Peer Review: Practicing the Craft of Trust

2013-02-17 12.09.32 pm

A few moments ago I deleted a word my colleague had typed into a document we’re co-authoring–an introduction to our forthcoming book, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. I always pause a breath before deleting or changing a co-author’s words. Sometimes I’ll insert a comment into the document, but I’ve been working with these colleagues long enough to know my change was okay. I took a second pause this time because it occurred to me that this is the kind of collaboration I’m asking my students to do right now in their wiki projects and Google Drive activities. Yet to do it really confidently requires a level of trust that builds over time.

ART and I, for example, have been co-authoring scholarship for well over a decade. We know each other deeply as writers and thinkers. Logging on to a shared Google doc is sometimes like entering a Borgian hive mind. Our co-author/co-editor is also someone with whom we’ve collaborated for many years–as researchers, as writing program administrators, as lifelong learners yearning to make our work as meaningful as possible for more than just ourselves.

What we’re doing right now is what we teach as “peer review” in our writing classrooms. Our book is really just an elaborate extension of that process, in multiple dimensions and directions: it’s a collection of 18 chapters by 29 scholars, with 3 editors and numerous external reviewers (who range from our own graduate students to distant scholars we may never meet or know).

We enter into this complex process of reading and responding because we value the breadth and depth of expertise each person will contribute. We trust one another to care deeply about our work and we believe our work will be better as a result of these interactions, even if we sometimes disagree. As an editor I share suggestions that my authors may or may not use. I trust their judgment. As a reader I delight in their insights and appreciate their skill. As a writer–particularly as a collaborating writer–I get energized knowing that savvy colleagues are connecting with my words and thoughts, moment by moment.

The longer I do this work, the better it gets. Even when it’s really tough, it’s fascinatingly so. It teaches me so much about my own mind and self and craft–in addition to teaching me so much about the project itself.

So how do I bring all this back into the classroom tomorrow morning? How do I distill this experience into something my students can get in a few weeks of digital collaboration? How do I teach the craft of trust?

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Toward Blogcraft

2013-01-10 08.23.19 pm

I remember somewhere around 50 pages into the first Twilight book thinking I couldn’t possibly bear any more of the writing. I winced at every new appearance of “his perfect marble skin” and though I soldiered through the rest of the chapters I realized the pop culture indulgence had become more of a crappy habit–like drinking bad coffee because it’s there in the pot on the way to the copy machine.

I had that same feeling this morning reading Reality Steve‘s blog. I don’t know why I read Reality Steve. Yes I do: I’m a fan of Survivor and of the gameplay forums on Television Without Pity and sometimes people in those forums mention Reality Steve so I click over to read what he’s saying. Also, he covers The Bachelor–an awful franchise but fascinating for people like me who study the social construction of gender roles. I cannot adequately describe how satisfying it is to juxtapose, say, The Bachelorette‘s Emily Maynard and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Willam or Chad Michaels; The Rose Ceremony vs. Lip Sync for Your Life. Endlessly, endlessy edutaining.

Unlike Twilight, which has no socially redeeming value, the Reality Steve blog in its way has seemed worth supporting. He’s a high profile spoiler and the legal cases against him are forcing relevant questions to the surface regarding intellectual property and media coverage and the preservation of “reality” narratives on these programs. I think Reality Steve’s spoilerage is doing important cultural work, actually. He refuses to treat “reality” as reality. There’s something to that.

But, honestly, his writing is so bad–well not “bad” but so very meh. He’s been blogging thousands of words for years and his writing has never improved. He seems to make no effort to be witty or entertaining to anyone but himself. He just rants through otherwise dry, wordy recaps. Reading his latest installment, I remembered an adage from a dance colleague: “practice makes permanent.” Doing lots of crappy writing with no attempt at craft yields lots more crappy writing and might even make you a crappy writer <– which is something I never like to call anyone, so how about “meh” writer. Yes, that’s a fair critique because a lot of meh writing is done by decent writers who are more committed to cranking out text than crafting text.

Yet that’s what I’m doing right now, isn’t it? I’m kvetching and ruminating and don’t intend to take the time to revise this blog posting. I probably blog this way all the time. So the lesson I’m learning from Reality Steve is the lesson I didn’t take the time to learn from Twilight: it’s time to pay more attention to my own blog writing. I don’t want to get hung up on craft to the point I’m too self-critical to post. But I do want to start paying more attention to the blog authors whose writing strikes me as especially well crafted. And I want to spend this semester, alongside my students,  noting and emulating some of the craftsmanlike moves made in blog writing.

Word as Art and Artifact

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In Walden Henry David Thoreau says: “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself” (71). Was he thinking at that moment of “written word” as “unit of meaning” or was he considering the word in its entirety–its materiality as script and physical motion and visual rendering as well as its etymology and  context and meaning? Surely the latter. Or at least I’d like to think so.

If we approach writing as craft it seems to me there ought to be more time spent on the visual composition of the word–not just as a dimension of document design but as a dimension of wordcraft.

Writing is physical and it is visual and it is tactile. But in college writing classes we attend mostly to verbiage, sometimes to visual rhetoric (though more often as a conceptual approach or as overall document design, and periodically a groovy lecturette on the history of the font, usually in a tech writing class), but not much to the making of the word on the page. The act of [not typing but] writing itself–pen on paper–has become physically painful to those of us who habitually compose at a keyboard. Which is to say pretty much everyone in college. Including the professors. My scrawl verges on illegibility, especially in the wee hours of a grading/response marathon but even on post-it notes.

For some time now it has bothered me that my handwriting has become unstable. I can’t always recognize my own script because it changes from week to week depending my mood and my ligaments and my caffeine-intake. I sometimes wonder what a graphologist would make of it. Would she diagnose me as schizophrenic? Perhaps just always in too much of a hurry with too many different kinds of thoughts and manifestly frustrated by my physical and material limitations. A chronically multi-tasking mind depending on the slow sequential strokes of a pen. At the keyboard I used all ten fingers, creating the illusion of simultaneity. My work sounds more productive. Typed words are sequences of taps. Staccato. Verbal pointillism. Cursive writing enforces legato, continuity, contiguity rather than hyperlink. The difference is disorienting and marvelous.

Digital literacy is essential but if we continue to emphasize its value over that of other technologies (such as the pencil) we become detached from the handicraft of writing. This displacement is unnecessary and seems to be missing an opportunity to experience more of what it means to write. (Does Ong discuss this aspect of technologized literacy? I can’t recall.)

I don’t want to teach penmanship in Composition 1.  But I’d very much like to create a space for calligraphy and printmaking and other forms of wordsmithery in a writing curriculum. I’d also like to argue that [creative] writing is a fine art not only because it is imaginative but because it is, in all its dimensions, aesthetically significant.

 

image source: KRSPO