When I began planning my online course site for ENG 203, one of the first obstacles that I saw involved the effective workshopping of student writing. In particular, I was concerned about finding the correct balance between the student/peer feedback relationship, and the instructor/student feedback relationship. In a seated class, workshopping of poems is typically done as a collective group, with several days set aside for the feedback process. In each session, the entire class is given a copy of the poems for discussion, and is asked to have read them prior to the workshop and to have comments and feedback for the author. During these sessions, the students are asked for their opinions as to “what is working” in the poem, as well as their thoughts generally and interpretations. The discussion then typically turns to areas where revision is needed, during which students offer their suggestions to the author. The discussion on each poem typically ends with some short suggestions from the instructor. Written feedback from instructors is typically discouraged, I’ve found, as it risks perhaps more the possibility of appropriating the student’s poem.
The workshop process in a seated section of ENG 203 is much in line with the ‘collaborative learning’ principle detailed by Ken Bruffee in his influential essay “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” from vol. 46 of College English. Essentially, in this essay, Bruffee details the results of his research into collaborative learning in the composition classroom, a function he advocates as a sort of ‘best practice’ in the teaching of writing (637-640). Bruffee argues that the creation of an effective discourse community of student peers can be an invaluable learning tool in the teaching of writing, and that information learned through collaboration with peers tends to be associated with high cognitive transfer (640-641). The trick to success in collaborative learning is to ensure that students consider their classmates as “knowledgeable peers” (640). During poetry workshop, care needs to be taken to allow all students to voice their opinions and interpretations of the writing of their peers, and all students should feel comfortable and confident in this process. On this same axiom, there needs to be a balance struck between student feedback and instructor feedback. The instructor is not a ‘peer’ of the students in an introductory poetry class, and as such, his-or-her comments need to be presented in such a way that they do not overshadow or negate the comments of the students peers.
I struggled with this paradigm in creating my online class. How could a group of 20 students provide feedback on 20 poems? This is easily done in a seated class, wherein communication is verbal and synchronous. But in a virtual class, where all communication is typically in written form, asking students to comment on 20 poems is simply unreasonable. Also, how could I avoid the possibility of appropriating student work when providing comments? Ultimately, again, in a virtual classroom, communication is typically written.
I ultimately settled on a model in which students would workshop their poems in small groups, which will be assigned randomly on Blackboard. Within these small groups, I set up a discussion board, on which each student would create a new thread for his-or-her poem. In each thread, the students were asked to provide commentary on the poems, and to offer suggestions for revision, as well as praise elements in the poem they felt were working. While I observed the workshop, I did not participate. I felt the creation of an effective discourse community would have been impeded if I was commenting simultaneous to the students, and I did not want to stifle the exchange of ideas between students. Instead, I decided to record audio feedback for each student individually. I recorded between 5 and 10 minutes of feedback for each student, during which I discussed not only their poem, but also poetry generally and certain best practices. I emailed these audio tracks to each student. I feel this model, of randomly assigned small groups, combined with a separate instructor feedback in the form of audio comments, best replicates the environment of a seated class. I think the process is going well and I intend on sticking with this method for future online classes. So far, the feedback has been positive.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” College English, vol. 46, no. 7, 1984, pp. 635–652. www.jstor.org/stable/376924
Bruffee, Ken. “Reply to Peter Elbow.” College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, pp. 467–468., www.jstor.org/stable/375167
Elbow, Peter. “Comment on Ken Bruffee.” College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, pp. 466–466., www.jstor.org/stable/375166