Tuesday, April 24, 2007

But Who am I to Say? (Working in Peer Response Groups)

If you're in a course that involves a lot of writing, it's likely that you've spent some time in a peer response (or "workshop") group of some kind by this point in the term. Though peer response groups have all of the strengths and weaknesses of any kind of group work, there is the additional challenge in a writing group of feeling nervous about sharing your writing, as well as nervous about commenting on someone else's.

If this nervousness leads to people playing it safe, though--in other words, making only vague comments like "It was pretty good," or "Maybe fix the spelling on this one word here..."--then the time spent in your peer response group will feel unproductive.

Many students, however, say that they don't feel comfortable contributing to peer response sessions for yet another reason. They say, "Who am I to tell fellow students how to write? I'm not any more of an authority on writing than they are!" That's true, if you interpret your role in the response group only as that of a fellow writer.

If you'd like to have more valuable and more enjoyable peer response sessions, though--both as a commenter and as someone whose work is being commented on--you might think about your role in the group a bit differently. We have two main suggestions for working in peer respone groups:

1. Comment as a reader, not as a writer. No one wants to be told what to do, especially on their own work. That's why when a fellow student reads a paper you wrote and then starts to comment on it by saying, "Here's what you should have done...," you're likely to be unable to hear the rest of that comment beneath the roar of your own resentment. That comment is the comment of one writer telling another writer what to do.

When you comment as a reader, though, you can just say, "There was a paragraph on page 2 that confused me. I think the reason it confused me was..." Or: "I like the discussion you have about blind newts on page three, but it stopped too soon for me--I'd love to hear more about their mating habits." The writer is left free to make decisions about how she would like to address those comments, and the responder is able to simply describe his experience of reading the paper, without making value judgments as to whether the paper is "good" or "bad," or what "should" have been done.

And you don't have to be an authority on writing to describe your experience of reading something. If you made it into college, you're a perfectly good authority on reading.

2. Listen to comments as a writer, not as a reader. It's tempting, when receiving feedback on your work, to want to tell the group how they "should" have read your paper, or what your intended meaning was. That kind of response, though, is essentially a reader who knows the paper super-well (because she wrote it) correcting the reading of others. In psychology class, they call this "defensiveness." (Hint: The countermove to this is to say, "I find your labeling of my behavior as 'defensive' to be aggressively reductive of my thoughts and feelings, in that it defines my natural and healthy desire to defend myself as somehow 'abnormal' or 'unhealthy.'" Just please don't say that in writing group.)

It's more valuable as a writer simply to listen to the readers discuss your paper. Take some notes on what they talk about, and where they had thoughts in their reading of your work. It's highly unlikely that a peer is ever going to give a "false" description of their reading of your work--in other words, why would someone ever say, "The third paragraph confused me" if the third paragraph didn't actually confuse them? That would be bizarre. The members of your group will probably try their best to accurately describe their experience of reading your paper. If you listen, and take some notes, you can choose later how to address those issues when you revise.

We don't want to sound too radical here in the Writing Center, but let's just say this: If you're careful to keep track of when your role is that of a writer, and when it is that of a reader, you might actually find the peer response groups enjoyable and valuable. It's possible!

1 comment:

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