Workshopping peer workshops

I was at a conference last year where the idea of using writing workshops in class came up in conversation. A teacher from an education department commented, “I used to do workshops, but both my students and I thought they were a waste of time.” I brought up the fact that several studies support the idea that peer workshops work to produce better writers, and she shrugged her shoulders unconvinced. That experience made it pretty clear to me: workshops need a better PR department. They’ve become one of the most maligned forms of writing instruction, which is sad because they also have the potential to be the among the most productive.

I’m sympathetic to those teachers and students who deplore workshops. When I started teaching writing, I’d get student evaluations that said they found the process unhelpful in fixing their papers, and after reading their drafts, I could see the truth in those statements. Only later did I realize that we were both missing the point of workshops. A closer look at the structure of workshops shows us that focusing the goals of a workshop on the quality of papers produced invites these feelings of failure. Workshops can show us a lot of the weak points in our own papers and a lot of points that we need to work hard to fix, but they can’t solve those problems. Only the original writer can. But workshops do create better writers when they are assessed over time. Even though that’s cold comfort to someone wanting immediate improvement, a dedicated approach to workshops will help your writers improve, and there are several things we can do to help us tweak our approach to workshops that can allow that to happen.

Before we tweak our workshops, let’s take some time to understand them, starting with why the sometimes fail.

First off, many workshops fail because teachers expect them to fail. If you’re not enthusiastic about the value of workshops, it’s likely that your students aren’t going to be either.

Many of the other failures in workshops are actually misunderstandings of their purpose and design. Complaints about workshops are numerous, but the basics seem to be focused on the seriousness with which students take workshops and the lack of improvement that seems to come out of them. Neither of these criticisms are really fair if we fully understand how workshops work.

I hear a lot of teachers offer students’ superficial feedback as evidence for a lack of studiousness in conducting workshops. However, superficial surface comments are not necessarily a sign that students don’t care or don’t want to help others improve. Rather, they are a sign that students are trying to be helpful by commenting on the parts of the essay that they can most easily see needs work. That’s not really the fault of the students. It’s more of a fault of the model and preparation students have to talk about writing.

A lot of teachers base their workshops on the MFA model of creative writing workshop where a group of classmates sit around and provide insightful critiques of a classmate’s work (although readers with an MFA might disagree with my use of the word “insightful” even here.) This model fails in many writing classes because it treats students like experts in reading other students’ papers, which they are often not. As I’ve talked about before on here, one of the precursors needed for a student to think critically is a large amount of background knowledge and experience. MFA students can think critically about a piece of written work and articulate those thoughts to a classmate because they are gifted readers and writers themselves. Most writing class students don’t yet have these skills.

On the surface, student writer’s lack of expertise at providing feedback would seem to prove the critics of workshops right; workshops, they might say, are worthless because they are an example of the blind leading the blind. That’s a truth that is somewhat exaggerated and only true for the short term. Students in workshops have experience reading, but it is the type of reading experiences that prevents them from developing the ability to be helpful. Most students read books, magazines, or articles that are written and edited by professionals. These look remarkably different than their peers’ essays. Even if students see  the quality of a peer’s essay is far below the quality of an essay written by a professional, they lack an appropriate set of questions to be able to interrogate why that is. However, one of the best ways to develop those appropriate questions and that ability to interrogate a piece of writing is to provide students with the opportunity to read and discuss lots of essays in draft form.

To understand why this is, it’s often helpful to imagine yourself providing critique in a field you know little about. If I was asked by an aeronautics firm to come in and critique their design for a new passenger airplane, I’m not sure I’d be much help. Living in Iowa while much of my family is on the east coast, I have a lot of experience riding in airplanes, but I’ve never tried designing one. Many of my comments would be focused on the superficial elements of the airline experience: how wide the seats should be, where the video screens should be located, etc. Those aren’t things that are going to help make the airplane all that better in the short term, but the longer I’m involved in the process the more I will learn about all that goes into designing an airplane, and the more helpful my comments would be.

Theoretically, I could gain a lot of that knowledge from sitting at home and reading a book about airplanes, but I’d lose the opportunity to see and attempt to use that knowledge in the context of the design process. I’d miss the feedback I’d get from engineers when I mix up a rear stabilizer with an ice cart. That’s a key part of the learning process.

