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So there is this student who has just written a draft for one of the projects assigned to him in his composition class. He is walking to class with a copy of the draft in his hand, knowing that today the instructor has an in-class peer review session planned, and his stomach drops.

He begins more and more to think about the prospect of his own peers reading his work and becomes anxious. He starts thinking that perhaps today is the perfect time to take one of those “free” days that each student gets for absences. He thinks, This isn’t a “real” class, anyway—I’m not going to miss anything . . . . Why is my instructor making me share my writing with people I just met a few weeks ago? Is she trying to ruin my life? This is going to be so awkward. I mean, this draft isn’t even meant to be read yet! I only spent an hour or so on it, and the ink is not even dry yet . . . . Isn’t writing supposed to be a solitary activity, anyways, where strange and artistic people lock themselves up in a dark room or sit under a tree somewhere? Why do people need to read my writing in front of me, judging me and thinking I’m dumb!? I don’t care what they think—having my instructor read my drafts is punishment enough. Ugh.

Meanwhile, already inside the classroom is another student, also with a draft in hand, patiently awaiting for the class and more specifically the in-class peer review session to begin. He has been waiting for this day, this glorious day, where he can finally show his peers what a great writer he thinks he is. He too does not fully understand the purpose of in-class peer review, but he is not anxious like his classmate above. He is excited and thinks, Man, I don’t belong here. I’m a great writer—I’ve been told so by so many people! What a waste of time this will be for me. I mean, I’m pumped to show these people how good of a writer I am, but this peer review actually cannot improve my writing. These people are lower writers than I am. I’ve seen their discussion board posts. What can they possibly have to tell me about my writing that will improve it? I mean, please.

Are these two students caricatures? Maybe. But they represent the extremes, and perhaps more importantly, they represent the fact that each and every student comes to in-class peer review sessions with entirely different perspectives and experiences. Sharing your writing online is much different than sharing your writing in face-to-face settings. There are so many more social factors that are involved when you are physically present. There are feelings that might get hurt, people that might not get along, and moments of sharing feedback that might get awkward. Yet all of these factors must be put aside, in whichever way you see fit, because the purpose of in-class peer review is not to make friends, get embarrassed, or feel punished—it is to improve your writing and the writing of your peers. So whether or not you identify more with the anxious student or the confident student, it really does not matter. Neither of them share the proper approach to in-class peer review as a time when meaningful collaboration happens. As such, and because other sections in this reader give you specific questions to answer about your peers’ writing and also convince you about the importance and effectiveness of collaboration in the writing process, the remainder of this section focuses on how you can begin to attain a proper approach to this strange activity called in-class peer review.

Paradigm Shift: Mustard Face

Let’s begin with a deep, philosophical question: If the person sitting next to you in class has leftover mustard on his face from your lunch at Subway together, would you tell him? Although you might want to know more specifics about the situation (i.e., Am I his friend? What type of person is he?), ultimately it comes down to a negotiation between what is good for the person and what is awkward for you. Some people would not hesitate to inform their peer about the mustard, convincing themselves that a little embarrassment now is better than continued embarrassment for that person throughout the day. Other people would avoid this situation entirely and perhaps would even convince themselves that if that person really cared about how they looked, he would have seen the mustard by now. To what extent do we as people have a responsibility to overcome awkward situations for the betterment of other people’s circumstances?

In the writing classroom, you will be faced with similar situations all the time. Except in this setting, the mustard is a thesis and the face is a draft of a project. Regardless of whether or not you have social anxieties, know the person well, or find yourself slowly falling in love with the classmate sitting next to you, as an academic writer gaining authority in an academic context you have the responsibility to provide critical feedback to the fellow writers in your class. This is difficult to do in face-to-face settings, but it gets much easier as you progressively begin to think of in-class peer review as something that is expected of you as a growing writer. The acts of informing your classmate that you think his introduction is too vague or the conclusion ends abruptly are not acts of attack but acts of care. They are not acts of pretentiousness or of snobbishness but acts of collaboration and genuine concern.

If you are a person who would not tell your classmate that he has mustard on his face, then to be consistent you should be entirely comfortable knowing that for the rest of the day hundreds of people will see this person with mustard on his face and that, in fact, it might be your fault that the student is now infamously known as “mustard face.” Joking aside, what you tell someone about his or her writing might be awkward and uncomfortable, but at the same time it has the potential to really help that writer’s reputation in the future.

