Benefits of Paper Workshops

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Stephanie Odom

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This spring I’ve been teaching RHE 310: Intermediate Expository Prose for the second time. The first time I taught it was two years ago, so I had plenty of time in between to think of ways to improve upon my first effort. I love teaching this class. I’m not sure I’ll get to teach a class like it in my new job, but I will definitely try to work in the practice of in-class paper workshops in future classes. Workshops are a cornerstone of RHE 310, and in this post, I’d like to describe how I run workshops, what I think works well, and what I will change in the future.

First, a little context about the class is in order. RHE 310 is a class about style. Instructors (usually graduate students) teach the class in many different ways, but practicing the prose style and genre conventions of a number of types of writing is usually the norm. When I was first planning how I would teach the course, I wanted the students to be able to select the type of writing they wanted to master. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable selecting styles for the whole class since I didn’t want to make pronouncements about what style/s of writing were superior to others and didn’t want to spend time on genres and styles that were uninteresting or unimportant to students. (I have since come around to re-thinking that stance and would feel more comfortable teaching a range of pre-selected styles now.) So, in my class, each student selects a prose model that they admire and the assignments give them opportunities to analyze and imitate that model. The range of models students have chosen has been incredible, as have their creative imitations.

As I said, workshopping is a key part of this course. The first time I taught it, the requirement was that everyone submit writing--any writing--for the class to comment on. Many students submitted imitations of their prose model. These models included magazine writing, sports reporting, technical guides, academic philosophy and film articles, and many more. But in that first attempt, I didn’t require students to provide an example or of describe the writing style they were going for, and that made our workshops ineffective at times. Students would offer advice based on what their general understanding of “good style” was, and the writer being workshopped would reply that their choices were justified based on the type of writing they were practicing. The students would shrug and trust that the writer was correct.

This time around, I changed the workshop submission template to give students a space to describe and/or provide an example of their prose model, which could be the main one they were working with that semester or anything else. Having the opportunity for students to read high quality examples of that type of writing has made our workshops more effective. During the workshop, when someone has a question about whether the writer’s choices are appropriate, it’s easy to turn to the target prose and analyze it to see whether the more experienced author made that choice. For example, we’ve talked a lot about pronoun usage and what that means in terms of rhetorical distance. If the student writer makes I-statements and someone asks if that is an appropriate choice (sometimes invoking the “I heard you should never use ‘I’ in papers” rule), we revisit the target prose and see if that author used the first person pronoun. This is one of several analysis and imitation techniques I’m able to model during workshops.

Other such techniques that I hope they internalize and take with them include reading prose out loud, making a reverse outline of their or another writer’s text, getting a thought down in rough form and playing with the style later, and just generally getting others’ input about clarity and style. I’m lucky that the students in this semester’s class are respectful and forthright, so I don’t need to do a lot of delicate balancing of egos or communication styles. Especially in the early part of the semester, students were nervous about getting their writing critiqued, but that feeling has subsided after seeing how their peers are not dismissive, rude, or totally off-base in their comments.  

In this class, I love how these workshops expose students to a wide range of writing styles, some of which they will themselves write someday but others that they won’t. The range gives us the chance to see how writing varies and how what’s “wrong” in one rhetorical situation is “right” in another one. For example, one student wrote a reflective essay about a baseball game that he wanted to publish as a sports column. His style is casual and blunt, two qualities that you often see in sports writing. We talked about how in his case, it was acceptable to use slang words and even profanity in story telling, and how he created dramatic interest by using a series of short simple sentences, whereas in other workshops, we had worked with the writers to combine simple sentences into more complex ones to lend a more sophisticated tone. We’ve seen how in science writing, the passive voice is standard and appropriate, but in personal statements, we want to see more first-person pronouns. It’s also been helpful for writers to get feedback about where their readers want to see more evidence, what they think the argument was, and how they personally responded to the piece.

In the interest of space, I’ll briefly list here other practices that I’ve found facilitate productive discussion and some that I’ll change in the future.

What is working:

  • Having writers upload their papers to our class wiki 24 hours before their workshop (by 9:30 a.m. on Monday for a Tuesday class) to give classmates time to comment.
  • Asking everyone to post at least one positive and one constructive comment on the wiki before class to prime them for participating.
  • Distributing printed copies of the paper even though we can all read it on the projector. This is not necessarily for the writer’s benefit since receiving 18 marked-up copies of their writing can be overwhelming, but it’s been great for keeping everyone else more engaged with the writing.
  • Speaking with each student about their participation during our midterm conference and letting them know if I want them to participate more or give others a chance to speak, and what I think their strengths as a participant are.

What I will likely change:

  • Spending 20 minutes instead of 30 minutes on each student to give us more time to analyze and imitate at least one additional type of writing as a class.
  • Requiring everyone to revise their writing based on our feedback so that the stakes are higher and they practice weighing conflicting comments against each other.
  • Practicing close line editing techniques, though this is a maybe. Some students are doing this anyway and I’d like to be more involved in what they are suggesting, but I would rather they practice minimal marking and ask questions for clarification instead of making changes to the papers. Depending on the goals of the course I’m teaching, I may or may not encourage line editing.

Learning how to run a writing workshop is a valuable skill for anyone who will be teaching composition, and it requires practice and being open to change. It focuses the class on student writing instead of polished professional writing, it opens up the writing process for discussion, it teaches students that getting feedback on their writing is not going to kill them, and it lets them see how different readers react in different ways and that that’s ok. I will definitely be using this pedagogical tool in future classes and I hope my description of it here gives others some ideas about how to use it in their classes, too.


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