Facilitating Dialogue through Peer Review:
Incorporating the Creative Writing Workshop Approach
Creative writing and composition studies are “separate strands within English studies—strands which developed, for the most part, in isolation from one another, with . . . different assumptions, different practices” (Mayers 82). But in some ways the institutional and pedagogical rift between these two strands is puzzling because, as Tim Mayers puts it, “creative writing and composition seem to be nearly the same thing—teaching students how to write, and creating an environment where writing is possible” (82). Over the last ten or fifteen years, scholars from both sides of the chasm have argued for the need to “talk to each other about the connections” between teaching academic and creative writing, and to learn from the differences in pedagogy (Graff 272).
At Brigham Young University as a creative writer currently pursuing an MFA, and as an instructor of first-year composition, I am interested in the differences and possible overlap between these two modes of studying good writing. The differing assumptions and practices behind peer feedback, in particular, present an opportunity for dialogue between the two pedagogies. Both creative writing and composition instructors recognize the value of peer feedback: “Reading what others have written, speaking about one’s responses to their writing and listening to the responses of others are important activities in the writing classroom” (Hauptle 162). However, the creative writing classroom has evolved to embrace peer feedback as the primary focus, favoring the “Writers Workshop” format in most cases. Composition courses, on the other hand, place peer feedback in a lesser role, generally dedicating only a handful of classroom hours to peer review. While there is nothing inherently wrong with either approach, I fear that peer review in composition courses often creates an environment that discourages meaningful dialogue, whereas the workshop model naturally encourages it. Without dialogue, the writing process remains isolated, leaving students to “fix” their papers in order to fulfil the teacher’s requirements, rather than helping them recognize the public nature of writing—the need to create and adapt a written experience for readers (whether real or imagined).
While there is no standard format for peer review, most FYC instructors find a way to mediate the type of comments provided (presumably because we don’t trust our FYC students to come up with valuable feedback on their own). Charlotte Brammer suggests any number of methods, including “creating a new peer review checklist for each rhetorical task[,] involving students in creating peer review sheets[, and] involving the teacher directly in the process by having conferences with groups of four students at a time” (72). Notice that each of these suggestions subtly incorporates the teacher’s expectations as part of the criteria for student feedback; the instructor prescribes the content of the peer review by leading students in a particular direction, whether through checklists, review sheets, or their actual presence. In my own FYC classroom I have followed this pedagogical trend, creating worksheets to guide each peer review. Although these worksheets have existed in various formats, the basic content and intention was always the same: I wanted my students to discuss global issues like organization, argument, and rhetorical appeals. Thus I told them exactly what to look for and gave them space to evaluate their peers’ performance based on the criteria I provided.
On the other hand, the creative writing workshop, while generally adhering to one basic format, allows the content of the discussion to be determined largely by the peers reviewing a fellow student’s work. In a workshop-based classroom, students read the piece to be workshopped before coming to class, making marginal notes and writing a short response letter to the author in preparation for the in-class critique. The workshop generally begins with a short reading by the author. Then “fellow classmates discuss [the] work” and the author’s intentions; the classmates “highlight strengths first, then focus on areas of confusion or awkwardness, and, lastly, provide suggestions for improvement” (James 56). During this process, “[t]he author listens and may take notes; at the end, he or she can then ask questions for clarification” (Corneli). Although workshops usually include the same basic outline, the actual content of the critique will depend on what the students identify as the intentions, strengths, and weaknesses of the piece being reviewed. Because students feel responsible to read critically and produce meaningful feedback on their own, workshop becomes the focus of student-generated content and meaningful dialogue.
