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Instructor Profile: Susanmarie Harrington, University of Vermont

Susanmarie Harrington (Twitter, Facebook) is the Director of Writing in the Disciplines and Professor of English at the University of Vermont. She’s taught basic writing, first-year writing, and graduate writing courses.

Susanmarie has used Eli Review since Spring 2014. An early adopter of Daedalus in the early 1990s and later of Norton’s commenting tools, she was predisposed to be interested in a writing technology for peer review designed by writing teachers at Michigan State University. For her, Eli’s approach to rapid feedback cycles matched the way her own pedagogy has shifted over time toward short bursts of peer review.

In 2016-2017, Susanmarie and Libby Miles, Director of Foundational Writing and Information Literacy, collaborated on a pilot. In Fall Term, the ten participating faculty members taught 20 courses, and eleven courses included more than 5 reviews, a level of use we rarely see among first-timers. Their on-campus leadership helped instructors assign smaller and more focused tasks with great results.

In this profile, Susanmarie shares how she frames peer review for students and colleagues.

Engaging Students in Peer Learning

How do you help students understand the importance of peer feedback?

I tell them that writers are people who are making things.  When you are writing, you’re creating something that didn’t exist before. Maybe it’s a document that didn’t exist before, that takes material that you knew, but you’re presenting it to people who don’t know it. It’s not new knowledge, but you’re making that knowledge available. Sometimes you’re creating new ideas. You figure something out. Writers are people who make things.

Those things that writers make are meant to be used. Peer feedback is way of talking about emerging work so that you can see if it is working or not. Is it good for my purpose? in this time? in this place? with these people who need to use these ideas or this document?  Is what I’m doing good enough for now?

I’m trying to get them thinking like makers. I don’t want them thinking like people who just want to suss out have they done what a teacher wants in order to check a requirement and move on to something else.

I’m trying to get them thinking like makers.  I don’t want them thinking like people who just want to suss out have they done what a teacher wants in order to check a requirement and move on to something else.

How do you get students energized about giving—not just getting—feedback?

Giving feedback is again about that question of asking, “How do I tell whether something is working or not? How do I tell whether something is good enough? That involves two things.

  1. You have to understand: what’s the criteria for success in this context? What is this thing supposed to be doing right now?
  2. How am I going to know it  if I see it? You need to know how to look for signs of success, and you need to be able to look attentively, in a paying attention kind-of-way.
You can't be a half-assed reader. You have to pay attention, and you have to pay attention to the right things.

So much of education is about managing attention. Especially when I’m teaching first year students, I’m urging students to notice what draws their attention. If they are really more interested in the policy consequences of an issue, or if they are more interested in the natural world, maybe they will take some more courses in those areas.  In my 15 week course, if students find themselves not super interested in every single moment of every single assignment, that’s okay. They are still learning what other writers care about. That’s going to help every student learn more about their own interests and dreams.

My course is also an opportunity to learn: what does my teacher care about and why? I’m hoping eventually they will set that in a bigger context. Teachers care about particular priorities because of the course they are teaching; courses emphasize particular priorities because of how courses function inside departments and disciplines and degree requirements. Students need to figure out how these institutional things fit with their personal interests.

How do you frame Eli for your students when you introduce it to them for the first time?

I tell them Eli is the system we’re using to share our writing with each other and to talk about it. I explain that it is an efficient way for me to see what they are talking about.

I really front the presentation by saying that what writers do is talk about their work. We’re going to talk about your work and make it better. Eli is the platform we’re using that fits easily within the bigger pedagogical context of my course. I hope the Eli conversations and the in-class conversations are seamless.

What what makes you confident that students are getting better at giving feedback and using that feedback to make high-quality revisions?

I can see the difference in the feedback that they’re giving. Especially in this past year. I’ve been using  Melissa’s spreadsheet template to help me review all of the comments in a review cycle.  I can see how what students are doing is changing over time.

I can see how they’re talking to each other. They start off saying, “That’s pretty good, but here’s a bunch of suggestions… change this comma, add this word.”

Then I can see, with more coaching and practice, that they start saying, “It’s good because you are really thinking about whether people can use this.” Or, “It’s good because you’ve really included multiple perspectives.” Or, “It’s not that good because I can’t tell that you actually read the article we were supposed to read.” I can see that they’re getting more into giving a claim and reason, or describing and evaluating.

I’m also giving them feedback about their feedback, not first and foremost about their writing. By the way, giving feedback on feedback is an idea I first stole from Nick Carbone back around 1994. That’s an example of how I’ve had I had an affinity for Eli probably before some of you all were even in grad school!

Above, Susanmarie references a conversation she and Nick Carbone had back in the ‘90s. His ideas about commenting on student comments are visible in his  peer review statement near the bottom of his 1998 syllabus from Colorado State.

Students are also their modulating their length. I can now look at the people who are giving lots of words and those who are not giving very many words. That has been a great way to frame issues of equity in class. I’m not simply saying, “You’re not giving enough.”  But, I am also helping students advocate for themselves. They say to each other, “I’m not getting enough. You step up.”

