Peer Response for
Discipline Awareness Project: Tracing the Path of Scholarship
The Assignment
For each of the major assignments in this course, you will engage in a peer response process. These responses will provide you with feedback, allow you to see how some of your peers tackled the same assignment, and give you the opportunity to correct problems in your work before I grade it.
I will divide the class into peer response groups, each consisting of three or four people. When the assignment is due, you will exchange drafts of Part Three only with the members of your group. Then, before the next class, you will type a response to each of your peers’ drafts in which you address the following questions:

1. How clearly do you now understand the ways that the idea found in each source influenced the argument of the next? How well does your peer make and explain those connections? At any point do you have trouble discerning the connection between two sources — how one connects to another, or even if they connect at all ? Where and why? At any point does the chronology become unclear, so you are no longer sure which source is influencing which? Where and why?


2.  How clearly do you see a focused topic emerging from these sources? Can you imagine a well-focused undergraduate-level essay that contains all of these quotations, or would any essay that does so be stretched so thin that it will inevitably be shallow? Why? Tip: rarely at this stage of the process will a project have attained a proper degree of focus. Presuming that is the case and your peer needs to narrow his or her scope at this point, what do you think it the most productive path to pursue? Remember that a good essay topic will yield a thesis that demonstrates critical thinking — comparison, evaluation, statements of cause and effect, and anything else that represents a judgment — not a mere recitation of facts such as “The History of the Computer,” “Recent Developments in AIDS Treatments,” “Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds Halloween Broadcast, October 30th, 1938” and so on. It will be narrowly focused enough to allow for detailed analysis of specific evidence and thoughtful consideration of possible objections.


3. How well is the body of the analysis organized? Organization is always crucial to an argument’s clarity, and paragraphing is obviously a key element of organization. Each paragraph should have a clear, easily identifiable focus, and the focus of each paragraph should be distinct. That means two paragraphs should not be making the same point. Also, the sequence of the paragraphs — which also means the order of the points your peer makes — should make sense to you. Look for anywhere the writer returns to a point he or she had brought up earlier. Those points may need to be combined, which will likely involve some cutting. Pay attention to paragraph length. Paragraphs may vary somewhat in that regard, but only within limits. If an essay is 785 words and one paragraph contains 345, that's usually a problem. On the other hand, as I have warned, in weak essays the paragraphs tend to get progressively shorter near the end. Do you see anywhere that a paragraph goes on too long and should be split, or where the paragraphs are too short and need to be either developed further or combined? Finally, does your peer consistently set up and comment on quotations so as to avoid the problems Stedman lists in his “Annoying Ways People Use Sources” article.


4. The introduction and conclusion should frame the analysis properly. That means the introduction should establish the writer’s focus. Beware of the so-called back-door introduction, which begins too far up the scale of abstraction. The conclusion should tie the analysis together and leave the reader with some kind of definitive statement. The conclusion should absolutely not repeat the introduction: if you can imagine switching the introduction and conclusion and they would still make sense, that is a problem.


5. Identify any particular technical mistakes — these include grammar, spelling, format, and stylistic errors — that you notice, especially if the writer makes them repeatedly. Are any sentences difficult for you to understand, or did you have to re-read them several times because they were confusingly written? Identify them.

6. Are all quotations properly cited according to the instructions? If you have trouble identifying the source of any quotation, note it; that’s a major problem.

Be critical. The most common error people make on peer responses is pointing out too few problems because they are offering too much praise. When you are trying to make your writing better, pointed criticism is more helpful than pats on the back, and the latter tend to crowd out the former. Often, students fall into what I call the spoonful of sugar approach, in honor of the song from Mary Poppins: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” The will say something like, “This is a really good paper. I like the way you explain your points. I wish I had chosen such good quotations. I don’t see any problems with the organization. One thing, though: I can’t tell whether Jones’s articles came before or after Robinson’s, or how Robinson’s article connects to your topic. But maybe it is just me, so don’t feel too bad about it.” Obviously, that critical observation deserves to be foregrounded more. Also, the apologetic tone undercuts the response’s effectiveness.

