I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.
What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.
For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.
(Very soon to be) Lecturer in Criminology