One of the most rewarding parts of being a learning technology company is that we get to talk in-depth with smart, dedicated instructors like Robert (Bob) Yagelski (Twitter), director of the program in Writing and Critical Inquiry at State University of New York at Albany. Bob ran a small pilot in Eli during Spring 2016, and we talked to him about his vision for how Eli fits into his pedagogy.
Bob’s insights about writing pedagogy come from 33 years of teaching, 25 years as a professor. Before the interview really got going, he quipped: “I like to think that I am a writing expert until I go into a class full of 18 year olds, and then they cut me down to size.” In his joke and the interview that follows, Bob reminds us that the hardest part of teaching writing and being a writer is being open to unpredictable discoveries.
How do you help students value revision?
My whole sense of writing pedagogy begins with the assumption that writing is a form of inquiry. Sometimes it is described as discovery or exploration, but I think of it as knowledge making.
Revision is an integral part of that process. It isn’t separate from the knowledge making; in fact, a text really comes into being in the process of revision every bit as much as in the process of writing the first draft.
For me, one of the most important things to convey to students—and this is very familiar to writing instructors at the college level—is to help them understand the distinction between revision as part of this process of inquiry and editing as the process of refining a text and bringing it into alignment with convention.
You separate revision as inquiry from proofreading, and we make a similar distinction between peer feedback and peer editing. How do you help students offer comments that lead to more exploration?
Feedback is an integral component of that process, so there are several layers of the importance of feedback. One is that writing becomes a social process before the text is complete. There isn’t that linear idea that you draft, revise, publish. When you get feedback, you’re already inviting readers to interact with your text, but also they become part of the process of inquiry.
In my classes, I try to make students understand that when I have them engaged in any sort of peer review—no matter how formal or informal—they’re actually exploring the subject matter along with the writer and contributing to that shared process of inquiry. I do this in part through practice and reflection. It isn’t something students learn simply by listening to me. They have to do it, then reflect on it. My role is to guide them in that process of practice and reflection, constantly naming what they’re doing and providing opportunities for additional practice and reflection. It’s a version of Dewey’s experiential learning.
Do you find that this social process of exploring ideas together always leads to better drafts?
I also believe that the primary purpose of feedback is not to improve the text but to improve student learning. Students providing the feedback are much more likely to learn more than the writer.
Of course, when they’re all engaged in that together, then their learning cuts across those boundaries. I try to help students understand that their purpose is not to make the text better; it’s to help the writer explore the subject.
[The best moments are] when a student reads or hears feedback through Eli on a piece that he or she is working on that really resonates and opens up possibilities that the student didn’t see, in ways that are not about, say, fixing a sentence or clarifying a statement or reorganizing but instead are substantively about the ideas that the students are trying to convey or explore.
It doesn’t happen all the time, and it probably doesn’t happen for every student in the class, but there are always some students for whom a specific kind of feedback or maybe a body of feedback at a certain point in the process helps them see their essay in a much different way, and it opens up for them the exploration that I hope the writing always is. So those are the moments [when students have breakthroughs], and you can see it sometimes in the reflection that a student will write at the end of the piece or in a response or a revision plan.
What you’re trying to create in your classroom then is a place where students put ideas out there and others stay in conversation with writers until those ideas have been revised into fully developed pieces. That pedagogy is possible in lots of apps or no app. Why Eli?
I was helping launch a new writing program, and I was really keen to find tools to help our faculty maximize the benefit of peer response, which is a longstanding challenge for writing teachers.
I tested it in my own class and in a very limited way. . . . I think the students appreciated the opportunity to provide feedback quickly and quite easily, which in some sense expanded their ideas about how they can interact with the writer. In other words, when most of them come to my class, if they have had any experience with peer response, it tends to be really peer editing where the teacher circumscribes the activity, and manages and facilitates the activity, and the students see the job as, in a sense, correcting each other’s essays.
But, Eli Review could be configured in ways that, even in just a few short moments, they’re responding to texts in ways that are not necessarily at all about making the text better or correcting errors or anything like that.
So, for me it was a way to reinforce this fundamental message that I talked about earlier, which is that revision is an integral part of the process of discovery.
Eli’s appeal then was rapid feedback and revision cycles. Does the app change the process in some way?
Eli in some senses circumscribes the process. It kind of forces the teacher out of the way at the beginning, which is a good thing because most of us tend to be way too heavy-handed early on in the process. I certainly am, and it’s something I have to guard against, which Eli helps me do.
What I want my students to do is to work with each other to really roll up their sleeves and explore whatever their subject matter is rather than coming to me and saying, “Am I on the right track?” even in the early drafts.
