Workshop Approaches

In this section, Professor Steven Strang describes various formats he uses for peer writing workshops in 21W.747 Rhetoric. He also discusses the importance of providing students with an audience for their writing and of not providing instructor feedback on drafts students have prepared for workshops. 

Workshop Formats

I uses different formats for peer workshops in 21W.747 Rhetoric. Sometimes, I pair students and have them analyze each other’s essays. Other times, we will do full-class workshops, in which a student reads her essay aloud to the whole class and then we discuss it. This approach has some advantages. In particular, students are forced to focus on the writer's ideas, rather than slipping into trying to edit grammar.  Additionally, everyone offers responses, so the writer gains a great deal of reader input. The disadvantage of this approach is that only one essay from each student gets the full workshop treatment, as the approach is very time-consuming (we can workshop only 2-4 papers in a 75-minute class period).

The most common approach I use for facilitating workshops is to have students collaborate in groups of 3 or 4.  I provide them with a sheet to fill out for each essay they critique. The questions on the sheet guide their thinking and comments. The sheets also free up the essay’s writer to pay attention to the discussion. She does not have to worry about jotting down notes because she will receive the completed sheets at the end of the class.  When the writer includes “Workshop Acknowledgements” in the final draft of her paper, she can specify who gave what advice and whether or not the advice was helpful.

I tell [students] that every piece of writing can be made better, clearer, more coherent, more focused, etc. and it is their job as readers to help the writer find out which statements/ideas are unclear, which are superfluous, which require more evidence.

— Steven Strang

The Significance of an Audience 

The workshops are important to students because they give the writers an audience that responds to their work. I tell students reviewing their peers’ papers that saying a piece of writing is “wonderful” is the same thing as saying, “I don’t care whether you get an A or an F on this essay.” I tell them that every piece of writing can be made better, clearer, more coherent, more focused, etc. and it is their job as readers to help the writer find out which statements and ideas are unclear, which are superfluous, and which require more evidence.

Advantages of Not Providing Instructor Feedback on Workshop Drafts

Students in previous years asked me to not comment on their workshop papers in order to make their peers take their advice-giving more seriously. They also said not receiving comments from me on workshop versions of their papers helped them receive their peers’ advice more whole-heartedly. When I used to comment on these versions of their papers, the writers would ignore the advice from their peers and only focus on my comments, thus making the whole workshop experience a waste of time. Since I stopped commenting on their workshop drafts, and since I instituted the policy of requiring "Workshop Acknowledgements," students have told me that the workshops actually give them valuable information—not only because of the suggestions they receive, but also because they take the whole process more seriously and become better readers and advice-givers.