Principles of Peer Review
Concerns about Peer Review and How to Handle Them
In this class, you will be asked to review one another's writing as a regular, graded assignment. You will be provided with a series of questions to guide you as you read and respond to one another's drafts. In this handout, we address some general concerns many students have about reviewing classmates’ work. If you have these concerns, you are not alone.
The first concern is: What if I say something that upsets a classmate about her writing? To address this, consider how you would want to be treated by your classmates when they read your writings. Do you want empty, feel-good responses that are nice and safe for you to read? Do you want an honest reaction to what was written? Do you want to be attacked in some personal way for the views that you might be discussing in your writing? Typically, most students want an honest reaction that is both respectful of them as a person, and lays it on the line if there is an opportunity to improve the draft before turning it in for a grade. You’ll do just fine if your comments are tied to the assignment guidelines—what the assignment actually calls for; are honest assessments about what worked or didn’t in the writing; are respectful of the writer’s personality, character, and motives; and do more than just point out errors but also provide clear suggestions, examples, and ideas for improvement.
The second concern is: What if I give bad advice? After all, I am a student writer, not a professional writer! Good point—but we never expect editors (students doing a peer review, for example) to take responsibility for the writer’s choices. One of the characteristics of a competent workman in any field is the ability to sort out advice, to know what to use, what to politely ignore, and what to modify and use in a different way from what might have been intended. As a writer, you are working to acquire that kind of competence. As an editor you couldn’t do better than to call it as you see it, even if you have made a mistake in interpreting what the writer meant. After all, a misunderstanding can make clear to a writer that there is something which needs to be made clearer. If you are just flat out wrong about some factual point, it remains the writer’s responsibility to decide what to do with your advice. A helpful strategy would be to NOT state what you think should be done, but to ask questions instead. For example:
Do you mean to say __X__, or do you mean to say __Y__?
Would it be better to include this in paragraph X?
This seems to mean __X__; is that right?
Questions like this can let you off the hook emotionally, but still convey to the writer that something is perplexing to you—and perhaps to other readers as well.
Advantages of Peer Review for the Peer Reviewer
As an editor / peer reviewer, you are able to widen your range of responses to writing situations. When you read and think carefully about what another writer has done in response to an assignment, you are adding to your own insights and options for how you might respond—how you might construct your own writings. When you see something you like, it becomes something you can attempt in your own writing; when you see something that confuses, confounds, or misses the mark in some way, it becomes something you can work to avoid in your own writing. So, the point is not always how you can help a classmate get a better grade when you do a peer review. That is great if it happens. The real point to the exercise is how you can apply insights from reading other’s manuscripts to your own writing to improve your own grade!
How to Submit First Drafts for Peer Review
In this class, everyone is required to share their work with any or even all classmates. After all, this isn’t a class about private writing; it is about public rhetoric. So the class web page has a way to...