This is the most minor of problems, but to me it is a recurring annoyance. My topic is tea! I am a tea drinker, and nobody in this coffee- and now beer-obsessed country seems to know anything about it. The “better” restaurants and cafes are the worst. The greasy spoons and fast-food places may only offer two kinds of not-so-great tea—regular and decaf—but at least those are real, unflavored black teas, not some mixture of herbs without any tea in it at all, or some flavored tea like Earl Grey. This has been my recurring scenario: I ask for tea and the they either recite a long list, or bring me a big box, full of flavored and non-tea teas. When I ask for just regular black tea, they point to the spiced Chai or to the Earl Grey, which, as I am sure you know, is flavored with bergamot. Can you imagine asking for coffee in a restaurant and being offered your choice of chicory or Ovaltine, and then saying no, regular coffee, and being served coffee flavored with pumpkin or hazelnuts?
The above is Part One of my problem. Do you sympathize with my plight and see the force of my argument, and can you think of anything to do about it? Part Two is related: on my first date with the woman I am now seeing regularly and am crazy about, she had occasion to bring me a cup of plain black tea. She brought us both Earl Grey, which she loves and just thought of as a kind of black tea, and I pretended to like it, too, which was not hard because I liked everything about that evening. How do I retreat without spoiling the memory of that first moment, where we kept looking up from our cardboard cups and into each other’s eyes and being amazed at how much we had in common?
Thanks for tackling my silly questions. If you are on a roll, could you also think about Part Three: why am I writing about tea, and why are you answering me, when the world seems to be falling apart?
—Fussy in Franconia
Dear F in F,
Your questions are dear to my own exacting, though capacious, heart. I will take them in order.
Part One (no real tea). I could not agree more. Why is it considered understandable, even kind of cool and cowboyish, to insist on real coffee and say stuff like “my coffee already has a flavor—it tastes like coffee!”—while people who refuse the rooibos and return the Earl Grey are thought of as picky, demanding, effete cranks? So, yeah, I deeply sympathize. As for what to do about it, I suppose that our only choices are to try to change public opinion, one June-reader or benighted barista at a time—but politely, while preserving at least the appearance of flexibility—and to travel with our own tea bags. I actually do that, when I remember. Most restaurants that actually brew loose tea will have some plain black tea. The others just give you hot water, so it is no big deal to use your own bag.
Part Two (memory, and the Earl Grey first date). Does your beloved have a sense of humor? Would she be charmed if you fessed up now, stressing how much you wanted everything to go perfectly that night because you were already falling in love? Or would it upset her to think that your relationship is built, in some very tiny and inconsequential part, on a lie? It might help if you added that, in your totally smitten state, that first-date Earl Grey tasted like ambrosia. On the other hand, this could backfire if it occurred to her that you don’t seem to find it ambrosial any longer. Use your judgment.
If you think that full disclosure is not the safest policy here, I see no problem with resorting to a minor subterfuge to get out of having to drink Earl Grey for what may be the rest of your life: namely, coming up with some reason to justify a change. The simplest would be coming home one day and saying that you had some wonderful Darjeeling or plain old P. G. Tips at lunch, and think you’ve regained your preference for unflavored tea. If you want to get fancy, you could say that you drank some Earl Grey at lunch and it tasted funny (which would be true, in your case) and that you wonder if you are developing an allergy to bergamot (perfectly legit to wonder about this: there are some possible side-effects, the Internet says).
Part Three (talking about tea in times of crisis). I am not sure whether you are asking about silly or frivolous topics in general, or tea in particular. As for the general question why you and I are still concerning ourselves with trivial things during these ominous days when our nation’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches are respectively unhinged, reactionary, and threatened, I have to confess that I worry about this myself. This very morning, for example, there are calls I could be making and larger steps I could be planning. And perhaps we are getting to the stage where we should be devoting every spare moment to civic engagement. I would hate to have that metaphorical frog come to a boil by slow degrees while I was busy debating which tea to put in my kettle.
