Some Guidelines to Workshopping Student Papers in Class
One of the signature experiences offered in RHE 310 is the opportunity to workshop one’s writing with the instructor and with the rest of the class. This involves presenting one’s writing publicly and receiving constructive criticism in a supportive classroom environment. Needless to say, such an effort often proves difficult. We offer the following practices, developed by Alice Batt, in order to help you to design exercises for workshopping whole student papers in class.
(1) Set some expectations at the beginning of the first workshop. Rather than dictating the rules of play, ask the class to create a list of rules themselves. Then post it somewhere accessible. In the instructor’s position, you should let this discussion unfold as it will. Try to provide some distillation of ideas; e.g. “Based on the conversation, it seems that we agree on X.” But make sure that your statements are received as tentative efforts at restating the consensus as it develops. Three firm suggestions from the instructor, however, are often well received: 1) treat others as you would like to be treated; 2) be honest yet tactful; and 3) what gets discussed in this room stays in this room. When teaching personal essays in particular, talented fledgling writers often take on really difficult, uncomfortable topics. Their comfort with the class allows them to do so. Encourage that kind of exploration.
(2) When students offer praise, encourage them to specifically mention what they like and how (or whether) it should be repeated.
(3) A simple and versatile model will help you to design your workshopping days.
(4) You can use workshopping as a tool to determine what students look for or expect in a certain genre of writing. To do so, have the entire class anonymously post a short exercise--a one-to-two-paragraph memoir, for instance--and then allow them to vote for their favorites, thus ranking the submissions. (Blackboard’s ranking function works well in this exercise.) In class, read three of the top-ranked papers, and solicit comments solely on the things they think the piece does well. Use these comments to spur a discussion of genre and reader expectation. If this submission has great visual descriptions and it was well received by the class, then can we safely assume that, for instance, sports-writing as a genre typically includes such description? Can we also say the reader will expect such description when encountering the genre? A variation: Before allowing students to rank entries, talk about the difference between what is said and how it is said. Admit that content and form are definitely linked, but ask students to pay special attention to the way an idea is framed, expressed, developed; to the language, organization, cohesion, emphasis, and rhythm; and to give highest marks to entries that perform well in the “how it is said” category. (This way, they can't vote solely on their identification with the topic.)
(5) Open the discussion of a paper’s style by pinpointing the ways in which it puts into play concepts from Joseph Williams’ Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace. If possible, demonstrate a student’s initial success at implementing one of Williams’ suggestions, or show how an earlier draft of a student’s work did not put Williams’ advice into practice, though a later version did.
When teaching RHE 325 (Advanced Expository Prose), John Trimble himself offered very close line-editing of his students’ work while also requiring that they do the same for each other. This is something that you can do in your own classes. Some advice from Trimble might work apply to RHE 310:
(1) Get students to agree upon a protocol for marking up one another’s papers. What shorthand symbols will be permitted? When is the line-editor obligate to make suggestions about word-choice, syntax, etc., and when is the line-editor merely obligated to notice a problem and to let the writer figure out a solution?
(2) Model good line-editing both in your own comments and in your in-class presentations. Spend time in class closely marking up a paper (perhaps a model paper, not something written by anyone in class). Explain why you make the comments that you do.
(3) Devise a schedule for when line-edits will be due and who will be presenting close line-edits in a given week. It will be burdensome to ask every student to closely line-edit every paper, so you should have a few (3-5) students agree to line edit in a given week, and you should require them to complete a set number of close line-edits by the end of the semester. Make up a schedule, and have students sign up for particular days. Make the schedule publicly available.
(4) Grade and offer comments on the line-edits themselves. Give credit when students complete this important part of the class, but also give them feedback so that they can improve their editing practices.
One final note about workshopping: Students need not always present completed or whole pieces of writing in order to receive helpful feedback. Though many days should be spent reading and discussing completed student papers, you may spend portions of some days doing micro-workshops. Here are a few suggestions:
(1) Ask students to present single paragraphs that indicate a particular generic contrivance; e.g. dialogue in a personal narrative; diatribe in a film review.
(2) Ask students to present brief versions of their arguments (micro-arguments) to focus discussion on content or principal claims.
(3) Ask students to present their own rewrites/revisions of another student’s writing with a particular purpose in mind. E.g. Student X could be asked to rewrite student Y’s 3rd paragraph in the interest of applying some of Joseph Williams’ advice about crafting more concise prose.