This is (Not) Personal: Feedback Sandwiches

Now, of course, just as there are proper ways to tell someone he has mustard on his face, so too are there proper ways to tell someone that her thesis is lacking focus. When you are asked to answer a question about your peers’ work (such as, “Is the writer’s thesis focused?”), which of the following two ways do you think would be more beneficial for the purposes of in-class peer review? Circle only one.

  • “Hmmmm . . . yep, just what I thought—your thesis is really vague, just like Professor Kessel said we shouldn’t do it. I thought he made that pretty clear. You should definitely re-write it because it seems like a pretty dumb thing to do. If I were you, I would definitely not want to come across that way.”
  • “Mikhail, I really like how the introduction leads into the thesis, explaining the topic in detail before getting to the argument. About the thesis, though, I would consider making the argument more clear, because I am having a hard time nailing down exactly what the thesis is trying to say. Maybe being more specific about which side the paper is taking would help me understand it better. But keep the word ‘vociferous’ in the description of English majors. Good word use there.”

Okay. So the more appropriate choice might be rather obvious, but it is important to know why.

  • The first thing that should stick out to you is the tone of the people speaking. Speaker 1’s tone is almost dismissive, speaking to her peer as though the mistake she made is the most obvious thing in the world. Speaker 2’s tone is more supportive because she places herself not as someone who knows everything but as someone who is there to help the writer work through some issues in her writing.
  • Secondly, Speaker 1 frames her response almost as a personal attack. She uses “you” and “your” throughout her response and even at one point claims that having a vague thesis is a “pretty dumb thing to do.” This speaker shows little attentiveness to the feelings of the writer and comes across as rather aggressive in her feedback. It would be easy for the writer to take what she said very personally, which is not something that we want. As a way to avoid this, consider providing feedback in the manner in which Speaker 2 does. In her response, she does not provide feedback with “you” statements but rather speaks of the paper as something separate from the person (i.e., she calls it “the thesis,” and not “your thesis”). Sometimes this can be a helpful way to learn how to give productive feedback in a way that makes the writer take your concerns less personally.

Again, not taking things personally is easier said than done. Even if we all speak of our writing as separate entities from ourselves, at the end of the day you are going to leave class (hopefully) with a paper that is covered in feedback that articulates room for improvement in your writing. Speaker 2 seems to acknowledge this point by responding to her peer in the form of a “feedback sandwich”: keep, fix, keep. She places her “fix this” feedback (thesis) in between two very positive statements about her peer’s writing (introduction and word choice). Not only is this useful for the reader in finding positive things about the paper, it is also very useful in keeping the writer’s confidence high at a time when it is particularly vulnerable.

All In This Together

This portion, which is really short and to the point, is aimed solely at trying to calm your nerves: Try and take some solace in the fact that at the exact same time that you are worrying about having your writing judged, assessed, torn apart, or ridiculed, there are about twenty-something other students in your classroom that are more than likely thinking the exact same thing. Everybody on campus, regardless of what field, discipline, or area her or she is studying, must have his or her writing read at one point or another at various stages in the writing process. The quicker you become comfortable with and realize the benefits of peer review, the better off you will be in your academic and non-academic lives. The more comfortable and open you are with peer review (whether it’s in FYC or not), the more feedback you will receive; the more feedback you receive, the better your product gets. Acknowledge this fact. Live it. Get used to it.

Return of Mustard Face: Listen To Your Peers

Of course, none of this work to become successful contributors to in-class peer review means anything if the person receiving the feedback does not take into account what their peers are saying. Whether or not you believe you can learn and improve your writing from peer feedback, the fact of the matter is that a significant chunk of time in this class is devoted to peer review so you might as well fully invest into the time you have to share your writing. Think about “mustard face.” Think about the risk he would have been taking if he chose to ignore the feedback of his peer—the job interview later that day, that run-in with his crush, that time spent chatting during his professor’s office hours. All instances of negative future encounters could have been avoided if only he listened to his peer. Sigh.

Now, it is not expected that you change every last detail that your peers suggest that you change; but, it is expected that you at least take into consideration every last detail your peers suggest that you change. Your peers are your readers, and as such, every thing they say means something. Every single word they utter to you about your writing means that at some point their brain was thinking about your writing. This is valuable. Period. Whether you think it is or not. And you need to acknowledge that the fact that having a group of peers willing to give you feedback on a piece of writing that is a high percentage of your grade is not an inexhaustible commodity. Take advantage of this resource while you can, and do yourself a favor by listening carefully, critically, and compassionately to the words of others as they pertain to your own writing.

We all have mustard on our face. What separates committed from careless writers is whether or not we choose to acknowledge the mustard and thank our friends for pointing it out.