Part of the challenge I have at the beginning is having those early conversations with students and trying to get them to understand I am not giving them any evaluation of their drafts: We’re going to talk about the ideas and see where that goes so that they have some help. It’s an invention process. That’s a real hard sell for some of the students because they think that all of my comments are intended to be evaluative and directions implicit or otherwise for fixing the text, or to get a better grade.
We tend to emphasize criteria in review, but you are downplaying them at least in the early stages. How do you use Eli to keep students focused on exploration rather than evaluation?
This rating scale from one my my reviews lets students vote for which drafts will be used in whole class discussion. Students get a say in what topics are explored in the follow-up debriefing.
Does the writer say something insightful that you think will help students and teachers address this writing situation? Three (3) stars means that we should all take a look at this response because there are many ideas worth sharing, two (2) stars means that the response has a number of good ideas, and (1) star means that the response has good ideas but isn’t a must see. Rate, then explain your response.
So, for me, it’s a constant reinforcement of the message I give them right from the beginning. The first draft of the first assignment in my class is due very soon, like within the first two weeks of the class, usually the first week and a half, and I have my first conference around the roughest draft. I tell them at the very beginning, we’re not gonna talk about the quality of these texts, we are only going to talk about what you’re trying to do, what you’re exploring, where you want to go with it. At the beginning, there is some resistance to that, but over the course of the semester that message is reinforced over and over.
So far, you’ve talked about how Eli helps you enact a social process in which reviewers’ and your own main job is to help writers explore ideas and revise a lot. How do you explain that approach to using Eli to your colleagues?
All writing teachers struggle with figuring out how to configure effective peer response. Students often resist because their prior experiences have been negative or they’ve been limited. Faculty members very often have no experience in actually thinking carefully about theory or research that might inform peer-response activities and so they tend to reproduce activities that maybe they were asked to do as students or what they’ve seen a colleague using in his or her classes.
But Eli was a way to sort of structure that but leave significant flexibility for faculty. It kind of forced them to think about what peer response and feedback are and what purposes they serve. Those were the two ways in which I tried to pitch it to the faculty.
You started with a small pilot group of six instructors this past Spring. Jeff gave an on-campus workshop, and I hosted an online session. What were your instructions to the pilot group after this training?
Our goal was to explore the possibilities and try to see if there are particular features that fit especially well with our program. [Our goal was] not so much to standardize those features but to share ideas across sections and leave the open the possibility that people can adapt Eli in any way that works for them. Then the hope would be that in subsequent semesters over the course of a year or two, we would scale that up so that we would have a majority of our faculty using you Eli.
The pilot group had mixed results. How are you thinking about the ways instructors have struggled to incorporate Eli in their classes?
I think that it is hard for a lot of instructors to visualize what [frequent feedback and revision] would be like in a classroom. I see it even with the team that I’ve put together. One or two people are really sold on the idea that this is a way to help the students learn, but they’re having a lot of trouble figuring out what it looks like because their own pedagogies are quite rigid, and they look very conventional. It’s hard for them to let that go.
[I] reinforce those basic messages that this is not a technology so much as it is a tool to do a particular kind of pedagogy. For some people, it is revelatory; for others, it’s a long process. I understand that, and I don’t want to push people so hard that they’re own sense of self-efficacy as teachers is undermined. But I do think this process represents a steep learning curve for some teachers.
What advice would you give to other coordinators who are putting together a pilot group to try Eli?
- Don’t approach Eli as an online interface. Instead, think of it a key component of an entire pedagogy that rests on fundamental assumptions about writing and learning (such as the idea that writing is inquiry, that feedback facilitates learning and isn’t just about improving texts, and so on). That’s essential, because it’s very easy for teachers to focus on the technology–and especially on the challenges of learning to use it and implement it in their classes–and forget that the purpose isn’t to use a digital tool but rather to support learning about writing.
- Start small. We have a sizable faculty–about two dozen full-time writing teachers–and I think it would be a mistake to try to have them all using Eli at the same time right from the beginning. Such an approach would, I think, inevitably lead to an obsession with technical problems and implementation and take the focus off the pedagogy.
- Be strategic. Enlist faculty who are open to using Eli and understand its role in delivering a specific kind of writing pedagogy. I wouldn’t just look for “techies” who like to try new digital tools. Instead, I’d enlist people who are engaged in an ongoing process of inquiry into their own teaching–which, incidentally, is what we should all be doing all the time.
- Think of adopting Eli as an ongoing process of learning and professional development. This isn’t–and shouldn’t be–a matter of getting people familiar and comfortable with Eli and then moving on. Rather, Eli should be an opportunity and vehicle for the ongoing process of learning to teach writing more effectively. That process involves program evaluation, assessment self-reflection, and program development, and I think Eli can be an important part of all those things, not only because it can force faculty to confront important questions about things like peer response, but also because it enables us to collect useful data about what students are doing, what they think, and what they seem to know about writing.