I had a most interesting experience last summer. I have taught college composition for many years, but I had not participated in a writing workshop as a writer for a long time. Of course, I had regularly run workshops in my classroom. But this time, I had written a short, 600-word essay, and it was workshopped (which to those of us in composition means reviewed and critiqued) by my peers as part of a larger in-service on curiosity and writing.
When the workshop was finished, I turned to a fellow English professor and said, “So that’s how it’s supposed to be done!”
Here’s what I learned:
Attitude matters. At the beginning of the workshop, the facilitator took the time to remind us that writing critique demands a safe environment: no one can be fearful that his ideas or her manner of expression will be put down or devalued. “Our job is to help one another say what we have to say as effectively as possible,” said our leader, looking us all in the eyes. Implicit was the message that everyone was already a writer, and a good one. The purpose of the workshop was to help everyone become the best writer possible. Despite all this, and despite my professional credentials as a writer, I still was nervous. Imagine how students in my classes must feel!
The setup is crucial. “In this workshop,” our facilitator said, “we will make ‘I’ statements only, no judgmental pronouncements. Say, ‘I was confused by the wording in paragraph two,’ not ‘paragraph two is confusing.’” The difference is one of tone: the first statement places the fault with the reader, not the writer. Further, before we writers read our pieces aloud, we were asked to describe the audience for whom we were writing, and to state any particular concerns we had about our essays. Then, the listeners were to try to be that audience, as well as to be themselves. When the reading was finished, the listeners were to converse about the paper while the writer, silent, took copious notes on everything that was said. No rebuttals, clarifications, explanations, or apologies on the part of the writer were allowed. She could, at the very end, ask the reviewers to clarify any comment that had confused or puzzled her. Most important, at the end of the workshop, when all papers had been discussed, we were to thank one another “for the incredibly hard work” we had done for each other. The facilitator’s careful directions articulated her expectations, and that shaped our behavior.
Acting is important. I knew the woman who facilitated this workshop. And I knew that for her, like for me, the process was old hat. Nonetheless, I watched her perform the setup and debriefing of this activity as though she had never done anything like it ever before in her professional career. She had us convinced that the work we were about to do was fresh, new, absolutely cutting-edge. She was so completely in the moment and so committed to this work herself that the rest of us could not help but be so as well.
Finally, I learned this: placing myself (and my little essay) in the hands of a master teacher reminded me that one of the difference between a ho-hum classroom performance and a really effective one is the degree to which we throw ourselves into the role.
Excerpted from Role Reversal: Learning from a Master Teacher, The Teaching Professor, 25.4 (2011): 3.