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A Personal History of Peer Workshops

posted: 4.12.13 by archived

I first experienced peer workshops as an undergraduate student enrolled in Freshman English at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s. I don’t remember much about those initial experiences, I’m afraid, but my guess is that I found my first writing workshops both anxiety-producing and fun. I liked to write but had absolutely no experience talking with other students about my writing and was only just beginning to realize that one could think about one’s writing process (and that I apparently had one).

Peer workshops were a staple of undergraduate coursework at UNH—in both literature and writing courses. I have clear and fond memories of the small-group workshops I participated in while taking a course called English 501: Expository Writing with Pam Barksdale (who still teaches at UNH). In my mind’s eye, I can see my class sitting in small groups, exchanging our papers and reading them through on cold winter mornings in the front room in Hamilton Smith Hall. I can remember the social dynamics that built up within our group as we worked together all semester. Susan, an older student, was always enthusiastic and talkative with good things to say and I always looked forward to hearing what she thought of my drafts. Brent was not a strong writer and didn’t seem to be able to operationalize the instructions we were getting from our instructor (he was good at story-telling, but could never answer the “so what” question), but he was a nice guy and he always brought his drafts and commented on mine. Adam was shy and said very little, but he always wrote interesting comments on our drafts–comments that demonstrated that he was taking the work seriously, even though he never said a whole lot. Staying with these students in peer workshop all semester was a risky but ultimately productive practice. My group worked well together but I don’t imagine that all groups got along as well as ours.

All of this was before the internet, so there was no online component to our workshops in those days. Did we print out and exchange papers and read them at home before coming to class or did we read each other’s drafts for the first time in class? Were we to read and comment in writing or did we just read and talk? Did we read our drafts aloud or silently?

I can’t recall the specifics. I can recall that sharing my work regularly with a small group of peers for several months and watching both their drafts and my own evolve was an important part of my writerly education. I was learning to think about the process of writing in new and interesting ways and I was learning to think like a writer, and not just a student who writes for his professor (for a grade).

Writing, I was learning, needed to have meaning—to the writer and to actual readers. I found that I began to think about Susan, Brent and Adam as I worked on my essays. I learned to write for them and for myself—and not just for Pam–and because I cared about what I was trying to say and had to imagine my words in the mouths of my groupmates during peer workshop, I mostly ignored the role of evaluation in the whole process. While it wasn’t possible to forget about grades entirely, reading and discussing my work with Susan, Brent, and Adam in peer workshop and with Pam in conference felt like my most immediate exigencies.

I realize now that I am a product of the “writing process” movement–something that should not be, but probably is, taken for granted. My instructors at UNH likely didn’t experience peer workshops as a standard practice of writing instruction when they were in college. But for students who came of age when I did, such practice, at least at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s, was routine. And so we were not only products of the writing process movement, we were also beneficiaries, for I have no doubt that sitting with Susan and Brent and Adam and talking about my writing (and theirs) was an important part of my growth and development as a writer during the college years.

Not all workshops went as well as those in that English 501 class. Not all teachers created a climate where workshops could go as well. Not all students were willing to engage in the process with the level of seriousness that Susan, Brent, Adam and I were. But I never doubted the value of this practice while I was engaged in it and while I have occasionally doubted its value as a teacher of writing, particularly during my initial years in the classroom, I have arrived at a place now where I believe I understand why asking students to engage in peer group workshops is important. In my next blog post, I’ll talk a bit about how I structure peer workshops in the Paperless Writing Class and why I continue to ask students to engage in this activity in the first place.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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