Because this method of peer review relies so heavily on student engagement and discussion, workshop naturally leads to writerly community rather than isolation. When I was an undergraduate student in creative writing workshops, I experienced this sense of community over and over again. I trusted (and relied on) my peers to provide honest criticism, but this did not mean that I expected their feedback to be homogenous. Quite the contrary! As with most group situations, “people bring widely different aesthetics into the classroom. What one person sees as a weakness, another views as a strength” (James 56). The dialogue that results from such disagreement becomes “rich soil for growth and clarification” (James 56) and “encourages examination, discussion and debates” (Corneli). It is this very classroom dialogue that causes the writing process to emerge from isolation. A polyphony of voices and perspectives engage with a student’s written work and thus the act of writing becomes no longer private, but public. Through workshop, the students are admitted into a small but dynamic community of writers and readers.
Why doesn’t the same kind of dialogue occur during FYC peer review? The methods of peer review in FYC courses often prevent it. Take, for instance, the “paramedic” attitude that generally accompanies peer review. As instructors, we recognize that “most first-year students will approach peer review as a proofreading exercise and will tend to remain on the level of correcting spelling and punctuation” (Brammer 80). To avoid this problem, we create worksheets and checklists to keep our students focused on the global, rather than the surface-level, issues. And yet, even with our carefully crafted guidelines for peer review, students still aim to repair what is “broken” or “ailing” in their papers, rather than identifying strategies for making their papers the best they can be. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between the two attitudes, but notice that the first implies limits (expectations) while the second implies possibility and growth without boundaries. Carol Hauptle blames our very tendency to guide peer review for propagating this problem, explaining that these “detailed roadmaps . . . detract from the sense of ownership that students should have in their work because they are asked to hold their work up for diagnosis, as if it is somehow in need of a ‘cure’” (Hauptle 174). This “fix-it” mentality is only one of the side-effects writing instructors create when they give too much guidance during peer review.
By giving our students a list of questions to address, we actually limit their ability to respond and engage with each unique piece of writing, and with each other. Rather than meaningful dialogue, the peer review, guided by “highly detailed checklists and worksheets . . . has taken on a distinctive ‘fill in the blanks’ aspect” (Hauptle 163). Rather than facilitating meaningful conversation, we are shutting it down. I experienced this problem first-hand when I joined a group of my own students for peer review. As I filled out the worksheet that I had distributed to guide discussion, I found myself giving less helpful feedback (both written and verbal) than I might otherwise have offered. (And I’m the instructor, for heaven’s sake!) I felt driven to fill in the blanks, as Hauptle describes, rather than to engage with the students in meaningful discussion, and my feedback was sub-par as a result. As Charlotte Brammer suggests, “Instructors need to continue to build collaborative groups that encourage rapport, moving away from lists of peer review questions that lead to a lot of writing, but little interaction” (81). What students need is “a sense of shared community in order to develop dialogues of trust and to build confidence in their classroom peers. Handouts and lectures cannot accomplish this task” (Brammer 81).
Prescriptive peer review guides often also remove the students’ sense of authentic audience. Although we tell students to provide their own feedback, we put a piece of paper in their hands telling them what criteria to cover. This decreases “the role of the author to that of a ‘paint by number’ composer, responsible only for including all of the required elements set by the teacher in the correct order and proportion. Peer commenters are relegated to deputy inspectors whose role it is to determine whether or not the writing includes these elements” (Hauptle 164). Unlike the workshop where “the teacher acts primarily as a moderator, asking questions, probing the group for their impressions” (James 56), during peer review the teacher can become the dominant presence, even if they are not actually part of the conversation. Thus the authentic audience—the real, individual readers with unique perspectives and opinions—is hijacked by the teacher in the form of their many student proxies. As a result, our students write with an “is this okay?” attitude. “But,” as Peter Elbow grumbles, “damn it, I want my first year students to be saying in their writing, ‘Listen to me, I have something to tell you’ not ‘Is this okay? Will you accept this?’’ (Elbow 82). Unsurprisingly, this removal of authentic audience and the subsequent tendency to write for the person giving the grades causes a disconnect in the writing process we are trying to teach. “Those who write solely ‘for the teacher’ will find it difficult to predict their audience needs”—which is the very thing we’re attempting to teach them.
