Writing Partners

Writing partners – One way to help engage students with the assigned texts is to set up writing partnerships wherein each partner is responsible for a single email per week, to her partner (CCing you), about that week’s readings. In my experience, these partnerships lead to closer readings of the texts, better discussions during class, easier oversight of students’ reading patterns (with less fear of my role as a mediator, moderator, and grader), and often closer communication between students who would not otherwise connect.

Here are a few thoughts that I’ve asked students to keep in mind as they develop their partnerships over the course of a course:

  • Respond to your writing partner’s writing with your own writing—thus creating a dialogue. The goal of the assignment is not to write monologues—especially not scathing, opinion-driven monologues—about the assigned texts. Your partnership should facilitate an ongoing conversation that gives you a reason to read more closely, to jot down questions as they come up, and to think about the logical thesis or emotional theme of each piece that we read
  • Write in whole sentences, but don’t worry too much about the writing. These emails should help you to think more deeply about the assigned texts; you’re not going to fail for missing a comma here and there
  • That said, read over your emails before clicking “send.” Make sure they make sense. Try harder than usual, when emailing, to catch typos. These take away from clarity
  • Start a conversation. Write to your peer, not to me. Ask her questions
  • Reference the readings. Call out specific lines. Question them. Link them to lines in other texts we’ve read, or bring in material you’ve read previously
  • Don’t attach anything a document. Just write your response in the body of the email. This makes it easier for your partner to read your thoughts on the week’s reading, regardless of what computer, tablet, or phone she’s using to check email

These are largely formal considerations. Here are more in-depth ideas regarding the content of writing responses between partners:

  • What is at stake? What is your partner trying to say? What is the text saying? Take into account not just any thesis your partner has put forward, but the the theses in the week’s readings, as well. Sometimes, an incomplete reading of a text will give one partner an inaccurate picture of the work’s major idea or ideas. At other times, one partner will savagely disagree with some minor point in the text or majorly dislike the writer’s style. Keep in mind what’s really at stake: Style is important, but it’s not everything. In an article on medical ethics, for example, the major question at hand about life and wellness is probably more deserving of attention in our discussions (written and in-class) than the writer’s prose style
  • Respond to your partner’s assertions about a text. Or respond to her opinions—although remember that opinions are less interesting than arguments that you can back up with evidence. You can add your own assertions, or bring in another text or an incident from your life. You may also bring in work from another class to support your assertion/counter-assertion. But please don’t think of your writing partnership as a chance to argue. This is a discussion; build something together. Discover a better reading of a text, an interesting new vantage on an ethical controversy, by working together
  • Link themes and other big ideas with the other texts we’re reading. As we continue to read together, contrasting different writers’ takes on the same basic themes, or note how they complement one another
  • Ditto for style. Although this is secondary to content in a class on research and analysis, style is still on the table. Think about how one writer approaches a subject compared with another writer. Think not only about their prose (hypotaxis and parataxis, diction, rhythm), but their structure as well. Perhaps imitate one or the other writer in your response. Cite specific passages when discussing style

Here are a few questions I asked an English II class on scientific writing to consider when writing their first responses. The text for this first meeting of the class was an article on mirror-image cells in Wired magazine. These thought-starters invoked many of the themes of the class, and they provoked some students to take up stances that they would later defend, change, and even give up on. You can probably make a short list of thought-starter response questions for any class:

  • If you could change your child’s genetic make-up to give him a better life, would you? What if you could control his beliefs genetically, ensuring he’d be “acceptable” to you?
  • Do you eat genetically modified food? (Trick question, the answer is “yes”)
  • Do you believe the United States should develop digital weapons (viruses) to attack our enemies’ computers?
  • Do you believe states, corporations, individuals, or no one should regulate/control/make secure digital information? (All information is digital, technically/definitionally, but you know what I mean—information stored on computers)
  • Do you think we should research chiral [mirror-image] life?

Finally, here is a short list of qualities that I ask students to keep in mind when writing any assignment. All writing should be:

  • 1) purposeful (you’re writing with a goal in mind—even if that goal is simply to write, to enjoy the act of writing—you’re concentrating on it and not generating filler),
  • 2) clear and powerful (we say writing with this combo is vivid),
  • 3) built on rhetorical strategies, to be more persuasive (immediately),
  • 4) built on evidence, to be more convincing (long-term, after emotions have subsided and we’ve had a chance to compare your text with other texts; your new ideas with those we already know and privilege), and
  • 5) fun—not a pain to write or read
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