The one time positive comments can be appropriate is when you point out something specific that works better than other portions of the assignment. For example, you might say, “Your most effective argument comes in paragraph four, where you [explanation of what is particularly effective] because you [explanation of what makes it effective].” Your peer can then conceivably take that observation and use it to improve other parts of the assignment, which by implication are not as good as the one you praised. However, this approach is still usually less helpful than directly pointing out problems, so you may do this only once per response (and you do not need to do it at all).

Write your responses directly to your peers, not to me or a third party. Say, for example, “You need more support for this statement,” not “She needs more support for this statement.” Keep your criticism focused on the writing rather than the writer: “The point you make about Bennett’s quotation in paragraph three contradicts what you say in your introduction” is helpful; “You contradict yourself sometimes, so readers have trouble taking you seriously” is much less so.

Organization is key to peer responses. Begin with more substantive issues regarding the thesis and argument before turning to organization and finally to more technical ones such as grammar, rather than proceeding sequentially through the draft. (Note that the order of the questions listed above encourages you to do that.) If you start by saying something like “Your opening sentence does a good job of grabbing my attention,” you are taking the wrong approach. Paragraph your response. Dividing the response into two or three paragraphs will help you in several ways: 1) it will help you focus on specific issues, rather than presenting your peer with something that seems just like a series of notes; 2) it will help prevent repetition; 3) it will even help you write at greater length because paragraphing encourages you to move down and up the scale of abstraction.

Do not respond to each question separately, and do not number your responses. For some essays, you may have little to say about some of the questions. For example, if you see no problems with the paragraphing, fine — skip it, and don’t even bother saying, “I see no problems with the paragraphing.” Give your attention where it is needed.

You should not attempt to mark every single technical error in the draft. That is not your job. Not only is it time-consuming, it is not particularly helpful. You may make an occasional mark on a peer’s draft as a note to yourself or to help you identify where a problem occurs when you discuss it in your response — for example, “I’ve put an asterisk where I think you should split the third paragraph.” But you should not attempt to go through your peers’ work correcting every problem.  If you see a particular problem repeatedly, simply note it once and say something like “You make this mistake a lot.” Your goal is to respond to the draft as a reader, not edit or correct it.

Title your peer responses in this way: Peer Response for [peer’s name]’s “[title of draft]”

Length and other Requirements

Will vary, but each response should be at least 300 words of your own writing, not including any quotations from your peer’s essay. Please put the word count with and without quotations at the bottom of each response. On the other hand, getting a 650-word response to a 700-word essay you have written is overwhelming. If you find yourself going over 500 words, I suggest you prioritize your comments and cut; you can always bring up additional problems during the peer response session.


Bring two copies of each response with you to class, one for your peer and one for me.


Your peer responses will be judged on your thoughtfulness, the perceptiveness of your comments, and your organization and sense of priority; your complete set of responses will receive a single holistic grade (A+ to F). If a peer gives you an incomplete draft, you should still respond to the best of your ability, but of course I will not penalize you if you cannot meet the length requirement when responding to a short draft (within reason, of course — if your peer’s draft is 100 words short, you should still manage to meet the requirement without much trouble).

Part of the benefit your peers receive comes from reading your work. Failing to provide a complete draft to your peers will result in a penalty of 10-50% to your peer response grade, depending on the degree of incompletion.

As for your peer responses themselves, you must bring them with you on the appropriate days. Sending them to your peers via e-mail during class will result in a 10% penalty; peer responses sent after that earn no credit at all. 

An important part of the peer response process is the discussion that occurs in class. Missing the class in which a peer response session takes place will result in losing the 2 points for the day. Arriving late for a peer response session is also unacceptable and will affect your participation score for the day.

Penalties are cumulative.