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Peer Workshops and the Role of Motivation

posted: 4.29.13 by archived

I don’t know where I read it, but I have this line in my head about peer workshops being the most frequently tried and most quickly abandoned practice by non-writing faculty (faculty in the disciplines). But among those who regularly teach writing, peer workshops are standard fare and, in my experience, seen as one of the joys of teaching writing. There is, perhaps, no other activity that is so taken for granted, so ingrained in the practices of good writing teachers: students need to sit with other students and read their writing. If we know nothing else, we know this.

One benefit of this practice, as I tried to articulate in my last blog post, is the way in which peer workshops expand students’ sense of audience. My own experience with peer workshops as an undergraduate student at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s suggests that when students are in the regular habit of sharing their work with one another, they begin to think about audience in ways that go beyond the usual inescapable audience and exigence for class-based writing: the teacher and the grade. They begin to think of their peers while they write, not just their teacher.

When I sat down to write this post, my plan was to share the process by which I facilitate peer workshops in The Paperless Writing Class, but I feel as though I have stumbled into something else, something equally interesting, but vexing. As I consider my own experience in peer workshops, I realize that my thinking about audience changed because I wanted to write for those peers, and because I cared about the topic of my writing. In the example I shared in my last post, my classmates and I were writing essays about topics of our own choosing, not going through the motions of completing an assignment that our professor had given us (like the students in the first-year writing classes I now teach do). There was a motivation to “get it right” in our essays because we cared about our topics and thus cared about the impressions we were making on our peer-readers.

Experience suggests that this is definitely not always the case when it comes to academic writing, particularly the kinds of academic writing students are asked to do in required general education courses. In such situations, the exigence of the grade is often the only one that motivates students to write. If your only motivation is the grade, you’re not likely to sink much time into peer workshop unless your motivation for doing so is, once again, the grade. And if it’s true that successful peer workshops rest upon the foundation of students’ intrinsic motivation to write (a questionable assertion), then what happens when students feel no such intrinsic motivation–when they are just trying to get through a difficult writing assignment that they may or may not understand or particularly care about?

Some students, a minority, will likely be motivated enough by the grade to do their best on the paper and to take the peer workshop seriously (especially if it, too, is graded). But for many students, a paper whose raison d’etre originated outside of themselves–in other words, most papers students write in college classes–may not provide sufficient motivation for careful and thoughtful writing or participation in peer workshop.

Or is this too dark a view? Does the motivation of making-the-grade suffice as a rationale for productive participation in peer workshops? Does participation based on a philosophy of I-will-take-this-workshop-seriously-because-it-is-likely-to-help-me-earn-a-better-grade carry the same sway as I-will-take-this-workshop-seriously-because-I-genuinely-care-about-what-Susan-Brent-and-Adam-think-about-my-work? Regarding the former, do students really believe that having other students read their work can help them earn a better grade? Regarding the latter, if students write for their peers, will that automatically translate into a paper that their professor will evaluate positively?

As this blog post winds down, I’m left with this question: what is the value of peer workshops if students feel little or no motivation for the writing they have produced and which will be discussed during workshop? In my next blog post, I’ll think more about this question and share and write about some examples of student writing that were produced under just these conditions, in one of my own classes. Eventually, I’ll get to describing my current peer workshop practice, but it feels like these other questions need to be sorted through first.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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