A kind word is too rarely heard


My career has been divided between school and university teaching: in both I made late discoveries. I’d been a teacher of English in high schools for almost 20 years before it became clear to me that the most significant component of what I was doing with my students was what I call “making meaning”. Each time I taught Romeo and Juliet or Ted Hughes’ The Thought-Fox, the result was noticeably different in interpretation or emphasis; the “meaning” of the text was a consequence of a collaboration between myself and the particular set of students I was teaching at the time.

In my university work, I have been concerned primarily with creative writing; in other words, with helping students to make meaning for themselves. The pedagogy (a word defined plainly as “the methods and activities of teaching” by the Cambridge English Dictionary) in my discipline is straightforward. The rudiments of virtually every creative writing course I know consist of three elements: the workshop (engaging with the writing of fellow students), the tutorial (engaging with someone who has direct experience of the field: a published writer) and evidence of reflective learning in a series of commentaries on the student’s own work.

Once again, though, I’ve come at the tail end of my career to give consideration to a key idea in my practice: encouragement. I became aware of it not in a university context but at the wonderful Ullapool Book Festival. Since authors are urged to stay for the entire three-day duration and attend as many events as possible, I heard many writers read and talk about writing in a short space of time. I was struck by how many of them used the word encouragement to define a significant moment in their careers. It might have been a timely intervention by a respected writer or even a positive rejection from a magazine or publisher. Either way, encouragement was a potent – and remembered – motivator for them all. And yet, the word had been absent from any pedagogy I could recall at any of the universities with which I’d been acquainted as a lecturer or as an external examiner.

I googled “pedagogy of encouragement in higher education”. Nothing came up. It is recognised as a significant element in primary education – “Children and teachers need encouragement like a plant needs water”, one article comments. But it seems that at university we’re all too grown up to need encouragement. Not so, according to the playwright Sylvia Dow, who enrolled in a master’s in playwriting at the University of Glasgow and had her first play performed in 2012, at the age of 73. She told me that but for the encouragement of one of her tutors, she would never have been in the position she is in today as a practising playwright with, by now, several productions to her name.

Ah, you might say, hers was a raw talent that only needed drawing out, but I would argue that encouragement is not only effective with those who have a natural ability. Used thoughtfully, encouragement is a strategy – a pedagogical method – in the same way that discouragement is a wrecking ball. I’m sure I’m not alone in lacking confidence in those areas (maths and singing, for example) in which encouragement was not part of the professional toolbox of my teachers. On the other hand, I know many university lecturers who do give or apply encouragement as part of their practice, even though there is no institutional discussion of it.

I begin to wonder whether this lacuna is a result of the pressures of assessment. In the US, high schools have had to learn, painfully, to discern between praise and encouragement. Students have returned with a vengeance to places where estimates of their talents and their life chances had been wildly and carelessly overblown. In a country where firearms are widely available, their bitterness has been deadly. That is the extreme, but in the UK too there is frequent complaint and bad feeling after a disappointing result that the student feels was not predicted. But while studies show that praise can have a negative effect, freezing students in their tracks, encouragement is a more subtle instrument. It is meaningful only if it is proportionate, based on an understanding and acknowledgement of prior achievement. In short, praise is definitive; encouragement, focusing as it does on growth and improvement, implies a journey.

All university journeys end with a final assessment, of course. And, as suggested, it is here that the misunderstandings generally lie. Yet surely the utilisation of encouragement is too vital a pedagogical tool to shy away from. In fact, perhaps it could be of most use to both the student and the lecturer if they could open up a dialogue about it, so that the lecturer could use it thoughtfully and the student would not confuse the pedagogical and personal value of encouragement with their final assessment.

This implies collaboration once again; this time, an ongoing collaborative attitude to formative assessment that sits uneasily in the current culture of clients and providers. Moreover, as Marina Warner pointed out following her very public resignation from the University of Essex in 2014, those who work within universities are not provided with a nourishing template of encouragement by the “larger mechanics of power” within their institutions. Encouragement comes in many forms and serves many purposes; a friend recently confided to me that it would have made a great deal of difference to the morale of her husband – a university senior lecturer of long standing – “to be thanked, from time to time”.

Author Bio: Tom Pow worked for 10 years at the University of Glasgow, latterly as senior lecturer in creative writing and storytelling. For the past eight years, he has taught part-time on the master’s in creative writing (distance learning) at Lancaster University. He has recently been recorded for The Poetry Archive.