Peer review is one of the more fraught aspects of work in academia. I’ve written about it here, and noted some of the ways that fraughtness manifests itself. Given that I’ve also written about the importance of thinking about teaching and the classroom variously but consistently as an oasis, an ethical space, a place for positive feedback, and an opportunity to foster a sense of purpose—well, it might seem strange that I would suggest that we should consider one of the most painful experiences of our profession as a pedagogical model. If the classroom is supposed to be a space of transformative dialogue, of openness and nurturing, how could I suggest something that instead fosters a sense of gatekeeping?
One of the courses I teach regularly is an introduction to methods of literary study. We created the course as a department a number of years ago in part to help foster a sense of disciplinary identity in our majors, in addition to strengthening the skills we thought they needed for upper-level literary study. We wanted the students to begin to envision themselves as participating in a field, as developing the equipment and the curiosity to engage in and make original contributions to answering big questions.
It can be a bit tricky to explain this to students in the first few days of class. I talk about developing a critical stance that is simultaneously responsive to the issues of the discipline and deeply rooted in concerns that preoccupy each of them as individuals: the best criticism comes from the concerns you care the most about. I talk about finding a space for oneself in the critical conversation: the Burkean parlor, wherein you join a discussion that has been going on for some time, you listen, you gather what’s important, and then you make a meaningful intervention. Finally, one of the students put it exactly right: she said that the course doesn’t have the kind of content you usually find in a literature course, where we’re studying authors or periods or genres. We are the content. We’re studying ourselves as critics and figuring out who we are.
The students are peers. They are in similar places in the curriculum, making their way through their program of study at similar rates, evincing a similar level of experience with the material. Often, when we talk about “peer review” with students—the context I’m most familiar with would be in writing pedagogy, such as here, and the peer review writing workshop—we think of them as peers to each other, with us as faculty outside the peer circle. When we say “peers,” we don’t mean us. A reversal of this position can be seen in Lee Skallerup Bessette’s use of peer-driven learning, where students in collaboration with the faculty member design and teach the course: here, in a transformative way, students and teachers do become peers.
Such a pedagogical intervention by Lee, and others, coupled with my own positive experiences of peer review in my scholarship and writing, inspire my defining of class discussion as peer review. I’ve always described my courses as student-centered and discussion-based, but my thinking of discussion has changed a bit in part due to my teaching of the class described above and the challenges in explaining what the class is for to the very people charged with taking it. I want them to be my peers. They are my peers: we are participating in and contributing to the field. The class is meant to teach us all to be peers together in the discipline.
The model of class discussion as peer review serves two functions. One, it helps us all see the value of class discussion, which can feel a bit amorphous. Rather than spinning around in some endless BS-session, we design class discussion to circulate through some key agenda items identified in collaboration. We pause to reflect, to annotate (either on the screen in the front of the room or individually in our notes), and then we stop at the end and ask what we might make with the material of class discussion. It is a generative process.
Two, and to my mind even more interestingly, we evaluate the material we have generated. We weigh the validity, the non triviality of our points. We ask for substantiating evidence and further claims for the points we make. I begin by modeling: I put forth a claim with some evidence and ask them to assess it. Do they agree? Disagree? Could I have put it better? Could I have chosen a better passage to support my claim? The process discourages easy consensus and fosters critical debate. They become my peers, subjecting my ideas to peer review. They make me better.
I have seen evidence that this process assists with effective use of feedback on papers, too. If we are already thinking of sharing ideas as part of a process of peer review, then my comments on papers—and their comments back to me offering feedback on my feedback—become part of that process. They don’t just tell me how they might use my feedback; that simply replicates the unidirectional nature of the exchange, where only I am in the position of supposing that I might provide something that can be used. If they also provide feedback on my feedback, then the circle of exchange is fully formed. They become my peers, subjecting my ideas to peer review. They make me better.
In my vision of class discussion as peer review, peer review is transformed from a form of gatekeeping to a process whereby we all decide how to make something of value from ideas we have produced together. How we get there is messy, but by the end I hope we respect the process, and each other.