About Writing, rumination, teaching

Peer Review as an Expression of Hope

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I started out this semester with some big plans for my teaching (and my learning around my teaching), but like so many plans, they have been disrupted by the global pandemic and the physical isolation it has necessitated. (In February, my teaching/plans were also disrupted by a definitely unplanned two-week hospital stay. So it’s been….less than ideal in terms of a semester to be launching into this new/revised pedagogy I’d been into.)

But. And.

While I do NOT believe the remnants of this semester are going to wind up manifesting some kind of “triumph-over-adversity teaching epiphany” narrative, I do think that much of this experience has me not just scrambling/triaging, but actually re-thinking long-standing assumptions and practices (embedded in assignment language and syllabus language, for instance) in ways that will certainly continue post-pandemic.

(What is “post-pandemic?” I have no idea. Maybe there will be no easily discernible “post.” No after. Only next? I’ll say it again — I have no idea. And yes, that makes me anxious.)

I think my hospital stay “disruption” is also informing my thinking about teaching, learning, and the systems that seek to enable those things but which often do just the opposite.

All of this is to say: I just (re)wrote some language around this week’s assignment for my Creative Writing students at Plymouth State University. And I have been glum around not keeping up with the thinking/posting/sharing I had just barely gotten started with around my teaching earlier this semester.

So I thought I’d share my new iteration of this assignment, which I will send out to my students when I send them their peer’s story drafts. Some of this language already existed, but feels different; some of this language is new/emergent. It would likely benefit from some compassionate and inquisitive feedback. Because like writing, and good writerly feedback, teaching is (or can be) a profoundly optimistic,  hopeful, enabling and always-evolving.

Creative Writing, Spring 2020:
Short Story Peer Review Assignment

You have been sent (attached to this email) the short story draft of one of your classmates.

Your task: to offer your thoughts/questions/ideas about what they are working on, and what they might do next.

Another way of thinking about your task: we are all pretty isolated from one another right now. If we were in class, you’d be in small groups sharing this work face to face, and then we’d be talking together as a larger group about questions/struggles/ideas around writing/revising short fiction. Alas, we don’t have those conditions for our work any more.

I believe that our attentive and generous attention to each other’s work at this particular time may be extra important.

Not because creative writing class and short story draft assignments are especially important right now – but because compassion, connection, and creativity are especially important right now. Your reading and thoughtful, hopeful responding to your peer’s story draft can be an enactment of all these things. I say hopeful because good feedback, I think, often gives the writer a sense of possibility, of next. Good constructive feedback, even if the draft under considerations is a gorgeous, difficult, wandering mess, assumes an optimistic posture.

Remember – as always – your job as a draft-reader is to describe what you notice, wonder (ask questions, speculate) about what you see (and don’t see?), and to help the writer keep going. You aren’t “correcting” or “editing,” though editing/pointing out typos or unclear parts can certainly be helpful. But this draft is too new for you to encounter it as something that needs “fixing.” These drafts are still emerging, so keep that exciting and hopeful newness in mind as you read and respond.

You are a human reader; someone who knows what a story is because you have been telling and hearing them all your life. You are a fellow story-teller, a fellow human practicing ways of telling stories. Be with one another in that. Help each other keep going.

Please write up your feedback in at least 250 words and email it back to the author, cc-ing me (eahl at plymouth dot edu), so you can get credit for the assignment. If you have a way to mark up the draft itself and return the marked-up draft along with the 250 words, I’m sure it would be appreciated, but just do the best you can! If you can’t do the markup, don’t sweat it. (I will, of course, also be responding to all drafts!)

It would be ideal for you to submit at the beginning of next week (April 13), so that writers can get it in time to make good use of it, but as with all deadlines before the end of the semester, there is FLEXIBILITY. Just let me know if you need more time, or tech support, or help getting started, or if there are any other obstacles hanging you up on this work. We’ll find a way.

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