Composition I goes on and on and on….

I’ve been a lot more busy lately than I was anticipating because this is May and it is supposed to be time off or at least “the quieter time” of the summer seasons at EMU.   But besides teaching an online version of English 444 with some new elements that are keeping me busy, I’ve been going to a lot of meetings/workshops lately– all day Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of last week, half the day yesterday, half the day today, etc..  I’m moving offices this afternoon and tomorrow. I am slowly but surly working with Charlie Lowe on editing/putting together a collection of essays on MOOCs (more on that coming soon I am sure. ) And then there is all of the stuff in “life” around the gardens and the house, too.

So I have an excuse of sorts as to why I’ve had such a hard time keeping up with Composition I, and I really hit a wall with the third assignment, the “Case Study.” More below, but the short version is the whole course is just becoming more and more of a slog.

I didn’t have the time, energy, direction, or inclination to do anything to revise my “Visual Image Depicting Expertise” assignment (which was about this image), so I just turned it in as it was. If I had a nickel for every time one of my students did the same thing as a result of a vague peer review exercise I put together, well, I’d have a lot of nickels.

And I guess this points to one of the things I’m learning about myself here as a teacher taking on the role of a student in this class: peer review is pretty useless without a dialog with the reviewer and without some sort of plan for changes from the writer. This is something that happens a lot more naturally in a class of 25 or so students anyway (and for the thousandth time, there is a reason why teaching doesn’t scale, why we teach writing courses like this in smaller groups, and why a MOOC like this cannot give students the same kind of experience as a “real” coourse), but what I am learning here is a reason why I as the teacher need to more consciously structure and explain peer review and revision is a critical part of the experience. And I think this is where a lot of peer review goes wrong in classes, frankly: teachers put students in groups and expect “magic” to happen.

So I just handed my first draft back in as a revision, and I earned a 5 out of 6.  I think my peer evaluators were pretty consistent as to why I earned this grade, too:

What overall comments do you have for the writer as he or she moves on to Project 3?
peer 1 → There is not a works cited page or you would have rated a 5
peer 3 → I enjoyed your introduction and how the picture you choose differs from the Cory Doctorow pic.Good framing of your citations. Good prose too, I particularly enjoyed your description and explication of the woman’s “blurry hand”. I think you extended the limit of the assignment when you validated your position using the “other pictures on the flicker set”. You had no header and no references (bookmarks)? At times the connection between your picture’s description and the concept of expertise seemed a bit contrived, but you did a good job with your writing to turn it around.
peer 4 → Very well written, good, thought-provoking argument. The only reason I didn’t give a six is because citations were not properly referenced.
peer 5 → The content is great, please just include the title and works cited.
What did you learn about your own writing based on reading and evaluating this writer’s project?
peer 1 → Pay attention to what is graded.
peer 3 → Must format assignments as per class instructions with focus on scholarly process (header, references, bookmarks).
peer 4 → I learned that I simplicity can usher in fluency and a convincing argument.
peer 5 → Importance of title and citations.

So I’m impressed that these peers were as consistent in criticizing my lack of citations. And actually, if I were teaching a class like this and a student were to turn in something like what I turned in– that is, a well-written and thought-out essay that lacked one of the basic requirements of the assignment, a works cited page– I probably would have made them do it over. So a five is probably a bit of a “gift” and problem with the norming of this evaluation process.

Anyway, the course goes on and on and on, and the more it goes on, the more confusing the Coursera web site seems to get to me and the more disconnected the videos (which is where Denise Comer is most present) are for me relative to the writing assignments and peer review experiences. The videos are about writing in broad terms; titles of the videos include “Why Arent We Discussing More About Grammar,” “Editing Strategies,” “Paragraph Unity,” “Concise Writing,” and so forth, and they’re all talking head lectures on these various topics.

But there was nothing from Comer in these videos explaining the last writing assignment, the case study project (this is a link to the PDF of it– I think you can download it without being in the class). I read this assignment and my reaction to it was “whaaa?” I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how an annotated bibliography built into the discussion forums was supposed to work (more on that in a second), and I didn’t get what Denise meant by “case study,” even after some of the examples she gives in the assignment.  And by the way, I generally think one of the signs of a not well written assignment is when the instructions for the assignment are as long as what you’re looking for as a major deliverable for the assignment.

I was stumped, but I followed the instructions and went looking in the discussion forums for information about the annotated bibliographies.  Now, conceptually, I get the idea here and I do something sort of like this in my own teaching of first year writing:  get students to use each other as a resource for their research. But this is again an example of the “alone in a crowd” phenomenon of these discussion forums: thousands of people posting things that aren’t necessarily connected to anything and also not responding to anyone in any meaningful or useful way. For example, in a case study discussion forum on “Cooking,” there’s a link to a story about a chef who used to cook in the White House and a link (I think?) to an article about “health hazards  faced by many women in Bangladesh,” and that’s it.  Under a category “expertise,” there was quite a bit more conversation (which makes sense given the direction of the course), but still only four or so citations– although at least on topic.

