Consider the Crit: Mechanics

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What can we learn by exploring peer feedback practices in other disciplines? That’s the central question driving this series of posts. I started close to home in my last few posts by considering workshop practices in creative writing, but the truth is that this project was inspired by the art critique.


Before stepping into the role of Interim Chair for Visual Arts and Art History last year, I sat down with each of the department’s faculty members to get to know them and their work. I learned a lot about art—how it functions as a research practice, the considerable costs involved in producing it, and the serious safety risks involved in teaching it—and I was truly impressed by the work my colleagues were doing. I’m blessed to work with such amazing people. I was also immediately intrigued by critique, since it seemed so much like my own use of peer review in the writing classroom. And so I was only too happy to spend more time learning about critique for this series of posts.


My two informants in this case were Andy Brown and Sharon Hart. Andy is the Foundations Instructor for the department. He’s super-duper smart, very easy-going, and just fun to hang around and chat with (we grab coffee on occasion for just that purpose). He’s also an awesome painter. Sharon is an Assistant Professor and the area head for Photography. She’s committed, passionate, and a wonderful photographer and a strong advocate for her area. I sat down with each of them and asked them about critique in the studio art classroom. The conversations were animated and wide-ranging—we just had so much to discuss! But to start I’ll share a little about what I learned from discussing the mechanics and logistics of critique.


For starters, as Andy informed me, there are two basic forms of critique: group and individual. Group critique is analogous to peer review. Individual critique is a one-on-one session between instructor and student and reminded me most of a student coming to my office hours to discuss a paper. In a group critique, students place their work up around the studio, a piece is selected, and the class responds to it. As with workshop in creative writing, generally the artist doesn’t speak until after the critique. Discussion proceeds apace with the goal of getting to as many pieces as possible during the class time. Sharon indicated that in the course of a semester, there will be 5-6 group critiques, which is about how often peer revision happens in my writing classes. There are many variations to this basic formula. Sharon shared that she likes to try out new methods so that she doesn’t get bored; she likes to get excited by the process too. For example, one variation she shared with me involved having students put photos on the wall “salon style” (all next to each other with no space between) and then having students vote for the six images they would want to live with for a year, marking their votes by placing a sticky note on the photo. Then the class talked about the ones with the highest votes and why.


Both of them stressed that in all ways critique is a learning process, which is to say that through critique students learn more about their individual works, studio technique, and the practices of art but which is also to say that students need to learn how to critique. As Andy observed, “A lot of critiquing is about figuring out how to look at things.” To that end, both also referenced readings they use or have used that talk about critique and how to do it. That reminded me of the worksheets I create for peer review but it also made me wonder why we don’t have more readings about peer review for our students. Students in my classes often don’t understand why they’re doing peer review, let alone how. Sharon’s approach was particularly resonant for me in this respect. She has a handout that’s collaboratively generated with her students and that goes over the goals of the critique and offered some practical guidelines. The one I’m most likely to steal for the writing classroom is “Remove the word ‘like’ from your vocabulary during critique,” going on to suggest that instead of saying “I like _____” students should instead say “I think this is successful because _____.” I can definitely see myself bringing that into the writing classroom, as well as more generally generating guidelines on peer revision based on conversations in the classroom.


As with workshops in creative writing, I walk away from this discussion of the mechanics of the art critique with a desire to do more large-scale, class-level peer reviews of student writing—more than a sample paper. I also want to find some readings about peer revision and use those to generate a discussion and a set of guidelines for the class. And I want students to reframe what they like about writing into what they find successful about writing.


In the next post, I’ll talk about the emotive charge of critique and consider its implications for the writing classroom. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.