Essay writing and the dance of peer review

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 10.53.42Source of image: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) course site

There has been a really interesting discussion this week between ModPo’s leaders, Al Filreis and Julia Bloch, about the progress of this year’s ModPo course. For me the fact that they continually reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in ModPo is a model of good practice in teaching and learning. The added bonus is that they openly share this, so that other educators can learn from it too.

In this discussion they discuss the first ModPo assignment (the 500 word essay on Emily Dickinson), peer reviews, some notable discussions in the forums, what is coming up in Week 5 and what is the value of ‘massive’ participation (30000 +) in ModPo.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about assignment writing and peer review.

Assignment Writing

This is the third time ModPo has run, and over this time Al and Julia have come to see the limitations and risks of the assignment review rubric and how a rubric can dampen the potential for a good assignment. They say that they noted how a rubric wasn’t able to cover some of the fabulous close reading of poetry that was/is being done in ModPo. I can relate to this having in the past marked assignments that are clearly much better than the rubric that is being used to mark them. I can also relate to their discussion because I know from experience that the first time an assignment is given, it is unlikely to be completely ‘fit for purpose’ and will need ‘tweeking’ for the second, if not the third, use. Eventually it becomes a good assignment which both tutors and learners understand and which allows learners to reach their full potential. I always used to worry about the first run of an assignment and whether it would be fair on the students.

Al and Julia also have a wonderful discussion about the meaning of the word essay. Julia points out that the word ‘essay’ comes from the old French word ‘assai’ , or ‘essayer’ meaning ‘to try’, ‘to examine’, ‘to test’ . So an essay is a practice, not the final word. At this point their poetic selves take over and they describe an essay as a finger exercise, an etude, a venture, a fugue, an unfolding dialogue; people riff, expand, post variations, in call and response mode.

Peer Review

Discussion of the word ‘essay’ led naturally into a discussion about what Al called ‘the dance of peer review’. A person ‘assays’ forth, someone pulls back, then comes forward and meets you half way, there’s a bit of a dance, a fugue, a give and take.

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A dancer in virtual space performs with her reflection (Source of image)

‘It’s not that you learn and then I judge whether you learned, but rather you ventured forth and I came to you, and we’re together trying to figure out how this works. You are allowed to change my mind.’ (Al Filreis)

Al pointed out that this type of peer review is possible because the course is ungraded, non-credit bearing, free and open and that through this, improvement of the course is a communal activity. The course gets better as people learn how to respond. Al and Julia have seen better assignments this year as a result of this ongoing, iteratively reflective process.

I think this is all about feeding forward, rather than feeding back.