Students as Peers

Most writing in schools and colleges is a perversion of practical style: the student pretends that he is writing a memorandum. He pretends that he knows more than the reader, that the reader needs this information, and that his job is to impart that information in a way that is easy for the reader to parse. The pretense is supposed to be practice for the real thing. Actually, the reader (the teacher) probably knows much more about the subject than the writer; the reader (the teacher) has no need whatever for the information; and the job of the writer is to cover himself from attack by his superior (the teacher). The actual scene interferes so much with the fantasy scene that the result is almost inevitably compromised, if not fraudulent. (Francis-Nöel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth, p. 77-8)

Scholars write for their peers. They present their ideas to a readership of people who are roughly as knowledgeable about their subject as they are. They write for readers who are qualified, not just to learn from their discoveries, but to point out their mistakes. Shakespeare scholars write about his plays and sonnets for people who are familiar with them. They imagine a reader who knows the text as well they do and has easy access to it. Sociologists write about society on the presumption that their readers, too, have thought a great deal about, say, the causes of crime or poverty. They assume that their readers also have data to inform these thoughts. Writing instructors, finally, when writing in their journals, are addressing other writing instructors, with a rich understanding of the problems of writing and many years of experience trying to solve them. Their readers already know what student writing looks like.

But who are those students writing for? Sometimes we will give students a kind of “simulation”; we ask them to write a text with an imaginary audience of magazine readers, policy makers, or business leaders. We place them in the role of journalist, or expert, or consultant. Sometimes we will ask them to imagine writing an article in one of the major academic journals of their discipline. But we are, indeed, asking them to imagine these readers–they are not yet journalists, experts, consultants, or scholars–and they are, by no means, our students’ peers. Is there a way of getting the students to really simulate the experience of writing for a peer readership, of getting them to engage directly with the problem of writing down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people? I believe that there is, and it’s quite straightforward. I think we should, in most cases, for the majority of their assignments, ask students to imagine their fellow students as their readers. They should explain what they have learned to each other.

This community can be defined quite precisely. Their readers will, first and foremost, have participated in the course. They will have read the required reading and attended the lectures and workshops. The teacher, who has also read the readings and attended the classes, and has even read all the students’ work during the term, is in a good position to judge whether any given student is effectively addressing the others. The imagined or “ideal” reader is, of course, a good student — one of the most intelligent and serious among them — but even this reader must be addressed with an awareness of the difficulty of the texts discussed and the disagreements about them that came up in class. The students are pitching their claims to each other. They are trying to get each other to believe, understand or agree with them about what the learning experience means, what the course has taught them.

Knowing how to write, said Virginia Woolf, is knowing who you’re writing for. We can say that it means knowing what difficulty your reader faces when you make your claims. If the reader finds them hard to believe you must provide evidence. If the reader finds them hard to understand you must explain your meaning. If the reader finds them hard to agree with you must engage with the known objections. Your writing helps the reader overcome the difficulty of the claim you are making. But when students imagine not each other but their teacher as their reader, they can’t feel the difficulty very easily. Indeed, they probably imagine a reader who already knows what they are trying to say, or, anxiously, that what they are trying to say is wrong. They let the reader contribute too much to the reading. In an important sense, they are making their own task too easy by expecting the reader already to understand the ideas they are presenting.

I don’t know how often university students are asked to imagine each other as their readers. I don’t know how widespread the practice of evaluating them on their ability to address the difficulties of their (most intelligent, most serious) peers is. In my view, it should be the standard approach to university-level writing. It would incentivize the students, not merely to read the course material, but to attend class and engage their fellow students in conversation, both inside and outside of class. They would be tasked with learning, not just about Elizabethan tragedy or inner city poverty or the elements of style, but also with what is on a “like mind” working on the same problem at the same level. This awareness is fundamentally “academic” and we spare our students the experience — the very instructive trouble — at their peril. In fact, the ability to address yourself effectively to your peers is not just a useful skill for you to have as a person, it is useful to all of us as a culture that you possess it. It takes a village to know anything of value; we build the community of scholars in the university classroom.

Further reading: “Some Thoughts on Peer Grading” and “Peer Grading and Peer Review”

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