The peer review

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.


4 thoughts on “The peer review

  1. When I took Writing 50 at Scripps, I certainly benefited from the peer review process. Not only from the comments I gave but also from the comments I got — as long as multiple pairs of eyes were looking at my paper.

    Every first year college student comes with a different background. In high school, I had only really had to write one or two term papers and those were not of exceptional length. My AP essays were all incredibly formulaic and I was good and churning out the formula. (To this day when I look at my college entrance essay, I’m shocked as hell that I was accepted.) Other students had more stringent requirements or more frequent papers — those students were better qualified to edit papers and I learned better form and style from their comments. However, even from the students that had little writing experience, I still learned. I learned the importance of making an argument “pop” and catch their attention — because they had just as little interest in reading and editing two other students’ term papers as I did. Might as well make it not suck so much, you know?

    In my class, we went through three copies for each paper. We had the first draft, followed by peer review, which helped us produce the second draft, which was reviewed by the professor, which was used to produce the final draft. I never did like this method, because my professor would always tear the paper to shreds between the second and third draft and we would always end up back at the drawing board rewriting essentially the whole paper between #2 and #3. What then, I ask, is the point of any of the peer editing? Put the peer editing AFTER the professor rips the paper apart, so that everyone can learn from the initial comments. . . I feel nothing but bitterness toward that class.

  2. A few years ago my department decided that students in the huge first-year class should pick up their term essays in the departmental office. The graded papers were sorted alphabetically and stacked in long cartons.

    The problem was that the best papers went missing. Now I know why. ‘B’ and ‘C’ students wanted to know what an ‘A’ paper looked like. Well we soon shut off that learning experience. Can’t have stealing.

    Of course the whole business of grading is screwy. What would Socrates say? An essay is its own reward?

  3. Pingback: Beer bottles and term papers, Canadian style « Hopeless but not serious

  4. Peer review is testing how clear you write. Right? I believe that if my writing can’t make anyone think something, anything, then it should find its way into a bin waiting for an early morning quick burn in the wood stove.

    I didn’t like peer review when I was younger, now I see things through the eyes of a more mature person. I don’t really care if any of my peers agree, disagree or think its rot.

    Write what needs to written and the words will come together like bread and butter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s