Practicing What We Preach (and Doing What We Assign)

How many LEGO figures does it take to screw in a light bulb? Wait…where's the socket?

The literature on assigning peer review convincingly argues that very little helps students understand the writing process (an intricate and iterative challenge open to interpretation) better than working with one another to improve their work. Peer review also helps students see just how differently the same document can be interpreted by various audience members, as opposed to depositing a document for a teacher to grade without the expectation of two-way communication. When students worked together to improve their drafts, they start to see their work as purposeful, malleable, and improvable, rather than an isolated task to be dashed off and forgotten.

Peer review also helps our students better manage deadlines. If an assignment must be finished by a certain date, and students have to get peer-reviewed before that date, they have to manage their time to get the feedback required while they still have time to act on it. Sure, students still make their final revisions minutes before the deadline, but that is what deadlines do: they help us prioritize what needs to be done when. (When was the last time you submitted a conference or paper proposal weeks in advance? [If your answer was anything more than a guilty chuckle, don’t tell me – you’ll make me look bad.]) But if our students make their final revisions before the deadline and get meaningful peer review in advance, that means they are working with their documents multiple times and view the document creation process as more extensive than the timed writing so familiar in today’s standardized-test-crazed school environments.

Having students peer-review their own documents before submission also saves a good deal of frustration and anxiety for teachers. Students can effectively identify and fix blatant or specific problems with the draft, once they are guided to look for those problems. For instance, if a particular assignment would be ruined by the use of the second person pronoun, a quick announcement to be peer-review groups could prevent instructor frustration even before the grading begins by having students find the problem in early drafts. From my experience with peer-review groups, I am convinced that students are able to detect significant problems with the approach to an assignment, even in their own writing. Simply by reading responses created by others, students are able to identify what does and does not fit the norm. I have had several students tell me, after a peer review session, that they needed to re-work their document because they felt they took the wrong approach. Having students willing to make substantial changes to their documents simply because they worked with other students makes me insanely proud of their understanding of writing and makes me happy that I will be grading only the revision, rather than the first draft deemed substandard by its author.

Enough about them; let’s talk about us. Journal publication aside, how often does your work get peer-reviewed? How much of your writing
that goes to students ever gets peer-reviewed? When you need to create an assignment sheet, do you have a peer look through your first ideas and make suggestions for an improved second draft? Or do you, bleary-eyed and caffeine-fueled, bang out a draft of your keyboard the day before you need it in class, look through for glaring errors, and run to the copy machine, crossing your fingers that he won’t jam this time? I suspect the syllabus may be even worse. You target all of your intellectual might toward the development of a perfect schedule of discussions, readings, and assignments. You have created the kernel of a course that is distinctly yours, and you are proud of how well it all fits together. For the Policies and Procedures section, you grab some stock text from another course of yours and drop it in place. By now, you have forgotten where that text came from, and issues of originality and plagiarism never cross your mind.

Pause for a three-paragraph tangent. How would your course syllabus fair in plagiarism-detection software? How much of the policies section is actually your work? How much of the content was blatantly lifted — verbatim, perhaps — from other, un-cited sources? My favorite examples of just how absurd this can be come from my current institution. Pick up nearly any syllabus from my school, and you will find the following text somewhere toward the end:

The University of Central Florida is committed to providing reasonable accommodations for all persons with disabilities. Students with disabilities who need accommodations in this course must contact the instructor at the beginning of the semester to discuss needed accommodations. No accommodations will be provided until the student has met with the professor to request accommodations. Students who need accommodations must be registered with Student Disability Services before requesting accommodations from the instructor.

Looking at the content from a student’s perspective, I think it turns from noble to patronizing after about the fourth or fifth appearance on Yet Another Syllabus. The repetition of that first sentence alone says, in essence, that we are so committed to doing this that no instructor will put any independent thought into the process. Using standardized text across the entire institution, when most of the syllabus is specialized for a given course, makes it sound like the disability-accommodation text is included only because it is mandated, not because it is genuine.

The second most-often copied content on instructor syllabi? Our plagiarism policy. Sure, it comes from an institutional directive, but very few instructors include a reference to the original source of that policy. If we are going to expect our students to cite their sources in work they give us, should we not cite our own in work we give them? Isn’t that just good academic practice?

Back to the issue of peer review. What if we submitted our assignment sheets and syllabi to a review process similar to what we ask our students to go through with their work? I suspect it would give us a better appreciation for the in-class peer-review sessions we coordinate, but I also suspect it would improve both our assignments and our understanding of how our work and courses fit within the larger work of our departments. Sure, teachers often steal assignments from one another. But when was the last time someone give you feedback on the way you wrote an assignment sheet before you gave to your students? When was last time you got feedback on a classroom document that ask you to consider the situation of your audience a little more carefully? When was the last time you helped a peer improve the structure of a course by discussing a draft of that course’s syllabus?

Recent conversations about the use of GitHub in academia (see the Chronicle and Hybrid Pedagogy for starters) directly relate. We should be promoting open access to academic work for our classroom materials, not just our published papers. I challenge you to provide open access to your course materials so that others can use them in their own classes. More importantly, I challenge you to share your assignment ideas with others before you implement them in class, getting the very peer feedback on your work that you want your students to get on theirs. And if you use someone else’s assignment ideas, I urge you to cite that instructor when beginning that assignment. Set the proper precedent in class, even with classroom materials.

For several years, my assignment sheets have been available on my website for anyone to look at, take, or reuse. This semester, I have posted my course syllabus and assignment sheets on GitHub for anyone to examine, use, fork, or develop. With the connectivity options available to us, we have no reason to be isolated practitioners, developing work on our own. We should share, steal, borrow, and improve, but we should do so conscientiously, applying the same expectations of originality and credit to our assignments as we do with our students’ submitted responses.

Get out there and practice what you preach. Share your work, and cite the work of others.