The ultimate result of these tendencies—the “fix-it” mentality, the lack of dialogue, and the inauthentic “teacher” audience—is a lack of community and collaboration. Kenneth Bruffee says, “[t]o think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively—that is, we must learn to converse well” (qtd. in Hauptle 165). But often, peer review does not encourage authentic conversation. As a result, the writing process remains an isolating experience. Brammer states that “most composition scholars have established quite firmly that the composing process is social, and peer review is an integral part of that process” (72). But in peer review as described in one article (and as experienced by many students), “No one commits to the exchange. No one intends to offer any real commentary . . . and besides, the group needs to complete the checklist” (Hauptle 165). Rather than experiencing an authentic audience response from real people with various opinions, the FYC student produces written work for the sole purpose of grading—the only person who matters in the equation is the instructor, and the public nature of writing (the rhetorical element we spend an entire semester trying to reinforce) is rendered false.
Where peer review so often fails, the workshop model often succeeds. Workshop “provides an interested and motivated audience” (James 57) and, for many students, the workshop may be “the only time that so many readers will look at one’s piece and react” (Oosta 73). The assumptions behind the workshop format are that 1) students are capable of reading critically without instructor intervention, and 2) the process will be beneficial for both the reviewers and the reviewed. The workshop becomes not only a revision tool for the writer, but a learning experience for the student-critics. Emily Belanger, a FYC instructor at BYU with a background in creative writing, recognized the value in the workshop model and “devoted the majority of class time to full-class workshops” (55). In her report from 2010, she notes that
[i]n addition to providing writers with extensive feedback from their peers and multiple perspectives on one piece of writing, workshops provide students with the opportunity to analyze other students’ writing. . . . Students say that they appreciate receiving feedback from the entire class and that they also appreciate the chance to provide feedback (Belanger 55-56).
Although the workload could be intimidating, the students found the workshop experience rewarding as writers. Ultimately, Belanger hoped the “democratic nature of the workshop would create a sense of community where all students felt comfortable participating”—authentically participating, not just parroting back what they anticipated their instructor would want them to say (55).
Of course, creating an entirely workshop-based FYC course like Belanger’s would require huge shifts in the structure of any standard composition course, and it would mean sacrificing things like lecture and in-class writing exercises. Would the student dialogue be worth the huge investment of time? And, maybe more importantly, would the students actually learn the important skills, concepts, and principles we’re supposed to be teaching by having them spend hours on in-class critiques? While I believe that, yes, workshop dialogue could provide adequate (maybe even excellent) opportunities for engaged learning and instruction of writing principles, I don’t think we need to hand over all of our class time to effectively incorporate workshop-style dialogue into our FYC courses.
For instance, the workshop could be an excellent device to model (and encourage) dialogue during peer review. “Feedback is essential for growth, but,” as with any new skill, “students must be taught how to give it and how to take it” (James 59). In her article describing ways to encourage better feedback in undergraduate creative writing courses, Allie Oosta suggests that instructors “do a demonstration on the first day of class that shows how a good feedback session could work: What kinds of things would you say?” (75). By posing as the author of the piece being workshopped, the instructor could “model author’s questions and ease the notion of negativity by subjecting [themselves] to [the students’] criticism” (Hauptle 173). Or, by acting as moderator of the discussion—asking questions, but not offering opinions—the instructor could encourage students to engage in real conversation. Rather than giving them a list of questions about organization and argument to answer, instructors could take this opportunity to subtly distance themselves (and the grading rubric) from the writing process, instead encouraging students to express their initial impressions, pushing them to think about why the piece affected them in a certain way, and then leading them to brainstorm possible solutions for the author. As discussed, “providing handouts and lecturing are insufficient methods for demonstrating the collaborative value of peer review” (Brammer 81). But workshopping could be a helpful tool (in addition to other methods) for demonstrating the collaborative nature of peer feedback.
