I recently led a workshop on working with multilingual writers in IRW and corequisite composition courses, and I was asked how best to handle peer review when there are multilingual writers in the classroom. Several participants expressed concern about the efficacy and practicality of writing workshops, especially in very diverse classrooms where background knowledge, linguistic traditions, and experiences with academic writing vary widely. Could such workshops serve to marginalize multilingual writers?
I would suggest, in fact, that diversity offers the potential for a richer workshop experience for all students, although you may need to spend more time preparing students for participation and guiding them throughout the workshop, especially at the beginning of the course.
I usually introduce workshops with a discussion of the purpose of the peer review process. Most of my students will have had some experience with peer review, and I ask them to hypothesize about the purpose, based on their experiences. Most affirm that peer review is supposed to “make the paper better” or “find the problems.” When pressed, most students equate peer review with a process very similar to “grading”: point out flaws, tell people what to fix, make evaluative comments. To highlight the similarities, we may create a chart connecting what they’ve experienced in peer review and what they’ve experienced in teacher feedback or grading.
Comments in these early discussions reveal the reasons so many students (and faculty, in some cases) are wary of peer-review: they believe they are expected to take on the role of expert in the process—an expectation they cannot meet. In response to this perceived expectation, multilingual students (depending on background) may adopt an overly critical or directive stance, engage in enthusiastic but unhelpful cheerleading, or simply withdraw from the process.
Having discussed the purpose of workshops, I like to show students examples of peer feedback that I’ve been given, from colleagues and from editors at Bedford/St. Martin’s. While most agree that the feedback is still targeted to “make the writing better,” they see quickly that the comments I’ve received lead to improvement not by telling me what to do, but by giving me information that I can use to make decisions about my writing. The feedback generally occurs in the form of reader responses, questions, I-statements, and clarification requests. In early drafts, I may also have questions about why information appears where it does. In short, I am getting descriptive and analytic feedback that allows me to make decisions about how to revise, much like a chef would gather feedback from taste testers to improve a dish or the way a producer might gather focus group feedback before creating the final version of a film.
The underlying aim of feedback, then, is to provide information authors can use to make writing decisions – and ultimately, information that will help authors evaluate their writing decisions. And unlike the role of expert, providing a reader’s perspective is an expectation that all students can achieve in a workshop setting.
Once we’ve established the purpose of the workshop, we begin the process of practicing. The following principles guide our practice.
I provide specific guidance on acceptable formats for response. In most of my classes, that means that students don’t generally comment on grammar, at least not in the early stages. I also demonstrate how to make “I-statements,” how to request clarification, how to describe a gut reaction, and how to ask content questions.
I may ask students to annotate drafts for specific elements that we have been discussing in class, such as stance strategies, transitions, showing evidence, or efforts to engage the audience.
We spend some class time discussing how to use the feedback. One option is to have writers organize feedback as a set of issues to review, and then they can identify options open for addressing those issues.
I ask students to determine what feedback is most helpful and to use that information to be proactive in their workshops. As the term progresses, students create a “what I want from feedback” statement to share along with their drafts in the workshops.
We try feedback in different modes: small group discussion, shared annotations of Google Docs, writing directly on printed copies, using sticky notes, etc. As the semester progresses, classes can request specific types of workshops, based on what has worked well for them.
I offer students an opportunity to reflect on every workshop experience (usually through quick surveys or anonymous comments), and we make adjustments in the format and composition of workshop groups throughout the term.
Students in IRW/corequisite courses, especially those from multilingual and diverse backgrounds, may have had negative experiences with peer workshops. But eliminating workshops from our IRW/multilingual/corequisite courses altogether may reinforce mistaken beliefs that writing is a solitary process, that the only source of feedback is a teacher, and that the only gauge of a text’s effectiveness is the grade it receives. Integrating writing workshops in multilingual classrooms, on the other hand, builds a sense of community that values the contributions of each member.