Remember when you were a young school child and your class had the exciting event of a visiting speaker to the classroom? Later on after the presentation, your teacher then had the opportunity to use that event as the basis for an exercise on How To Write A Letter. Chances are the class’ letters went something like this:
Dear Mr Visitor,
Thank you for coming to our class to talk about blah.
It was very interesting.
Now we know lots of blah-blah-blah.
Having been the adult recipient of such, I can vouch that there’s a not-so amazing consistency in the form that these letters take, and I’m not referring to the construction paper covers. Whenever a number of people are invited to write a document, and their efforts are in direct response to a series of questions, there is going to be a formulaic quality to the answers.
Requesting feedback on specific services in itself is not necessarily a biased thing; for example, when the employing colleges or inviting organisations ask the attendees for evaluations of instructors or guest speakers, there are specific factors about the presentation that are being assessed.
However, when eliciting responses one has to be careful to not slant the wording of the questions so the responses are not biased. Similarly, verbal requests for impromptu responses or exit surveys must likewise be worded carefully to prevent coaching.
It’s very rare that every client or conference attendee will fill out an evaluation form; the office responsible for creating evaluation summaries has to realize that such volunteers are going to be somewhat self-selecting, if for no other reason than the fact that those were the people who weren’t in a hurry to get somewhere else. On the other hand, a true evaluation has to look at all the all the responses returned. A cherry-picked group is never going to be representative of the entire cohort.
When looking at any kind of response document, there are shadows behind the discourse that merit critical analysis. These include the unwritten assumptions of the author, such as who they considered to be their audience, what they presume the audience to know, and what kinds of details were deemed necessary to include to support the statements given.
What is not included is also equally important. Unless the document is an expository theme or persuasive essay, there are beliefs about social reality that are built in the framework of the discourse and are not explicitly mentioned.
These beliefs are assumed to be mutually held and self-evident. (You know, the sorts of assertions that when challenged, provoke a, “Well of course we had to …” response.) Sometimes people aren’t even aware of these world-views, because they are so encompassing, not unlike like fish being unaware that water is “wet”.
I don’t claim to be a forensic linguist, but as an author and behavioural observer, the following curiosities from the Judge Rothenberg Center’s Web site (the 18 testimonial letters and excerpted quotes all referred to therein as “comments” by JRC parents) certainly caught my attention.
Like the children’s thank-you letters, there’s a formulaic quality to them. It shows through in the sentence structure and word choices. Theoretically it’s possible that those letters represent the way the parents always compose missives; we naturally lack known writing samples for comparison. And yet … one gets the impression that there are leading questions that yield repeated patterns of content.
Our child has X and did YYY. No place else helped him.
JRC uses the “GED” skin shock device.
Now he is controllable. The “GED” is the answer!
He has been there for years. We are very happy.
Okay, that’s a trifle simplistic; the testimonials that are letters are longer. My example is a distillation of quotes.
On the amazon.com site, you have probably seen the term "statistically improbable phrases", which refers to those constructions and idioms specific to the particular book being described. They are phrases that jump out of the text because they’re not the sorts of things commonly found in writing.
In this kind of critical analysis, if a writer inserts a few "twenty-dollar words" when the rest of the letter is just "fifty-cent words", they stand out. They are statistically improbable phrases, or compositional outliers. There will always be some terms that people will just pick up from interactions with staff (such as using the term “GED”). But in verbal and written communication most lay people don't go around using jargon specific to a particular discipline or industry. When those "twenty-dollar words" show up, well, one gets the impression that there likely are leading questions or requests guiding the effort. A prime example of this would be the Shields letter, which is composed of a series of declarative sentences, but also includes the expanded technical phrase: “GED” skin shock device.
Surprisingly, JRC is not just a temporary location for controlling children with behaviour problems; it’s also an institution for lifetime confinement. Some of the inmates have been there for over a decade, at least as reckoned by the dates of their parents’ letters.
“We are the parents of a 35 yr. old autistic adult. He has been in this program since he was 19.” (Shields)
A 32-year old autistic adult has been in this place under the GED aversive system for over ten years. (Soucy)
Yet another person has been there for eleven years, also past legal majority. (Slaff)
Another parent describes their child as benefiting from the GED (or rather, “GED” is the typed word repeatedly pasted over the handwritten note), because “it helps her to eat better, exercise better, learn better, socialize better, and enjoy life better”. ( Bognar) Personally I have to wonder how being the recipient of repeated electric shock punishment enables one to “enjoy life better”.
Obviously, JRC feels the need to assert and validate the necessity for using the “GED” skin shock device; there are people such as myself who strongly disagree with the necessity and efficacy of using punishment. Lots of companies use testimonial letters to show off their satisfied customers. But this isn’t about carpet cleaning. This is about people trying to convince us that systematic, repeated punishment under inescapable conditions, i.e. torture, is both beneficial and necessary.
Now, what’s one of our favourite fallacy flatteners? The plural of anecdote is not data. Or in this case, the plural of testimonial is not validation.
* Not to be confused with the author of Student’s t-distribution, who was actually Mr W. S. Gosset, a chemist at Guinness Breweries (statistics classes aren’t completely dull!)