The one bad apple.

Although I can see in theory the value of having students in a composition class do peer review on one another’s essays, in practice I find that it is generally a huge flop. They don’t bring their drafts, or they complain that they “don’t know how” to make helpful suggestions. After several semesters of experimentation (making it worth marks, offering incentives, begging), I now don’t bother with peer review.

However, there are circumstances in which it can work, I discovered today. My students all have their knickers in a degree of twist over their essays which are due soon. Yesterday in class I said, “We’ll talk about editing strategies,” and a couple of students actually asked if they could bring their drafts in. “Well, hell yeah, if you actually want to,” I said (this is more of a paraphrase, actually), thinking I would devote the last 20 or so minutes of class to a short peer editing session.

So when I got to class today, there they all were (only 2 missing: the girl who won’t participate in group work, and the guy who doesn’t have a topic yet), and what’s more they all had drafts of their essays. Some of them were alreading talking to one another about what they had written. Well. I dumped my class plan, and we had a short discussion on editing strategies, and the difference between helpful, structural editing and proofreading, and I then let them have the rest of the time for peer review. I said “come and talk to me about your specific questions. I won’t read your essays, but I will look at specific sentences and paragraphs, and I will help with citation.”

With one exception, they all got to work reading and discussing, and they asked me intelligent questions. At the risk of repeating myself, I will just say again how much I lurve my class this semester. And I learned that peer review works when you have a class full of intelligent keeners.

Now, with all that for context, I will go on to whine about the one exception in the group.

First, some background. V has been struggling with the standards for the class all semester. If she had turned up to either of the first two classes, I would probably have advised her to take the lower level class, but we missed that boat. She has a real chip on her shoulder about writing, too, which adds to the layers of difficulty she has with the assigned tasks. In class discussion, she has some good ideas, but she isn’t the best listener, and she tends to have trouble with organising her thoughts. So.

In class a week ago, I had students share their ideas for their thesis statements, and then we discussed how the statements could be improved. Some of them were quite reluctant at first, but as it became clear that actual help was being offered, more of them volunteered. Then it was V’s turn. She read a really vague paragraph that wandered around the topic but never quite got there. So I asked if anyone had any comments; there were a couple firm but fair “I don’t get which parts of that are your actual thesis” comments. Then Doug – one of those great big guys who looks scary but turns out to be a great writer and a really nice person – said “Here, I think what you need to say is this:” and he just blurted out the best encapsulation of her ideas. “Fantastic!” I said. “Write that down, V,” and then we talked about why Doug’s sentence worked as a thesis. Five minutes later, at the end of the discussion, V muttered “I don’t see why his sentence was better than mine.”

The next day, V was missing from class when we had an in-class essay. I thought she was probably in a snit, and wondered if she would be back. The next class she turned up with her assignment. Now, I have a very clear rule that in-class work cannot be excused or given an extension without prior notice, which V had not provided.

I asked her to bring me a copy of her course outline, and pointed to the relevant paragraph. She read the following paragraph, and then looked at me, puzzled. So I pointed again. “Well, that’s not fair; I never read that.” Possibly true, but I pointed out that the rule had been discussed in class, and that she had also been explictly instructed to read her course outline and ask me if she had any questions, since she missed the first two classes. Of course, she had a big rant about how unfair it all was, and how I was ruining her GPA. I explained that the rule applied to everyone, and that no one else had been allowed to make up an assignment unless they followed my guidelines.

Unable to argue further along that line, she then went into a rant about how long she was spending on her assignments. Dude, that’s just ridiculous. Work smarter not harder. I tried to make some suggestions; I said, “I’ve been trying to help you; remember I sat with you last time we had an in-class and went over your work and told you how to improve it?” Grudging acknowledgement. She didn’t actually implement most of my suggestions, but I refrained from rubbing that in. Given all of that, I suggested that she go immediately and make an appointment with the learning centre for help with her major essay.

So, with all of that previous history, V came up to me in the editing class and said “Can you read through my essay and check it?” Well, no. Didn’t I just specifically say I wouldn’t do that? Had she made an appointment at the learning centre? She had not. Had she asked Doug or anyone else in the class to read her essay, since that was what we were doing? She had not.

“You are my teacher,” she said, “It is your job to help me.”

I had to concentrate really hard to remember the 19 other people in the room at that moment, all working, all coming to me for appropriate amounts of help, all trying to do their best to write good essays they could be happy with.


One thought on “The one bad apple.

  1. Pavlov's Cat

    Ah yes: the squeaky wheel, demanding grease. That was one of the many things that eventually drove me out of academe — I became obsessed with the notion that this was how I was spending my precious time, uselessly arguing the toss with recalcitrants and malcontents, when I could have been devoting it to people who actually wanted to learn things and were eminently capable of doing so.

    There’s a gender dimension, too. When I read stories like this, I wonder whether students have these expectations of male teachers — or whether it’s only female teachers who inspire them behave like baby birds with beaks that stay wide-open no matter how many worms you drop down there.


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