Saturday, April 6, 2013

Room for improvement...

So, posting about the social worker who has a blog led to having a discussion with my husband about career stuff.  My husband got chewed out by his boss yesterday, because one of the guys who works for my husband messed something up and got it out late.  Since my husband is the boss, the final product was his responsibility.  We were talking about solutions to the problem.  Turns out the guy responsible for the poor work is an immigrant whose written and spoken English needs help.  I told my husband that if it were me, I would strongly encourage the guy to take a remedial English course.  Normally, that would mean getting the guy to avail himself of the tuition assistance the military had been giving servicemembers.  Sadly, thanks to the budget crisis, that program has been discontinued... hopefully only temporarily.

Since my husband is about to be a short timer and doesn't have time to help the guy improve his English, I said I would concentrate on the guy's strengths and let him do those tasks.  Pass on the writing tasks to someone who can do the job efficiently.  And then I would still encourage the guy to learn how to write properly.  I would explain to him that not being able to create sentences with appropriate subject verb agreement, correct tenses, and without misspelled words and typos will only hold him back professionally and waste other people's time.  When my husband gets this work from his staffers, he has to correct it.  That prevents him from doing his own work and costs the government (and taxpayers) money.

It's pretty scary how many people can't write a proper sentence.  My husband has seen it in his job.  We both saw it when we were in graduate school.  People who should have learned how to write proper sentences in grade school can't, for the life of them, write a single one.  And a lot of them can't speak English properly, either.  

I remember when I was getting my MSW, I saw a woman give an outstanding presentation on sexually transmitted diseases.  Her talk included disgusting photos of genitalia mutilated by untreated STDs.  It was a riveting performance...  until she used the non-word "tooken" instead of "taken".  I commented that she had given a great presentation, and I didn't want to come off as anal retentive, but it really detracted from that good work she did when she didn't speak correctly.  Fortunately, this lady was very gracious and wasn't averse to getting constructive criticism.  I made sure to reiterate to her that I thought that presentation was marvelous and I wouldn't want something like that to lessen its impact.  It's an easy mistake to fix with practice and mindfulness.

Another woman was not so interested in feedback.  She gave a great presentation that appeared to have been completely memorized.  It was as if she had spent hours standing in front of a mirror, memorizing what she was going to say by rote.  I commented that I wondered how she would react if someone somehow caught her off guard-- maybe by interrupting her somehow.   The professor agreed and said that the presentation seemed very rehearsed.

My classmate didn't appreciate my comment.  I understand that.  No one likes to be criticized, especially when they worked hard on something.  On the other hand, why pay thousands of dollars to be in school if you're just going through the motions to get a piece of paper?  School is a place for learning and correction.  Besides, nobody's perfect.  There's almost always room for improvement.  I do think it's important to deliver criticism in a respectful way, but criticism is very important for development.  Otherwise, you'll rest on your laurels and produce mediocre deliverables.  You won't be inspired to create something truly excellent and well-conceived.

This same classmate bore a grudge against me.  Later that year, we were in another class with the same professor.  She happened to be doing her internship at a place where I had also interviewed.  In the course of that interview, the interviewers (young women who had recently graduated and were now preceptors) asked me why I studied social work.  I was honest about my reasons...  probably too honest, since my reasons mostly involved getting over depression.  As I left the interview, I had decided I didn't want to intern there and did not put them on my short list.  My classmate ended up getting a spot there and-- before I had offended her-- asked me why I didn't want to intern there.  Again, I was honest, and she apparently went back to them with that information.  

Evidently, one day my former classmate and the would-be preceptors must have all sat around in a circle and had a good old fashioned gossip session about me and my interview with them.  Because one day in class, my classmate brought it up when we were talking about how to do interviews.  She didn't mention my name, but I knew she was talking about me and using my interview with her preceptors (which she wasn't present for and knew of only as hearsay) as an example of what not to do in an interview.  I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of a reaction and kept passive... which I think pissed her off even more.  All it confirmed to me is that I made the right choice in not choosing to intern with those people.

Actually, I wish it had occurred to me to speak up and call my former classmate on the carpet.  I wish I had looked her in the eye and said, "Are you talking about my interview with your preceptors?  Because if you are, I think you're making it very clear that I made the right choice not to work with them.  Obviously, you all have nothing better to do than to sit around making fun of people.  Nice demonstration of what not to do as a social worker.  What a nasty, toxic workplace that must be.  You'd better be careful.  Because if they're willing to talk shit about me, they will one day talk shit about you.  Moreover, you are in a classroom with people you may later end up working for or with, and people tend to have long memories about that sort of thing."

But as it was, I kept my mouth shut and didn't react to her.  Perhaps it was better to just let her look like a jackass trying and failing to humiliate me.  I tried to ignore her for the rest of the year and thanked God when I moved away and didn't have to see her again.  I pity anyone who has dealings with her now because it occurs to me that she was all about appearances.  Her work looked very good on the surface; it was all style with little substance.  Underneath the surface, it was basically shit, just like her personality.

Sheesh.  Obviously, I still have some issues.

