A couple of years ago, I had the incredibly opportunity to teach rising high school juniors English through the Upward Bound summer program. A big emphasis was placed on writing, and we worked a great deal on how to write an essay for college admittance. You can see examples of what happened here and here.
One of the key components of our time together that summer was what became known as writer’s round table, and it’s something I think could be utilized in a doctoral class to teach writing. Before I go on let me be clear – I haven’t yet had the chance to try this with doctoral students, and I won’t for some time. Right now I am teaching masters level classes, and in the spring it will be two undergraduate classes. But please, take this idea, run with it, and tell me how it goes.
The idea behind writer’s round table is that it is a space to share and get feedback on your writing. It is intended to help writers learn to think and behave like writers. It is also intended to help writers learn to give and receive feedback as well as learn what to do with feedback. It’s a space for writers to get help as well as give it.
When working with high schoolers, I kept it to sharing about a paragraph. That seemed to work well. I would expand this for doctoral students, and I would involve them in the conversation around what they think makes sense in terms of length when sharing. For the high schoolers, this would have been too much initially. At some point they could have been a part of shaping the structure that guided the round table, but at first they needed me to. For doctoral students, they should be a part of the design from the beginning.
The Design Process
There are a number of questions students will need to consider before launching into a round table. This is not an all inclusive list, and you will likely need to revisit and revise the procedures based on how it all plays out. Before you launch a round table, consider some or all of the following:
- how often should you have the opportunity to present?
- how polished (how far along in the draft) should you be? does it matter?
- how much text can you present?
- how much time can we spend on your writing?
- do we need to receive the text in advance of our meeting ( note: with high schoolers we could red texts right then and there because they were short; doctoral students should have much longer texts to share)?
- does everyone have to present at the round table during the semester (obviously everyone has to participate in giving feedback; but what about receiving it?)
- how many people can present at a single session?
- how long is a session in its entirety (I would not go over an hour)
You get the idea. The point is to think through the expectations of the community and how everyone should participate. This is a type of writing group albeit a very large one (anything with more than four-five members is large). I left some things out in the question list. For example, I frame feedback around problems of practice. So when you are leading round table you are asking us to help you in some way. It doesn’t matter to me what that way is, but the author has to decide.
I also didn’t say anything about how to provide feedback. You might wish to consider discussing this in advance if it makes sense to do so. I did not do this too much with high schoolers. I kinda just let them loose, and they did fine.
Now Do It!
My assumption is that everyone will be nervous at first. Acknowledge this. It’s ok to be anxious about sharing your work. Your work is your baby, and you’re at the table openly sharing what you perceive as its imperfections.
The job of the round table is not to celebrate your work and applaud you. We could do that, to some degree, but the job is to help you solve a specific problem you are having with your writing. Compliments can of course happen. However, the real work is diving into the problem that the author has presented us with. More issues may arise as readers engage with the text. The overall goal is to improve the text, and that requires openly discussing its shortcomings.
Personally, I am of the opinion that everyone should share their work at least once during the semester no matter how raw it is. If you have a question, bring it forward and let’s take a look at it. I think that’s fair. I think everyone should have to put their work on display and have it examined at least once. If you are going to critique the work of your peers, then they need to critique yours as well.
To quote one of the young men I worked with through Upward Bound, “All writing is public. We share it. We talk about it. All of us.”
All. Of. Us.