But I think we are still, and with luck will always remain, at the stage where living our lives also has some value, both in itself—otherwise, as Churchill should have said but apparently didn’t about arts funding in time of war, what are we fighting for?—and as a respite and restorative. It is hard to strike the right daily life-activism balance, and I honor the people who are now weighing theirs so heavily on the side of activism that they cannot do much else. My own balance, so far, has been less heroic, but it keeps me going. I do believe that all citizens have a basic duty to stay informed about what’s going on, make their voices heard and, of course, vote, no matter what the state of the nation may be. I also believe that the nation’s current condition requires more than that from most of us. But my intuition is that there is still some room for art, song, fun, sports, quirky advice columns, or anything else that brings people together or buoys their spirits.
As for the relative merits of discussing tea, as opposed to some other quotidian topic, during times of crisis, let me remind you that whole nations rely on tea-drinking for morale. Did you know (me neither, until about ten minutes ago) that since World War II British tanks have had built-in kettles so that their crews can sustain an armored advance without having to stop, light a stove, and risk ambush? I see no reason why civilians like us—or perhaps we should see ourselves as on-call militiapeeps in the current war of words, images, and values—cannot take our own weapons seriously. If tea fortifies you, you have every right to discuss how to procure and drink the tea that suits you best, without (shudder) bergamot.
I am an English lecturer with a dilemma involving a colleague, Mr. Wright, and his adult student Paige, who has become a casual friend of mine.
Paige is in her early 30s and relatively advanced, and Mr. Wright tends to use her in academic situations where he needs extra numbers—practical workshops, seminars, that kind of thing. I also suspect Paige has a crush on him, which of course makes her a very willing participant.
Mr. Wright has entered Paige for an advanced literary exam, and since I too teach English she approached me for secondary feedback on her submissions. However my own approach to secondary feedback is stricter than Mr. Wright’s. I feel concerned about students seeking academic advice from unqualified sources (online, etc.), and the potential problems when two sources unwittingly give conflicting advice. Meanwhile Mr. Wright comes from a different academic background and sees no such issue, so he encouraged Paige to seek my feedback, and encouraged me to give it. I was careful to avoid criticizing Mr. Wright’s approach, but nonetheless I feel my reluctance may have seemed unsupportive and confusing for Paige when it was her teacher’s suggestion. The situation also set me up quite directly against Mr. Wright, who I respect and who regularly puts work my way.
To try and get around the problem I agreed to do a ‘back-up’ proof-read as a friend rather than teacher, making a mental note to keep everything super-general. In doing so however I found that Paige’s submissions fall significantly short of what I would expect of a student at this level. Having taught a number of students with a history of untreated literacy problems I suspect she may be in this bracket, and has probably never had a solid grasp of language or writing. I very much doubt whether Paige can pass this exam, and it seems to me that Mr. Wright has put her in an extremely vulnerable position.
I feel I have been made complicit in a situation that I would protect one of my own students from at all costs. I cannot give Paige any kind of feedback on her work without knocking her confidence in both herself and her teacher. Neither can I discuss this with Mr. Wright (I would not normally discuss students with him anyway) because to do so would be to question his professionalism and/or actual competence. But to say nothing feels like feeding even a casual friend to the lions, while also compromising my own sense of professionalism. In fact I don’t even really have the option of saying nothing because they will both ask me for my thoughts.
Please help me, June!
Penned in in Pennsylvania
I’m afraid I can give you only rather general advice, since I am unfamiliar with some aspects of the academic hierarchy and norms you describe. (In fact, I would guess—especially since I changed some Britishisms—that your place of work is at least one ocean or national border removed from Pennsylvania.) For example, have little idea what “another academic background” means. Nor can I tell whether, given the university structure in place where you are, we should assume that Mr. Wright is paying Paige for the extra work she is doing, as opposed to simply exploiting her. Most important, I do not know what is at stake when and if Paige submits the “advanced exam” you mention (it sounds like some sort of massive multi-part take-home—is that right?); and whether your reluctance to discuss Paige with Mr. Wright derives in part from specific ethics rules in your milieu, or stems entirely from your own sense of ethics, etiquette, and prudence.
That said, I am sure that teachers all over the world worry about encouraging false hope in students. And almost everyone has had to cope with colleagues who seem to be going about their work all wrong.