In all seriousness, our culture doesn't embrace mistakes and we don't like it when people point out our shortcomings.  Hell, go on the SingSnap messageboard and there's a thread written by someone who observed that 99% of the comments he gets on his karaoke is that it's "awesome", even though he knows it's not.  That thread got rather animated as people pointed out that karaoke is for fun. And it is... but other things in life are not for fun and you can't improve without help from others who are willing to observe and comment.  And even for "fun" things like karaoke, it's not a bad thing to learn how you might improve, as long as the suggestions are given in a way that is respectful and kind... or at least professional.  Maybe on a karaoke site, criticism is not welcome.  In school or in the workplace, it probably should be.  That's how you learn.

Nobody likes constructive criticism-- including me.  But it's kind of like medicine.  It helps you get better.  The sooner you realize that and embrace it, the sooner you can become better at whatever it is you're doing.


  1. The person who used your interview, even without using your name, as a "how not to" example, despite or especially having no first-hand knowledge of the situation, made the entire company from the ground up look horrible. It's unfortunate theycuoldn't have been told about her, but I don't blame you for not caring enough to sayor do anything. It was their problem -- not yours.

    The issue of teaching second-language writers to write properly is tough. It almost has to be started from the ground up, because usually the foundation simply is not there, and so attempting to intervene at a higher level doesn't work. The sad thing is that many English-only speakers lack that basic foudation just as English-as-a-Second-Language speakers do. (Hearing the work "tooken" spoken aloud causes my ears to hurt.)

    I did some of my required service hours helping in the writing lab. It was easier to help foreign students who had been given thorough English grammar instruction in intermediate and high school in their homeland than students who had loosy gooosy whole language educations in the U.S. Admittedly, the UC system has relatively few of such students-- most of my classmates are at least adequate writers, as those who lack basic writing skills usually flunk out after two semesters. It's a more common problem in the California State University system and in the junior college system. Students are in attendance there who never should have graduated from high school.

    In terms of constructive criticism, my mom starting, from the very beginning of my playing piano in public, constructively criticizing me. She always said something good about my performance along with the criticism, but she was diplomatically blunt, if that makes any sense. She says now that it was hard for her to do it (she still does it) and that she felt mean, but that she didn't believe in just telling me that everything I played was wonderful. She was careful enough to word it in such a way that I wouldn't feel like a failure and be intimidated about playing in public again, but still she was very specific in her criticism. (I think maybe that made it easier to take. Hearing, "Your left hand sounded choppy in the mid-section of the sub-theme" was better than, "You didn't play very well today." Her praise was usually equallt specific.) I don't think it ever actually hurt my feelings. I went through the teen years of thinking, "What the hell does she know?" but I now know that she knows a great deal and that anything she told me was correct.

    Regarding the whole chain of command thing in the military, I know far less about it than you would. I have a cousin who just got out of active duty in the Navy. He went in right after his high school graduation as an IT and advanced fairly quickly. Before he had off-base living privileges, he was often the highest ranking person living in his section of the barracks. That section for some reason also housed a large group of Marines even though it was a Navy base. (It was in Yorktown, Virginia, if that means anything.) These guys were all several years older and much bigger and stronger than my cousin, and weren't even in his branch of the service, and thus certainly didn't feel that they had to answer to him. They frequently got drunk and did stupid stuff such as setting trash cans on fire for no apparent reason, or setting off illegal fireworks. Then my cousin and the one other Navy guy with a similar rank would be called in and asked to account for what usually the Marines had done. The second my cousin reached the point where he was allowed off-base living privileges, he got the hell out of there.

    1. Well, that woman was probably in the right place for her nasty personality. I had heard bad things about that organization from other people and that was one of the reasons I didn't want to work there. Another friend worked at one of their satellite offices and ended up having to change placements (as did I, but that's another, completely unrelated story).

      When I taught EFL to adults in Armenia, I had them read out loud. They didn't like it-- thought it was boring. But their boss (an American) told me that their writing improved dramatically. The woman who said "tooken" was a fellow American.

      I took piano when I was very young, but quit after a couple of years. My mom used to make me practice and I wanted to play outside. Then she opened her own business. I wish I had stuck with it. I'd love to be able to play piano now. But if I had learned, my mom would have been critical.

      Your cousin must have been at the Naval Weapons Station. I have been there many times, as I grew up right across the river from Yorktown. I felt bad for my husband on Friday. He was very upset about the whole thing. He's a sensitive soul who does his best all the time and hates to let people down. But there are only so many hours in a day and he can't always pick up the slack for his people when he's doing his own work.

      I told my husband that if the guy was yelling at me, I would have reminded him that in a few short months I'd be out of there and someone else's problem. ;-) I bet that comment would stop that guy's tirade in a heartbeat. Unless, of course, he said "good"... at which point, I would know where I stood. Then, to get my husband to laugh, I offered to give him a BJ. And that really is a joke, because I don't do that... ever! :-D

  2. p.S. My mom now asks if I want to hear constructive criticism before she offers it, and she knows it also goes both ways. I'm not overly rude, as in I'd never criticize her in front of anyone else (nor would she do the same to me) but I'm not above saying, "You know that high B-flat? You didn't hit it all that cleanly."

    1. Sounds like your mom has respect for you. That's a great thing!


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