Workshop could also be incorporated in the place of partner or small-group peer-review sessions, in the form of student-led mini-workshops. After watching an instructor model the role of a workshop moderator, students should be given the chance (and responsibility) to moderate on their own. One of my fellow graduate instructors has chosen to use this strategy exclusively in her FYC courses after finding that students prefer the mini-workshop version of peer review to other forms because the amount and quality of feedback is perceived to be greater. After conducting a model workshop with the entire class, this instructor places the students in groups of ten and gives them two full class sessions for workshop—five papers a day. Each student is responsible to lead the workshop discussion for one paper, and (in usual workshop fashion) every student must respond to each of the ten papers before class with comments in the margins and an endnote summing up their overall response. As a result of this process, students
adopt a “creative” and “artistic” way of thinking about their writing—even expository writing. At first, composition is an attempt to create a viable “product”, something that will meet the requirements of the assignment and get a good grade. It is a commodity that they would not produce if it were not required of them. With the [workshop process], composition takes on a different purpose. Students begin to experience an actual audience. For perhaps the first time in an academic setting they “perform” their work by reading it aloud to the group. They begin to perceive an alternative aim of writing—to have an effect on a reader. This is a critical leap in the process of learning how to write as a social act, composing text for public effect (Hauptle 176).
Ultimately, the workshop method enforces the principles we are trying to teach far better than other forms of peer review. Through workshop, writing becomes “public” rather than private—a community experience, not a product created in isolation for a grade.
While implementing this kind of free-form discussion feels a little nerve-racking (and time consuming), I believe that the results will be worth the trust and investment it requires. Understand that I am not arguing for a completely unsupervised chat between peers. After all, we don’t want our students to flounder: “Students who receive more instruction in how to peer review are more confident in their ability to review others’ papers” (Brammer 77). However, while we should not leave peer reviews entirely unguided, the type of guidance we provide needs to change. Hauptle describes the simple guidance she provides for her students’ discussions: “I drew up a summary of the process, some examples of questions, an outline for authors to record useful feedback, and a simple set of guidelines for what to look for” (175). Rather than forcing students to cover a set number of questions or topics in a hovering attempt to control their conversation, why don’t we provide a structure that will encourage authentic dialogue and active learning? “Providing students with an overly detailed set of criteria for peer review smacks of doing students’ work for them. How to spot issues in written text and suggest revisions is a large part of what they are learning” (Hauptle 174). Teach them the concepts, yes. But when you ask them to apply those concepts, in their writing and in their reviewing, try to take a step back and let them practice what they’ve learned. Giving our students a format for dialogue—something open-ended and inquiry driven—will facilitate the type of public writing experience we advocate. And I believe that our students are smart enough—and motivated enough—to help each other improve. But we have to really trust them before they will trust themselves and each other to do so.
Belanger, Emily. “From Students to Writers: The Power of the Creative Writing Workshop in the First-Year Writing Classroom.” Locutorium 5 (2010): 55-56. Web.
Brammer, Charlotte, and Mary Rees. “Peer Review From The Students’ Perspective: Invaluable Or Invalid?” Composition Studies 35.2 (2007): 71-85. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
Corneli, Joseph and Anna Jordanous. “Implementing feedback in creative systems: A workshop approach.” (2015).
Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 72-83. Web.
Graff, Gerald. “What We Say When We Don’t Talk About Creative Writing.” College English 1.3 (2009): 271-279. Web.
Hauptle, C. “Liberating dialogue in peer review: Applying liz lerman’s critical response process to the writing classroom.” Issues in Writing 16.2 (2006): 162-183.
James, David. “At Issue Circling The Wagons: A Defense Of Writing Workshops.” Community College Enterprise 18.2 (2012): 55-61. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Mayers, Tim. “(Re)writing craft.” College Composition and Communication 51.1 (1999): 82-89. Web.
Oosta, Allie, and Rori-Leigh Hoarlin. “Developing Stronger Peer-to-Peer Feedback in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Workshop.” Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric 9 (2012): 64-75. Web.