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Advice, Peer Review/Conferencing

The Werewolves of Our Better Nature: Rethinking Peer Review

I was putting radiation in my head with my Blackberry the other day, while pondering what to write this blog post about, when it hit me like a tumor: Little Red Riding Hood and those spooky old woods of peer review.

I have never been a fan of peer review in beginning composition classes, and I have been less of a fan of peer review in technical writing classes. In composition courses, the student looking for the peer review—Little Red Riding Hood—goes walking through those nasty woods—peer review—completely unaware that there is a big bad wolf about to devour her—gender inequality notwithstanding—unintended ignorance on the part of the peer reviewers. They know as little or less about what comprises good writing as Little Red—so what’s the point? And, to make matters worse (or to make the woods a little darker and a little spookier (not to overextend the metaphor), in Technical Writing, those woods are practically non-negotiable: what, after all, do our peer reviewers know about formatting, descending order of priority, good organization, page design, etc., etc.?

However, at the end of the day, we all know that Little Red does indeed escape Big Bad and presumably gains a measure of worthwhile feedback on her writing project. How?

The answer, I think, lies in numbers. If we expand the nasty woods to include an entire class, we accomplish two goals: 1. The sheer number of people peering and reviewing leads to better results, always; and, 2. The peer review is now led by the instructor, who, presumably, knows these woods and can foil Big Bad.

So, the methodology I have adopted to help Little Red on her way to Grandma’s—a successful writing project—is to request students to bring their works in progress in for review; whereupon, we project their drafts on the screen at the front of the room. We begin, always, with what we like about someone’s draft, and we end by discussing how that draft might be improved. It has proven a highly effective method in any class with a writing project and students invariably come to appreciate the process.

Now, if there were only something I could do about those werewolves I hear howling out behind the shed…

Dave Mackinder received an MFA in creative writing and literary theory from Wayne State and has been an instructor of Technical Writing in the department since 1994. He is currently serving on the Composition Committee on Assessment.

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