Fake Peer Response

I had a lovely book group meeting with Val Ross and Margaret Ervin last night. We talked about Illych’s Deschooling Society, a fascinating book for anyone seriously interested in education–and a critique of what we’re doing in our field of Rhetoric and Composition (Illych would say we have constructed a need, forgetting that we had constructed it, imagining it as a priori, disguising how much we benefit from the socially constructed need and our memory lapse).

In our discussion, we predictably veered into claims about what we’re doing that counts as good teaching (yes, trying to convince ourselves by convincing others).

I’m going to outline two of my claims, one of which is cemeted in my brain, the other a bit more like mud.

Here’s the cement: I know I’ve written it before, but I have to keep saying it. We should always give writing assignments, the responses to which we can’t wait to read. When we give writing tasks that we know might be painful for our students to write, they’ll be painful to read. What’s with all this pain?

Here’s the mud: I have for decades been teaching genre-based writing, featuring guided peer response, based on a logic of performance. I have been teaching my students to recognize the central features in any genre and in their peer responses to act as editors giving advice to the writers so they can revise their essays in order to get higher grades when finally submitting them to me, the teacher. This almost sounds like real-life writing–getting help so that you can be published.

I’m not going to comment on how fake that logic is–based, as it is, on the desire to “be published.” Instead, I want to outline how I have recently been encouraging student response. I am focusing on writing as communication. Someone (like me) writes something (like this) and then people read it and they write in response, not to how it was written, but to what was said. This of course is what I mean by a communicative (rather than performative) act.

Students come into my class  well-versed in peer-response. They’re sick of the kind of guided peer-response I have been encouraging for decades.

Lately, I’ve loosened up. So I’ve asked students to respond almost entirely to what the writer said. This works well if you have students write about something that really means something to them, writing that comes out of their lives.

Students don’t know how to respond in this natural way. A serious response has been trained out of them. They give these fake responses to the fake writing, and really, very little is learned.

Here’s what I do. I ask students to give me an hour of writing on a meaningful topic (like try to describe what transitioning from high school to college has been like) and I have them post their responses in time so that I can read and respond (to what the writer said) to about ten essays. My responses are models for the students. They get the idea: write back. Communicate. Write real.

Of course you have to get rid of grades to effect this kind of writing experience in your classrooms–but getting rid of grades isn’t all that hard; we only think it is.

[I’ll write later about how students actually learn how to improve their writing from each other within this naturalistic model of response.]

4 Replies to “Fake Peer Response”

  1. This is great. I'm completely on board, and it may be informative to note why.

    I came to comp/rhet by way of a teaching job I landed thanks to my MA in fiction writing.

    I was introduced to the writing workshop in that space for creative writing. So, when I found myself leading a FYC class, I skimmed a few pieces on pedagogy and decided peer review was basically just like the workshops I knew as a fiction writer.

    And it worked. I've modified things quite a bit in the tens years since, but my fellow teachers still tell me they see a lot of the creative writing workshop in my peer review sessions.

    I do teach the genre material and the rhetorical situation stuff during class, but when it comes time to workshop, I expect that stuff to be in the background – way deep in the background.

    Workshop is a time to focus on the writing.

    Students read the work of their peers and answer 3 questions:
    1) What did the text say to you?
    2) What did you like (and why)?
    3) What would you change (and how)?

    I also emphasize to the readers that most authors are going to ignore your advice, because it's not your advice that's important. What the author gets out of the experience is less concrete than that; it is seeing and listening to a real reader reacting to their writing.

    To tie all that together, I explicitly frame the primary learning objective of workshop this way: Readers should come to better understand the drafting and revision process through the analysis of a peer's incomplete draft.

  2. Irv: I'm writing to share my experience this fall, and perhaps to get feedback from your readers:

    You wrote: "Students come into my class well-versed in peer-response. They're sick of the kind of guided peer-response I have been encouraging for decades". Students come to my classes well-versed in types of peer-response that varies from disservice, to misunderstanding. The responses about why they love/hate peer-response were shocking and disheartening (think: “we were told to edit our partner's paper and then hand it back to them”…. and that wasn't the worst of the comments).

