Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Peer Review and Writer Sociality

Too often, the image we have of a writer is that of a lone figure, hunched over a table or keyboard, bound there in quiet frustration as he or she tries to find the right words, the right images, the right character, the right way to say and do the right thing. I’ve heard it said that the novel may be one of the few remaining pursuits which an individual may take on and accomplish alone. I look at it a different way. Though, at times, the act of writing is intimate and individual, the best writers know that what they are doing is innately social, because what is written is just a mechanical assemblage of words, phrases, images and characters until they are brought to life through the act of reading. Where writers and readers meet, what are typically identified as two solitary pursuits become an engaging social contract where the one’s ideas become the other’s projections into the future. So it’s not surprising to consider, as Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch does in her essay “Virtual Peer Review,” that such reviews are not merely imitative of face-to-face reviews, but bring in extra value because the sociality inherent in the combination of reading and writing is present not verbally, but in archival form that readers and writers may refer to again and again as the writing, revision, and reading phases continue over time.

Breuch writes: “. . . virtual peer review offers us an extraordinary opportunity to bridge what we already know about writing and pedagogy with what future technologies may bring. Indeed, virtual peer review has solid roots in an activity that has been documented in past scholarship, but it is unique and it can adopt technologies of the future” (154).

As far as I can tell, virtual peer review is core to the classes we’re creating – mirroring similar peer review experiences we’ve had in both on- and off-line classes. This holds true even for me, as I pursue bringing a speech class online, rather than a “writing” class in the strictest sense. But as Breuch writes, virtual peer review allows for the review of text created in other ways than with a pen and paper or with a keyboard and word processor – Students in my speech class will create videos to which their peers will respond with the written word. Though this is true in off-line classrooms as well (we all remember those film strips from elementary school, right?) that such technologies can be used to bring together students scattered over vast distances is a telling way in which the pedagogy behind peer review is taking advantage of modern technology.

I’m excited that I’ll be able to incorporate online peer reviews into this speech class. Though peer reviews are quite common in speech classes, I’m tempted to think that the online element, with easy archiving of peers’ comments, will make the learning and revision processes more valuable to students than in a traditional classroom. As Breuch notes in a study conducted by Mark Babrito of four writers who had participated extensively in online peer review, student writers who had archival review to draw from were more likely to include those revisions in further drafts of their papers. “It is a promising finding, then, that recording peer comments may stimulate recall (it is more difficult to remember exact suggestions from peer reviewers in face-to-face settings,” Breuch writes (148). I know this from my own experiences as a student – I have an easier time recalling comments if they’re written, rather than if they’re spoken. It’s my experience, too, that the ability to set aside written comments and revisit them for further reflection often reduces the barriers some writers/speakers may cast up in the face of criticism. Comments that may have stung at the onset, upon further reflection, make sense and are more easily incorporated than those that are delivered verbally, because more often than not it is the hurt, not the verbal comment preceding it, that is recalled. The ability to set aside archived comments and revisit them with a cold eye is invaluable as writers and speakers seek to improve their craft and to understand the theory behind the comments received.

But, to coin a phrase, with greater archival opportunity comes greater responsibility on the part of commenters, as Beth Hewett and Christa Ehmann write in “Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction”: Twice we’re cautioned against overcommenting. “When instructors overwrite or are unable to decide on the two to three crucial teaching points for the particular interaction, they can spend far too much time on each student, lessening their effectiveness and efficiency,” Hewett and Ehmann write (75). I think we’ve all felt the pain of swimming through page after page of commentary, looking for the solitary nuggets of wisdom buried therein that can help us improve our papers – reflecting again what Hewett and Ehmann say “Our experience has shown that students – especially basic writers – comprehend the feedback better when they are not overwhelmed by the online instructor’s comments” (81). How many of us recall times when we’ve seen long comments and simply don’t read them, skim them, or otherwise dismiss them in whole or in part because they’re just too long to read?

Breuch and Hewett and Ehmann combined offer online instructors a valuable set of tools and red flags as we leap into not only reviewing our students’ work, but also in establishing guidelines on how peers should review the work as well: Do indeed comment, but keep the comments instructive and, above all, brief. And also more directive comments, as Breuch points out: “students may feel more free to offer directive comments for revision suggestions, which is a stark contrast to the non-directive speech patterns encouraged in face-to-face interactions” (148). Combine an innate opportunity for more directive comments with what Hewett and Ehmann call “critically kind” responses (75) and we can create environments where budding and experienced writers and speakers can mutually benefit through positive, constructive interaction, all in a space where that interaction is recorded for posterity, or for as long as the class lasts at least. This is the kind of environment we envision in the online utopias we’re creating; in reality, we probably won’t approach this level. But it’s good to have something to shoot for.

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