Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Writing Circles: Combining Peer Review, Commitment, and Gentle Guidance

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Writing Circles: Combining Peer Review, Commitment, and Gentle Guidance

Article excerpt

This is a story about small-group peer discussion, soft-gloved guidance, the necessity of commitment, and collaboration across campus. It describes a way to combine the rich potential of both writing groups and writing center pedagogy. The new Writing Circles--weekly small-group workshopping through a partial-credit class--seem to be filling a gap on our campus, Saint Mary's College of California, and extending quite widely the reaches of our center work. Ours is one of those fairly unique writing center and Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) combined programs, and my directorship encompasses both. In addition to Writing Circles, we offer one-to-one sessions and workshops for students, plus faculty development workshops and curriculum guidance for faculty.

Our center's experiment with formal student writing groups began quite small, quite humbly, in response to a request: I was asked to design a writing support program for our college's Great Books Collegiate Seminars. During seminars, class time is devoted to deep discussion of texts. Half of a student's grade is based on the quality of discussion, but the other half is based on essays that spring from that discussion. Despite the emphasis on writing, there is little to no discussion about writing during class, and the seminars are taught by faculty from across the disciplines who might not be trained to facilitate writing development. The Seminar Program viewed its need for writing support through two lenses: faculty who were frustrated by student essays that did not interrogate the texts profoundly or that were riddled with error; and students who felt adrift, not knowing exactly how or what to write.

While considering how to respond, I knew I did not want to create some kind of remedial tutorial system under which seminar students perceived as weak would be treated differently than other students walking through our center doors. And I did not want to propose a class that would be dominated by an instructor and look like an additional composition course. Either model might be unattractive to students and frankly less than fully effective. Another option, writing fellows, was not encouraged on our campus at that time.

I decided to try to capitalize on the powerful potential of writing workshops and peer review, during which students view their writing through each other's eyes and learn to analyze and deepen explorations of both content and expression. I agree with Laurie Grobman's description of the benefits of peer review when it in fact results in deep, reflective critique: "Learning the nuances of critique can in and of itself lead to improved writing abilities" (47). However, students do not always and inevitably grow as writers through peer review: under-structured sessions can lead to fumbling without focus; students who are not trained in discussion-based critique can give misguided, too little, or too much advice; and well-meaning instructors can sit down and join in, trying to help students reflect but instead inadvertently taking over, with students hanging on every word of the instructor instead of listening to each other. As for independent critique groups, those too can fall short of their potential: despite best intentions, students who arrange groups with no commitment other than their enthusiasm can find that more pressing commitments encroach; additionally, many peer-only workshops lack guidance in how to analyze and discuss writing.

I hoped to set up our new program in ways that might sidestep potential pitfalls right from the start. So I proposed creating small writing groups governed by our writing center pedagogy and ethos of guiding without directing. We dubbed these "Writing Circles." Each week, three to five students discuss their work for an hour, with a facilitator sharing writing strategies as needs arise but mostly helping the students discuss productively with each other: the facilitator guides students to describe each other's drafts via post-outlining and offer detailed, readerly feedback to each other. …

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