    I thought that having students write in terms what they know / want to know / want others to know would yield writing that both students and I would enjoy reading. In terms of writing using what students know, and the sometime limitations of genre-based writing, this approach is as good as it is going to get for me at this moment, since I have no choice at one university where I instruct, BUT to teach FY genre-based comp. Regardless, students in the class are grounded in the notion of writing as a social act and as a conversation. It's all well and good for low stakes assignments, and the guided peer-response that I gave them seemed to yield all the "right" suggestions about interest, readability, etc. I ask them, through careful sequencing, to look around them, find something they want to share, investigate it, and then share it: what frustrates you? what tip about surviving your first month in college do you want to share? etc. Their smaller, lower-stakes writings revealed that they were certainly headed in the "write" direction. (didn’t want to do the low-stakes Elbow thing, because students at this university can be a bit grade-focused)

    The peer activity I outlined for them went from READ – REVIEW – RESPOND, using only suggested criteria for genre elements, organization, and progression of ideas (these are my terms, not the ones students used). Lots of discussion between reader and author, much off-page written comments that readers/authors could use for revision plans. We did some in class revisions the next meeting, went home, and…then the essays came in. It was as if I hadn't covered and discussed through readings, lower-stakes writing, in-class activities, etc, or the notion that writers need readers. They can't let go of the "this is how I was told to write in HS". or the need to sound more elevated than is appropriate to the audience & situation, or the reversion to thesis/p1/p2/p3/conclusion format

    What happened? I'm not sure yet. Students in this FYC are given lower-stakes writing assignments that scaffold them for their essays in a particular genre (this one, reporting). NO GRADES, just Yes: submitted / No: not submitted. I gave students the copy of the rubric that I'd use for assessing their essays for initial grade (because, I have to submit grades, not because I want to). Their mouths were open at the rubric: where were the numbers? why isn't there more detail? why is grammar not first? Answered and discussed their questions, using reasons I'm sure everyone on this blog understands.

    Could it be that my idea of peer-response is "too" real, and not fake enough? Could it be that my expectations for what writing is, does, and can do too fake to them? Don't know yet…but am wondering whether I will this semester…

  3. Thanks, Liquid and Hogan. I think, Liquid, that Hogan is on to something. I'm going to try this–and I'm probably repeating myself: i think there is a difference in student writing when they are writing to learn/express/communicate primarily to others in the class–so the emphasis is on circulation of writing with the teacher being another member of the class and not incidentally throwing her essay into the mix. The mistake I've made for decades: adopting the writing for publication protocol: students write and get suggestions from peers (guided suggestions–this is what the editor of the magazine is looking for), revise and so on until the paper is ready for submission, at which point the teacher/editor reads and assigns the thumbs up/thumbs down through the grade symbol. I don't think there's anything terribly wrong with this scenario, but in my experience, it doesn't work as well as making the REAL primary audience other students, so no grades are at stake. I just give credit if they did it, almost regardless of the quality of the work (most students want their peers to think well of them). For grades, I have a midterm and final portfolio. Maybe on my blog, I'll post a sample set of instructions. For the whole grade, I say, 50% participation (always being there and doing everything–which I keep track of by the credit for doing it); 20% midterm portfolio; 30% final portfolio. I think grades get in the way of a good writing (if not living) ethos. I know, liquid, that we work within a system, but sometimes (Freire) we can make the system bend more than we imagined. If I can get one of my students to give me permission to post a portfolio, I'll do that–my point will be that if any administrators look at what these students do, my grades (usually very high) won't be challenged.

  4. So much to think about, so many challenging and smart ideas–and too late at night to do it all justice. But I definitely will use this blog post, Irv, and these comments in my undergrad teaching writing class, and in our National Writing Project summer institutes, and in my own teaching. I just had both of my classes do literacy collages (Elbow's collage format, topic is their literacy history), and we also discuss quite often in class their experiences in learning to write. The news is somewhat disheartening after all these years of NWP work, paradigm shift in teaching writing, on and on. Still too much teaching of 5-paragraph themes, very little news of writing workshops (a la Atwell and Penny Kittle–Kittle's book Write Beside Them is amazingly good and inspiring). So much fake writing, for thousands of meaningless grades. I've been using grading contracts, pretty much guaranteeing B's if students consistently participate and do the work asked, and I think that helps some, but I'm wondering if I need to go further, as Irv has outlined. I think genre can be a useful concept for students, and analyzing mentor texts to understand what writers do makes sense. But inevitably the most powerful writing emerges almost in spite of the assignments, and the less I constrain, the better, I think. I am trying to give students "projects" that are loosely defined. These ideas will help me do this better. I read Ilych years ago–will have to reread him.

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