Peer Review in the Writing Class: The Beginning of a Real Audience

Description

Peer review is a cornerstone of any writing class I teach. I realize that it’s important for students to receive my feedback—as the more experienced teacher-writer (and the grader of their writing)—and I realize that they want it (and fear it) as they try to succeed in my class and receive their target grade if, indeed, they have one. However, I cannot teach them audience awareness. No matter how many times I remind them that they have to create an audience—even a fictional one like David Bartholomae has described in “Inventing the University”—they don’t really get it unless I give them an audience on a regular basis. The best audience I can give them, at least to begin with, is their peers.

 

Peer review is one of the most difficult things to do well. And, like anything that is complicated and worth doing, you have to do it over and over to learn how to do it well. I start on the first week, modeling how peer review might look over the course of the term. I pass out a handout (see “Group Critiques”) and we practice using one of my works-in-progress. Although it’s not easy for me, I try to give them something (an article or essay for EN101, maybe a short story for EN 102) that I’m really working on, something I know is flawed and unfinished. I split them up into groups of four and ask each group to discuss the story, both making marginal comments and an end note of about a paragraph. Then we open discussion to the class. I tell the students that it’s best to start with something positive, something they liked, before they dive into all the flaws. I tell them that I have feelings too, that I care about my work, and need encouragement. But I also want their feedback. Really, I do. I’ve actually used feedback from student workshops like this for revision, have gone on to publish work in which I received student feedback.

 

We continue on with our semester, doing peer review nearly every week, so that it becomes part of the routine, so that it becomes internalized to begin working early on writing projects, maybe even weeks before an assignment is due. Hopefully, it becomes natural to think of work-in-progress, and seems ordinary to get feedback from fellow students (and me; I generally take home drafts at least once for each writing assignment).

 

I prefer small groups for group critique. I find that pairs is too limiting and that whole-class critiques are too time-consuming (and that the professor ends up being the authority that everyone else performs for). I know that some professors worry that students will not stay on-task for this work and this is not a groundless concern. However, borrowing comp theorist Robert Brooke’s concept of “the underlife” of the classroom, I believe that even much work that, on the face of it, seems to be avoiding the task at hand can be fruitful for young writers. Sometimes, even when they veer from the topic to discuss their weekend plans or the most recent episode of American Idol, they are building connections between each other, connections that allow them to feel safe in the critiques of each other’s work, that allow them to share their writing with each other without fear of ridicule or, perhaps worse, indifference.

 

In order to help facilitate connections between group members, I create the groups myself, with the proviso that we can change these groups at midterm if the students wish to do so (in my experience, the majority want to continue working with their group). I try to balance the groups with a mix of “strong” and “struggling” students, trying to make gender dynamics as equal as possible (mainly avoiding 3 men-1 woman configurations as I’ve witnessed the woman often gets silenced in this formulation). Because attendance is unstable at QCC, particularly at the beginning of the term, I spend the first 15-20 minutes of class with a solitary activity such as the Reading Table (see document) so that I can reshuffle the groups if I need to. QCC’s long class periods allow for this type of work. In fact, early in the term, when students haven’t yet learned how to use group work well yet, I often am able to fit in a few rounds of the Reading Table, the group peer reviews, and even a short revision activity at the end (see Hot-Spotting handout) in one class period. By the last weeks, though, most students have realized the value of group work, and an entire class can be used fruitfully in this manner.

 

Group work is inherently messy. By dividing the classroom up into six or seven groups, a professor is relinquishing some measure of control. (I have the students read out loud their texts, at least at the beginning of the semester, which creates a whole other level of chaos.) This decentering of the classroom is very fruitful for a writing class, I think. If we truly want our students to think about audience, I think we have to give them time to interact with a real audience—which we, ourselves, can probably never be because of our role as evaluator.

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Dr. John Talbird

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