As I see it, your current problems boil down to what you should say to Paige and to Mr. Wright. I understand how reluctant you are to say anything at all to either of them about Paige’s submissions, but you yourself have concluded that silence is not a practical option in either case.
Let’s turn first to Paige. You write that you dislike “secondary feedback” from teachers because of potential problems with conflicting advice. This is a reasonable position to take, but I can see why Paige might be confused by the situation given her own teacher’s enthusiasm for her getting your opinion. Did you try to explain your approach to secondary feedback, and stress that it was an overall approach that had nothing to do with Paige in particular?
However you explained your reluctance to Paige, that issue seems to be moot since you agreed to, and performed, a “back-up proof-read as a friend. ” You write that, by saying you were proofing rather than evaluating Paige’s work, and by offering to do it “as a friend,” while keeping your comments “super-general,” you were trying to “get around the problem” of giving academic advice that conflicted with Mr. Wright’s. I am not sure why it would matter to anybody that you read the work as a friend and not a teacher, given that you are a teacher, and therefore an expert, in the field, and that your advice was encouraged by Paige’s assigned teacher. Nor am I sure what kind of conflict you were trying to avoid by saying you were only back-up proofing the work: did you mean that you were only editing for grammar and style, or seeking to catch typos and so on that Mr. Wright might have missed?
You say that, given your assessment of her work’s quality, you cannot give Paige any feedback on her work without “knocking her confidence in both herself and her teacher.” Yet, as you have come to realize, you must say something. Is it possible to communicate with Paige only about specific problems in her submissions, while avoiding any assessment of her overall qualifications? Unless her writing is so atrocious that you never have any idea what she is talking about, you should be able to provide her with heavily marked-up copies of her submissions and a list of the kinds of problems she needs to work on. If she asks you for an overall evaluation of the submissions’ quality, that might be a good time to remind her that you never, ever make that sort of value judgment about a colleague’s student.
The very extent of your markup should give her some idea of your real opinion, which may actually be a good thing and a partial preparation for getting thrown to those lions. If you are, as you seem to be, just as worried about destroying Paige’s self-confidence as about seeing her set up for humiliating failure, I assume that you could find and emphasize some positive aspects of her work—passion, a strikingly original thought, a few good ideas in the rough, and the like.
As for Mr. Wright, your main dilemma seems to be how to tell the truth without giving offense to someone you respect, and on whom you rely for work assignments. But, as with Paige herself, isn’t there a way to provide Mr. Wright with a generous amount of specific feedback while avoiding the sort of overall assessment that would directly contradict his? You could say, for example, that while you were impressed by Paige’s knowledge of, say, the Brontës, it worried you that she seemed to have difficulty with simple matters like source citation and topic sentences, and you are concerned that her ability to express her ideas may not have kept up with the ideas themselves. To further soften any sense of open disagreement or (heaven forbid!) criticism, you could use two professional-woman staples: phrasing your opinion as a question, and assuming that your listener shares or even originated it. I was wondering: do you have any idea about how Paige should handle her problems with citations and paragraph structure? Or grammar? I was stumped.
Do you think that Mr. Wright will nevertheless press you for an overall assessment of Paige’s work, or for your opinion on whether she should take the exam? If he does, I suggest that you tell the truth, but tactfully. Something like: I don’t think I’m as enthusiastic as you are, but of course I don’t know her work [or the exam process, if he asks and if this is true] anywhere near as well.
One reason I’ve had trouble doling out advice on your problem is that I am not sure what result you would, or should, find optimum here. If you could wave a wand and ensure that there would be no hard feelings at all on Mr. Wright’s part, whatever you said, would you try to convince him not to have Paige take the exam? If you knew you could do so without destroying her overall self-confidence, would you tell Paige exactly what you think about her work, and suggest postponing the exam? Or do you feel she should at least take a shot? Is it possible that Mr. Wright knows something you don’t—lax standards, favoritism—about her chances of passing? And if Paige did take and pass the exam, would that please you, or would you be concerned that you had contributed, and publicly, to the credentialing of a semiliterate student?
I would be interested to learn how you decide to handle the situation, how Paige fares, and whether any relationships were harmed in the taking of this exam. Let me know!
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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