Critical Response in the Writing Classroom

by Christopher Petty

In my previous blog post (“Fostering Feedback: Dramaturgy and the Writing Classroom”), I discussed a similar need for constructive peer feedback between theatre and the writing classroom. I also mentioned that one of the biggest obstacles regarding peer review in writing classes is the difficulty of getting students to give each other useful and detailed responses while avoiding overly prescriptive or negative comments. In this post, I’d like to describe one practical exercise that I have personally found to have great results in the theatrical world, which I believe can prove just as useful in the writing classroom.
I always teach my theatre students that the theatrical production process is democratic: you have many artists working together, each being asked to take on individual tasks and develop material that is a product of personal creativity, while still collaborating on a production with a unified vision and style. The atmosphere here is not unlike the writing classroom: we give some level of creative freedom, but with the expectation of certain results. Although we seek improvement through peer feedback, sometimes the criticism and compromise of an individual’s ideas can lead to unintended insult, bruised egos, and even a growing reluctance to share. However, this can be combated with response that is skilled, focused, respectful, and that keeps in mind the objectives of the exercise.
I was first introduced to a system of feedback developed by choreographer and artist Liz Lerman,* which she calls the “Critical Response Process,” while working on a theatrical project several years ago. This system addresses the above issues, helping to avoid feedback that is potentially harmful or prescriptive (“you should do this,” “I wouldn’t have done that,” “It would be more interesting if it was about…” etc.) The process itself is rather simple, and involves four steps or stages:
1). Statements of Meaning

2). Questions from the Artist
3). Neutral Questions for the Artist
4). Approved Opinions

As I go into detail about this process, let us consider what happens when we replace “artist” with “writer,” and view the responders as the writer’s classmates and peers. To start the process, the writer shares their work with absolutely no interruptions. The respondents are then asked to share statements (no questions allowed!) about what they found significant, strong, powerful, interesting, meaningful, etc. This first stage accomplishes a number of things:
a). The feedback starts off on a positive note, which not only helps to ease the writer’s anxiety about being critiqued, but also forces any responders who might be chomping at the bit to impart their supposed wisdom in regards to what the writer should have done, to instead first consider and verbalize their responses to the current work as it stands.
b). The writer is provided with very important information regarding what others are finding important and worthwhile in their work, which they can start from when expanding and revising.
c). We set a standard for the feedback to come as something that is oriented around the work presented, not each person’s ideal version of it.
Next, the writer is allowed to ask questions about their own work to the group. This can be particularly useful because they often know what they feel confident about and what they feel needs work. The important thing here is that the responders are only allowed to answer the questions directly; they may not discuss things outside of the scope of the question, nor are they allowed to answer with suggestions. Not only does this help to keep the criticism from becoming overly harsh or negative, but it influences the direction of the conversation into going towards what the writer wants/needs to focus on the most. The biggest issue with bringing this step into the writing classroom, however, is getting students to come up with questions about their own work. This is often first met with shrugs and stares, not because students don’t have the ability to think critically about their own writing, but because nobody has ever asked them to do it in this manner before. I’ve found that if you give students enough fair warning about this step to allow them to prepare, not only does it enhance their understanding of their own writing, but it helps lead them towards an understanding of writing as a process rather than a standalone action.
The third step in the process opens the floor to the responders but restricts their feedback to questions. By doing this, we can explore the areas that the audience finds lacking, flawed, or confusing while still avoiding prescriptive feedback. For example:
“You shouldn’t talk about the economic factors of this technology. I think you should write about the environmental factors instead.”
becomes:
“What are you claiming is the significance of these economic factors?”
This also allows the writer to consider the information provided for what its worth, rather than as something disparaging or argumentative.
Finally, the responders are allowed to state their opinions on the work, but only if approved by the writer. The way it works is that any comment must be prefaced by an identification of its content, from which the writer decides whether or not she wants to hear it. For example, “I have a comment about your thesis statement,” or, “I’d like to say something about your inference regarding the intentions of the main character.” This way, not only does the writer have the option to decline any unwanted input (which happens less often than you’d expect), but the focus is kept on the work itself, and the writer remains the driving force behind the feedback.
The great thing about the above process is that you can do it with any number of people: it can work in a full-class discussion, in small groups, in partners- even online in discussion boards. However, it is important that you do all of the steps listed here, and that you do them in order. Each step sets up expectations and standards, and provides feedback in an order that gives students the most helpful information first. Furthermore, this process is intuitive and transparent in that students can understand exactly what is being done, why we’re doing it, and how to participate from the moment that they engage with it. Whether you’re in the rehearsal hall or the writing classroom, I’d call that a good day.
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* For more information about Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, check out her book here.
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One Response to Critical Response in the Writing Classroom

  1. Shyam Sharma says:

    Chris, I had a chance to share this thought in person briefly, but since the point of a blog is to create a conversation on it, let me repeat and slightly elaborate what I was saying.
    I found your ideas extremely useful because they not only provide ways for me to enhance peer feedback among my students, they also provide ways for me to improve my own commenting practices.
    As teachers, we have a lot of authority over our students, and we can easily forget/overlook the side effects of that authority when we provide them feedback on their writing. Here are some of the unintended effects of teacher feedback that I have realized, which I think I can better address by drawing on your ideas in this post.
    First, even when I try to throw the writer’s ball back in the students’ court, say, by providing neutral/analytical comments instead of exactly what to do, they still try to extrapolate “instructions” from whatever I say. Your writing provides better ways to encourage student writers to play that ball. I do ask my students to tell me what they are “trying to say,” then letting them write down what they tell me in to improve their writing. But I need ways to slow down further and ask students to also ask me questions, to introduce new issues by asking if they’re reading to work in a new area. After all, if I’m deciding everything that needs to be done and telling exactly what to do, the side effects of that may begin to outweigh the intended effects.
    Second, your post makes me better realize that how I ask questions as a teacher (even small difference in perspective, syntax, or wording) can make a big difference. I am going to draw on your writing to not only teach students specific ways of making their feedback to their peers more constructive but also (perhaps more consequentially) for improving my own ways of providing feedback.
    Third, I tend to use the shortage of time as an excuse for talking fast, rushing to my suggestions, and so on during student conferences. Reading about Lerman’s “critical response process” makes me think that being more conscious and strategic about giving feedback can make less do more when it comes to helping students take greater responsibility of their own work.
    Finally, your post reminds me of the interesting discussions that we had at the Writing Center brown bag a few weeks ago, where we talked about the importance of student writers setting their agenda and making the writing center visits (or by extension, conferences with teachers) more useful/meaningful. I was trained as a tutor for a year before I received another year of training as a writing instructor. Your post provided me such a fresh new angle for looking at one of the fundamental aspects of teaching writing, providing feedback in a way that promotes rather than undermines the writer’s authority/ownership of their writing. Thank you for sharing the wonderful idea.

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