I used to think that undergraduate peer reviewing — which means having your students pass their papers to classmates who take them home and type up some suggestions for revision — was bunk. I thought it was the kind of hippie-dippy stuff that makes a pretence to empowerment while actually allowing professors to abdicate responsibility. How much can a freshman learn from another freshman’s comments, I reasoned?
But then we got a new director of college writing, and she explained it to me. The idea is not that the students learn from the comments they receive, but that they learn from the comments they give. Engaging with someone else’s less-than-perfect paper and trying to put themselves into the role of critic, they learn how to write a paper themselves. On revision their papers get better, and this has much less to do with the comments they’ve gotten than with the fact they’ve been forced to ask others: is your thesis clear? did you contradict yourself? To ask them to do this is to put them in a position not simply of power but of responsibility. They return to their papers with a more serious attitude.
I was reminded of all this when I read Nick Mamatas’s description of working in a term paper mill in Arts and Letters Daily. Most of what he says has been said before in other such articles. But one interesting point he makes is that the reason students can’t write term papers is that they haven’t ever read any term papers.