Applying and using writing knowledge in context creates a the same kind of feedback loop. Students present feedback on an essay and hear others comment on the same work. Comparing their ideas to their peers’ lets students gauge their own understanding and find opportunities for improvement. Seeing see other essays that are just a bit better than theirs in some areas lets them see what else is possible. Even when it is the case that a writer is stronger than his/her workshop members, s/he gains a lot from the opportunity to teach that knowledge, which forces him/her to think through it more concretely. These experiences succeed in creating better writers in the long term because they provide the kinds of immediate feedback that is impossible for writer instructors to give.

All of that means that we should be thinking about doing more workshops than we do. However, just because workshops are theoretically successful, doesn’t mean they always will. There are things that can be done about this. Here are some of the tweaks that I’ve seen or read about over the years that seem to work.

Question sheets – Many teachers will provide students with a list of questions that they are to answer while reading each essay. These sheets work well under the right circumstances. However, it’s important that the questions prompt students to think deeply about their peer’s draft. A question like “Does this essay has a thesis?” is too simple of a question and will prompt simple yes or no answers. It’s much better to ask, “Without looking back at the draft, write down in your own words what you took the main argument of the essay to be.”

Students also have a tendency to want to treat the question sheet as the point of the workshop, which tends to take their focus off of the conversation. Since that conversation is where students are getting the most direct feedback on their writing and reading abilities, it’s important to make sure students aren’t just exchanging question sheets without talking about them.

Workshop modeling – Workshopping is a skill, and the best way to get better at it is to practice. Passing out sample paragraphs or papers and then talking as a class about what types of comments are constructive and what types of assessments are unnecessary will eventually yield better workshops. If you have the time, go around the class and ask everyone for one unique comment on the essay. That will force students to pay attention to what’s already said. You can then ask students which comments they’d have felt were the most helpful if it was their essay.

If you do one model workshop, it’s useful to repeat the same exercise later on in the class. This gives you an opportunity to gauge how students are coming along as critics and to present more sophisticated models of reading.

Teacher-led workshops – One of the best ways to monitor workshops is to have a teacher involved with each one. That type of oversight lets you see what each student has to say and allows for course correction if students are getting too far off path. The disadvantages of this approach are of course that it is more labor intensive, and it requires a teacher to have cultivated a relationship with their students where they are comfortable taking risks in their criticism. These types of workshops can go wrong when students simply offer superficial comments on a draft that needs a lot of work knowing that the teacher is going to eventually have the final say.

Workshop reflections – Offer students time to process what was said to them in the workshop immediately after the workshop by requiring them to write up a one-page reflection. The reflection to have them talk about how they felt the workshop went, what the most helpful advice they received was, and what areas they want to improve in their paper.

Barbara Christie-Pope, a Biology professor at the college I work at, has a developed a great way to formalize this reflective process. She has students write on their drafts three things that their peers said about their papers that they intend to fix and three things that they didn’t hear their peers say but they figured out they need to fix because it came up in the discussion of other papers. She then instructs students to pay special attention to fixing those six things, and she encourages that close focus by basing a part of their grade on how well they address those things.

Targeted workshops – You can increase the discussion that you’ll get in workshops by decreasing the amount of content covered. If you have students focus on just thesis statements, uses of evidence, individual paragraphs, or another smaller area within a larger paper, you provide more time for discussion. Just like any other workshop, students need practice before they go through this process. One nice way to do this type of workshop is to run through it twice, immediately before and immediately after you’ve taught a lesson on the writing topic being workshopped. This model lets students become aware of their lack of critical vocabulary right before you teach it to them and then immediately gives them a chance to recognize its use by applying it in the second workshop.

The working workshop – Last winter, we reserved a room in our library once a week for two hours so that students could come in with their laptops and work on their papers. I sat in the room for the length of time to offer help, but students were encourage to ask questions aloud so that others could hear the answers. The model allowed for quite a few moments where one student’s question helped clarify another students confusion. It also was the case that some students were able to answer questions specific to the topic that I was not (I was only a writing consultant to the course and had not designed the assignments.) All in all, the workshop went well enough to repeat twice since then. While this model doesn’t give students a chance to go over the entire paper, it does let them work on immediately applying the advice they receive. That chance for immediate feedback helped students get through their drafts more quickly, and their final essays were more closely targeted at specific readers who’d asked them questions in the nascent stage of the essay.

Other models? – So, readers, I’m eager to hear your own thoughts on workshops. What have you done to tweak them or reinvent them entirely? What’s worked and what’s failed?


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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