In this series of posts I’m thinking about what teachers of writing can learn from the implementation of peer feedback practices in other disciplines and departments. While my goal is to explore these practices broadly across the university, I’m going to start very close to home in our English department. English at FAU encompasses literary study, creative writing, and rhetoric/composition. Our department is deeply collegial, with each of the areas respecting and supporting the others (I know, sadly, that cannot be said of all departments). I was thus delighted to chat with two of our creative writing faculty, Papatya Bucak (who also blogs for Bedford) and Becka McKay, who is currently running our MFA program in creative writing. Both are super colleagues—accomplished, smart, funny, and generous. I sat with both of them to talk about how workshopping happens in the creative writing classroom and each also shared with me handouts about workshopping that they use in their own classrooms. Based on all of that, I’ve made some observations I hope are worth sharing.
“I use it on all levels,” Papatya shared, referencing both undergrad and grad workshops, “because I think it works,” a sentiment that Becka echoed. Though the shape of workshopping can vary across creative writing classes, one common element that struck me is that it tends to contain two components: a written one and an oral one. That oral component (and its particular shape) feels somewhat unique to me. When workshopping happens in class, all of the students comment on one author’s work; the author generally stays silent throughout. Papatya’s gives her grad students a handout that explains: “the class covers strengths, intentions, and suggestions while you listen. Writer has the option of asking questions or making comments at the end. Writer can interrupt discussion if they have an urgent question or believe some major misunderstanding is occurring.”
I’ve occasionally done something similar in my writing classroom, when working with a sample paper or when placing students into peer revision groups. But when I use sample work I tend to do so anonymously and when students discuss their work in group, each author is usually getting comments from only the other two people in the group. I’m starting to think about what it might mean to adopt this structure in the writing classroom. It would not be without logistical challenges (both of them noted the smaller size of the creative writing workshop and Becka also observed that it’s easier when she is teaching poetry) but nevertheless I think it’s worth exploring a significant and sustained oral component for peer revision.
Having an oral workshop isn’t without challenges even for creative writers. When I asked Becka what would make a workshop disastrous, she noted that “a workshop needs trust and respect so if students do anything to break that or are disrespectful, then it’s a disaster,” going on to say that breaking trust can take a few different forms, from students in the class not doing the work of careful reading and so having nothing to say, to attacking the writer instead of critiquing the writing, to the author displaying defensive body language. Anything that threatens the “circle of trust,” as Becka named it, would in turn threaten the value of the workshop.
But when it works, the students in the class form a community that becomes very nurturing. More than that. Papatya noted that the goal of the workshop is to find your reader and that “having someone who’s a good reader of your work is a holy grail.”
Scaling this practice up to the writing classroom feels daunting even as I write this—but not impossible. And that sense of community feels quite seductive. If you’re thinking about exploring a sustained in-class, oral peer review for your students here are some tips I’ve cribbed from Paptya and Becka that you might want to adapt:
- The oral component is accompanied by a written critique. Since I usually have students do that writing during peer revision in class, incorporating an oral component means a written critique outside of class. And while both noted that workshopping will work with only one of these components, both also regularly use both together. (I’ll talk more about what that written component looks like in my next post.)
- Both Paptya and Becka offer detailed guidelines for all components of workshopping, particularly for their undergrad students. Otherwise, as Becka noted, it’s “the blind reading the blind.” I imagine most of us scaffold written peer revision with some sort of handout or worksheet but you may want to do the same if you attempt an oral critique as well.
- Even when everything works, students need a good model for what good writing should do. Both Paptya and Becka noted that students are inclined to say “this is nice” because they genuinely believe the writing is. Papatya commented that what students think good writing should do sometimes isn’t what Papatya thinks good writing should do. Becka also commented that often students new to workshopping are too eager to praise and that she ends up having to walk them back from that. Offering models of what good writing does is one way to counter this inclination. I love the way Becka put it: “You would think they just want to be stroked and told what great writers they are, but once they read the stuff we give them and they see what great writing is and they know we can show them a path that gets them there, they want to learn how to do that.”
Maybe the oral workshop model is one way to get them there.
Next week, I’ll look at some of the unique elements of written workshop comments. In the meantime, if you’ve ever used an oral workshop mode of peer review in your FYC classroom, please share your experiences with us. How did it work logistically? How did it work for students? What might you change?