Engaging Colleagues around Eli Review

Your faculty group had deep use and the first semester—11 of 20 had 5+ reviews and included a revision plan. What factors do you think helped your faculty use Eli so much their first semester?

There was a lot of preparation. We were plugging into two networks on campus. Libby Miles is the director of Foundational Writing and Information Literacy at UVM where she coordinates work on the three different courses that satisfy our foundational writing and information literacy requirement. She could encourage people through her network of conversations, workshops, and assessment projects. I have the Writing in the Disciplines network faculty who have been coming to workshops for the past eight years. We’ve had several years of work about peer review in workshops, conversations, and collaboration with the Writing Center. So we had a group of faculty that we could reach out to to say, “You’ve been to some workshops on peer review. Would you like to come to these events?”

Our strategy for building toward the pilot had a lot of parts. For a university lecture series in Spring 2016, we invited Jeff Grabill. Sadly, travel problems prevented him from delivering the lecture, but people still came to the informal Q&A sessions that we had planned the next day as follow-ups on the lecture.  Jeff was great because he talked a little bit about Eli, and he talked a little bit about coaching students and helping “move the needle” as he puts it.

People were intrigued by the idea of student improvement based on being an effective reviewer. We really sold Eli as a pedagogy:

“If you want to come teach writing and you want to think about a way that’s going to make it possible for you to address writing without you having to read more papers, why don’t you come try Eli with us? It’s free! The company will be great! Come on!”

In Fall 2016, we had a grant to cover student subscriptions, and we kicked-off the pilot with a day-long workshop. We presented it as adopting a pedagogy, not adopting a technology.  In the workshop, Melissa was very clear in the target: “At Eli, we consider successful use to be at least 5 reviews.” So, we took that as, “Oh, people need to be able to practice.”

In addition to Melissa’s workshop,  Libby and I offered “come as you are” kind of conversations. We didn’t want anybody to feel overburdened, so we encourage people to use at least three cycles. Once a month or so, we had people come come in and talk about using Eli. Libby and I were both available to consult with people, if they wanted to. People were more than happy to do that. One pair of faculty who wanted to use Eli for group projects in a team-taught anthropology seminar decided in the end it was not really possible to make Eli work for their needs, but we parted on happy terms.

In fact, Melissa herself opened her workshop by saying, “We’re terrible sales people for Eli. We’re advocating for a pedagogy, and the technology just makes it possible.” And that is how we approached it too:  This is a pedagogy we believe in, and this technology makes it possible.

What’s the pedagogy you believe in that Eli makes possible?

On our campus, we’ve been talking about students’ writing and getting students to talk to each other about student writing for a long time. In fact, even when I haven’t been teaching with Eli Review, my Writing Across the Curriculum workshops have been heavily influenced by some of Eli’s faculty development materials.

I find as a WAC/WID specialist that the way Eli’s team frames coaching students to become better reviewers is really valuable for our work. This frame turns a problem (students don’t revise much) into an actionable project (what can I do to change students’ writing behaviors).

In her CCCC 2017 Chair’s address, Linda Adler-Kassner describes the problem all writing teachers hate: when colleagues and others claim students can’t write.

So, now we can turn that problem on its head by saying: “You think your students can’t write? Let’s get them to talk about their drafts better.” That’s a workable, actionable project—the project Eli was designed for.

What did you learn about teaching writing from using Eli with faculty outside of English?

I learned a lot about how other people scaffold assignments. I learned that some people can wait to introduce writing until later in the semester and still be quite successful.

I learned that equity of workload really matters to some people. One of the surprising issues turned out to be problems caused when the number of students isn’t easily divided into groups of the same size. That turned out to be a challenge for some people in a way that I didn’t anticipate. My entire career has been writing classes. Sometimes you have 18 people, and sometimes you have 23, and sometimes people are absent; I’m used to the fact that sometimes students are going to be a group with five and sometimes three. My students and I just go with the flow, and get it done. But some of my colleagues viewed the number of reviews as quantifiable workload, and said, “If I’m asking this student to do four reviews, it’s not fair to ask someone else to do five reviews.” This equity dilemma got me seeing reviews as assignments for individuals that I had not appreciated in my collective notion of the group activity.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience using Eli?

Working with Libby and working with my colleagues across campus has been so fun. It’s really been one of the best things I have done in my entire career, actually. It’s been a great project because I got to see how peer review can figure in so many different kinds of assignments.

It got me having the conversations you always want to have as a good director:

  • What’s really important to you about this assignment?
  • What do you think students are going to have trouble with in this assignment?
  • Can we set up an assignment that directly takes that challenge as a criteria?
  • Or, what are the pieces of that challenge, and can we make an assignment that directly addresses them so that we get students talking about it?

That’s another of my mantras as a WID director, so Eli fits nicely into that.

Instructor Profile: Susanmarie Harrington, University of Vermont was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Instructor Profile.

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