Still not getting what I was supposed to do a “case study” about or even what Comer meant by case study in her assignment, I turned to the discussion forums again and once again didn’t get a lot of help but instead a lot of other lonely students (like me) writing posts asking for some explanation of the assignment. So, not wanting to be late for the assignment, I decided it was better to post something kind of half-assed rather than not post anything at all.  Here’s how my essay started:

I’ll be honest here: I don’t understand this assignment. I am writing and posting this now with the hope that I’ll have a chance to learn from what others have written for this project and then revise. What’s here is just to make sure I can get something in for the final version of the assignment. So here it goes:

I decided for a case study is actually MOOCs, mainly because I’ve been thinking and writing about blogs for about a year now. This is the fourth MOOC I’ve followed this far (five counting the one I dropped out of), the third Coursera MOOC.

The area of expertise I’m studying is online education, which I take as meaning something beyond MOOCs since there are all kinds of online teaching. My potential case study is MOOCs, and specifically, I’m interested here in studying the very high dropout rates of MOOCs. What does it say that 90% of students who start MOOCs do not finish them?

And then I kind of went from there, including some quotes, etc., etc.

I have to say that this strategy kind of worked in that it would appear that what the peers I reviewed did with this assignment was to write about a person involved in some activity and using research to support the claims. One of the peers I reviewed wrote about a Formula One race car driver who was killed in an accident a few years ago, for example. So I did get some good ideas from what others did and I also received some good feedback on my essay– well, some feedback.

This (and the previous) peer reviews begin with a space where the writer can name specific concerns they want readers to address in the draft.  Here’s what I wrote in that space:

I do not feel like I have any clue how to do this assignment, so what’s here is a super-duper rough rough ROOOOUUUUUGGGGHHHHHH draft with the hopes of getting some kind of feedback so I can actually revise this into something. Help!

Here’s a cut and paste of the response from my peers (the bold part are the prompt questions on the peer review rubric/form):

Response to student’s questions.
peer 1 → I was in the same boat like you. Although I didn’t completely understand the purpose of this assignment, I did submit an essay. And now grading other papers I have better idea of what needs to be done. I hope you too figured out what you need to write in this essay. Reading your essay, I think you can build upon your research of MOOC attrition rate, but some may not consider it an expertise. So, an expertise in that context could be how to do well in MOOCs or benefits of MOOC in self-learning etc.
peer 2 → This is incomplete. you should add some more literature review and your own views about research. its a interesting topic and you can write about it. but you need to be confident about it . Please add some title.
peer 3 → Describe how an expert works on MOOC. Have an image that somehow represent MOOC. And lastly fully explain MOOC, readers might not even know what it stands for.
Where does the writer offer details about the case study? Is this sufficient to convey the important aspects of the case study to readers who may not be familiar with this?
peer 1 → The writer has described about success to failure ration in MOOCs.
peer 2 → one can understand but writer can add more because it seems incomplete.
Where does the writer go beyond description to pose a question about expertise or to show how the case study reflects, contrasts, or modifies ideas about expertise?
peer 1 → The draft is in preliminary stage and I believe the writer will add more to it.
peer 2 → only some explanation is given about Mooc dropouts but writer was confused about assignment that is why its dont look case study.
Summarize in a sentence or two what the writer is arguing, if you can. If you cannot, say what the writer might do to make the argument more clear.
peer 1 → The writer is arguing about MOOC dropouts.
peer 2 → Writer is arguing about high rates of Mooc dropouts.
What evidence does the writer draw on to support and/or develop his or her argument? Has the writer effectively integrated, discussed, and cited research? If not, say what the writer might do to integrate and cite research more effectively.
peer 1 → The writer has presented a couple of studies regarding high attrition rate in MOOCs.
peer 2 → Writer added some research about Moocs. but writer have to explain more and conclude it.
Are there so many unconventional features in the writing (spelling, sentence structure, vocabulary, and so on) that you found them interfering with your reading? Identify in particular one of these features so the writer can focus on it for his or her revision.
peer 1 → The essay needs to be completely re-written.
peer 2 → hmmm. not much.
Did you find the introduction effective? If so, please describe what features make it effective. If not, make a few suggestions for how the writer can improve it.
peer 1 →
peer 2 → First of all, writer should not write about his assignment confusion in case study. An option is given here where writer can write this and introduction is weak. writer can add some research and make it strong.
Did you find the conclusion effective? If so, please describe what features make it effective. If not, make a few suggestions for how the writer can improve it.
peer 2 → no. Writer can add some more research and his views about that research. it will be more effective that way.
What did you like best about this essay?
peer 1 → I like the subject of the essay. You can research more and make it more complete. Hopefully, you have an interesting paper for your final submission.
peer 2 → i like the topic. its really interesting. writer can continue it but have to add his own views on Moocs research. And Please add some title.
What did you learn about your own writing/your own project based on responding to this writer’s project?
peer 2 → i like the topic and i didn’t add research in my case study. i got some ideas from this case study.
peer 3 → Put more time and effort on my work.

There are a couple of things about these responses I find interesting as a writer and also as someone studying MOOCs and/or interested in pedagogy. As a student and a writer, I immediately grab on to peer 1’s comments, I think that peer 2 was kind of a jerk, and as for peer 3: my response to a comment like “Put more time and effort on my work” makes me think “Oh yeah? How about you put some more time and effort into your review!”  But in general, the peer review comments didn’t help me rethink how I could revise my draft; rather, reading other peers’ project helped me do that.

And as a teacher/someone studying MOOCs, my basic response is “yep, peer review is pretty useless without a dialog with the reviewer and without some sort of plan for changes from the writer.”

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