Thursday, March 25, 2004

Collaborative Commenting

Earlier this week, D. mentioned that she was writing comments on her second graders' third quarter report cards.  They'd already been commented upon once by the primary teacher, D.'s coordinating teacher for student-teaching this spring.  She said she was reluctant to add a tier of comments that could be read in contrast to the first (more authoritative) set.  In other words, the team dynamic for commenting gave her the sense that she needed to echo the first set of comments to avoid confusion or, at the very least, discursive tension (read by the students and by parents of the students).  Recent exchanges on the WPA-list brought up the suggestion of rediscovering the joy in responding to student writing (countering the prevailing clamor about responding and grading as an unfortunate burden).  Is it one of the few areas in comp studies where collaborative models haven't been considered, explored, and so on?  I know that many arrangements for peer response advocate a layered system where drafts enjoy multiple assessments from multiple students.  And in such schemes the yoke of authority is by and large thrown off since most students don't conceive of each other as authoritative (expert) readers.  Anyway, D's comments made me think about what's woven into a collaborative commenting dynamic when it's taken up by collegial professionals, and I couldn't think of many places (excepting advanced levels of study, theses, dissertations, exam committees) where teachers co-comment, mounting critique and inquiry on a common piece of student writing.  I don't know if there's any promise in the possibilities here--obvious labor/time/capital constraints make it seem counterintuitive.  But if we intend to reassert the joys (and importance) of response, shouldn't we also be able to articulate merits of variations involving collaboration in those efforts?

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 25, 2004 10:17 PM to Dry Ogre Chalking

Was going to respond, but didn't want to blork your comments with a great long spew, so I spewed here instead. :)

Posted by: MisterBS at March 25, 2004 11:40 PM

Brought big pieces of your entry back over here (both because I don't mind this space getting blorked up and I didn't want to do the same over at your place).

comments should be looked at as one subset of a universe of actual and potential comments about their work.

Lots of provocative stuff here.  I share a sense of diffuse authority, often posturing as a "real reader" in an effort to step down from the arbiter's throne, and often wishing students 1.) had access to alternative forms of comments, and 2.) that they valued those forms of comments, preferring a breadth of potentially conflicted readings more than a single, narrow discursive channel. On this subject and as a way to build on your metaphor of universe, I'd like to suggest that weblogs have unprecedented potential to be a vehicle fueled and ready to shuttle us into a new, semi-explored cosmos of sorts--testing the edge of the diagram from Ede and Lunsford's concept of audience and complicating Ong's "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction." 

After all, I am The Teacher. For many of my native-speaking students, this runs counter to much of their training; they've been explicitly and implicitly told that there is One Right Way to write, and I have it. For my non-native speaking students who are not only accustomed to what are perhaps more authoritarian teacher-student relations, but are also, in real ways, looking to me to be a model of language use, this is nigh-upon incomprehensible. Lots of students say, in effect, "Why should I listen to my peers? They're just as clueless as I am," and that's both more true and more widely believed (if usually more politely stated) among adult language learners.

For many of the reasons you list here, I think a different model for the commenting writing teacher is overdue, and I'm sure writing teachers have worked at this issue lready.  Peer response complicates these dynamics, and, depending on how (and how frequently) it is practiced, it can bring about genuine, helpful exchanges.  And I sense that this works differently in a face to face classroom encumbered by personal social inhibitions than it does in the online courses I teach.  In the online courses, many of the students never meet; they seem much more willing to offer up comprehensive responses to the writing of peers.  

making meaning is discursive, and since we tend to make meaning in relation to (if not always in collaboration with) our peers, meaning-making is damn near always a site of discursive tension.

Indeed.  So perhaps collaborative commenting by teachers would convene a complicated contact zone.  Since we know that discursive tensions (almost) always bear deeply inscribed, asymmetrical relations of power (I'm not looking at Pratt, but it goes something like this, right?).  Just how those tensions manifest must affect students' deference to authority.  If the authority (of the teacher, understood via commenting patterns) is doubled (or tripled), even disembodied among multiple teachers, how are conceptions about assisted revision challenged or complicated?  Is it possible to prefer a collaborative model (a model of co-contribution from multiple readers, even) whilst obliging the institutional, systematic plan (without seeming too weird, too radical)? 

One of the failures of higher-ed writing instruction is that it's built in large part on a model of the garreted genius--meaning arising solely from the mind of the writer--and the role of the reader (pace Umberto Eco) is seen as secondary at best. The problem is in part a practical one: how do we introduce the readers as top-drawer meaning-makers without essentially saying "I'm just another reader?" Because, and my Elbovian sympathies notwithstanding, we are not just another reader. We have the grade book. It's our responsibility to evaluate the writing on the page according to a more or less commonly understood plan (avoiding the word "system" here on purpose) and do all of the administratrivia we're bound by contract and conscience to do.

This points out another way in which our discipline is largely falling down on the job of exploiting the potentials of new technologies that might allow for the kind of multifaceted response that Derek's suggesting. The practical questions of "how we do this without superordinating the teacher's comments and thereby artificially eliding discursive tension" are significant. The ideational piece of it--i.e. should we elide it--is a deeper issue of the culture of the academy. Derek points out that

I couldn't think of many places (excepting advanced levels of study, theses, dissertations, exam committees) where teachers co-comment, mounting critique and inquiry on a common piece of student writing.

and I'm sure that anyone who's undergone this process from the commentee end of things understands that the idea is not to try to please everyone entirely [insert sage quote here], but to balance the competing conceptual ballast of all the critiques and make it work somehow. If that "somehow" sounds vague, it should. It's a pushme-pullyou, juggle this-that-and-the-kitchen-sink act, sometimes, and I don't really think we do students any good by pretending it's not, or by eliding the difficulties of having your attempts at communication fall on the eyes and ears of actual readers and listeners.

Part of this discussion, which you allude to here, should be the role of relationships in commenting.  In other words, responding to student writing is climatized.  By this, I mean that it takes shape in a swirl (stagnant air?) of institutional and everyday (lay?) understandings of what writing instruction should do, what commenting relationships should bring about. And those understandings permeate the relational contexts variously and significantly.  There's no escaping this, of course.  But it's important to register because, like so much vapor from dry ice, it fogs the platform and blends tidy delineations.

I have to leave off here to get on with some other things, but I want to post this much.  Hope to come back to a few of these issues soon.  The collaborative commenting model is wrought with problems, not the least of which is "balanc[ing] the competing conceptual ballast of all the critiques to make it work somehow."  The push-pull-juggle reverberates with language of labor; perhaps there's no way around this.  But I want to come back to the idea that--following that discussion on the WPA-list (I think it was a note from Kathleen Yancey ['twas...on 3/10/04])--we should all be concerned with reasserting the joys of commenting and countering the gloom and whine about paper load.  And I also want to hedge (I know--it's probably been said before, elsewhere, and I haven't read it) that student compositions are some of the only texts in higher ed that aren't read collaboratively, that texts we read collaboratively are ones we understand best, and that beyond teacher training programs (TA workshops, perhaps), we fail to place much emphasis on the fruits of such processes, and rarely do we involve our current students in them.  By this, I mean that pieces of student writing, read collaboratively (in my experience) have always been approached like artifacts. Gotta trail off.  Thanks for the engaging response.

Posted by: Derek at March 26, 2004 9:29 AM