Building bridges to academic discourse: The peer group leader in basic writing peer response groups

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David Bartholomae's landmark essays "Inventing the University" (1986) and "Writing on the Margins: The Concept of Literacy in Higher Education" (1987) locate the basic writer outside academic discourse, lacking the authority academic writers possess. This exclusion is manifested, among other ways, in peer response groups, where basic writers often shy away from critiquing substantive issues of content or organization in each other's work. Their hesitancy is understandable, given that the university has told them (by virtue of their placement in a "remedial" writing course) that they do not know how to write. The theoretical support for peer response groups in composition is by now well known: social theories of language and learning suggest that students should construct meaning not in isolation but within the context of social interaction. Although the use of peer response groups is common practice in writing classrooms, research on peer response groups offers mixed reviews, largely because students typically lack the skills and knowledge for peer response (see Zhu 1995). Indeed, much of the research on writing groups focuses on ways to promote more effective, substantive response in students (see Zhu 1995) and on the causes and characteristics of successful and unsuccessful peer response groups (see Bishop 1988). Furthermore, a great deal of this research focuses on composition rather than basic writing students. Nevertheless, Bartholomae's work with basic writers has led many researchers and instructors, including myself, to use peer response groups as a way to empower basic writers (Weaver 1995, 31). Basic writing pedagogy emerging from social constructivist views of writing encourages students to see their written texts as part of academic discourse, a larger conversation taking place in writing. This approach presupposes, as do I, that developmental writers can produce intelligent writing if instructors challenge them with serious content and enable them to enter academic conversations. Peer response groups are one means through which students can potentially enter these conversations. However, Wei Zhu notes that the opportunities for peer interaction offered by peer response groups often go unfulfilled (1995, 517). Though many factors influence peer response group efficacy and inefficacy, group members' lack of confidence in peers' expertise and members' fear of offering criticism are among the most salient characteristics of peer response group failure (Bishop 1988, 121). Clearly, these problems are more pronounced for basic writers, whose reluctance and/or inability to offer substantive critique hinders meaningful learning from knowledgeable peers. Basic writers' precarious position as outsiders in the academic community and subsequent lack of confidence in their own writing abilities lead these students to shy away from assuming any measure of authority in offering meaningful response. Basic writers tend to resist honest and authoritative critique, even in electronic classrooms that otherwise contribute to community building (see Gay 1991; Varone 1996). Indeed, Sandra Lawrence and Elizabeth Sommers (1996) conclude that many instructors doubt the value of peer response groups for inexperienced writers. In the study under discussion, implemented in the fall of 1998, I sought to increase the efficacy of basic writing peer groups by using a peer group leader-a sophomore student who guides basic writers during peer response sessions-in an electronic classroom with online peer response sessions.1 Moreover, I attempted to promote meaningful and valuable writing groups in which basic writers, like their composition counterparts, reconceptualize substantive issues in their writing, countering Joan Wauters' claim that for basic writers, "there is an excellent rationale for offering only positive reinforcement, if the goal is to encourage confidence on the part of reluctant writers" (1988, 157). Basic writers should be treated as intellectuals learning a new discourse, and peer response sessions should reflect such academic work. In this chapter, I suggest that the peer group leader builds bridges between basic writers and academic writers. Acting as a link between basic writers' and academic communities, the peer group leader encourages basic writers to model academic discourse as they authorize themselves as participants. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky suggest we "engage students in a process whereby they discover academic discourse from the inside" (1986, 36). Peer group leaders make academic discourse's inside visible, so basic writing students do not have to invent it blindly. At once insiders and outsiders, peer group leaders provide a vital link between writer and audience, writer and academic discourse (64). As James Gee argues, discourses are mastered by "enculturation into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse" (qtd. in Zhu 1995, 518). Straddling the fence somewhere between academic and basic writers' communities, the peer group leader provides the scaffolding and supported interaction upon and through which basic writers enter academic discourse. In so doing, peer group leaders provide what Kenneth Bruffee (1984) would call a "conversation" to model or what subscribers to the competing model of academic authority would see as a means to challenge it. Making academic discourse visible to students, the peer group leader assists students in their understanding and appropriation of academic literacies.2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOn Location
Subtitle of host publicationTheory and Practice in Classroom-Based Writing Tutoring
PublisherUtah State University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)0874215994, 9780874215991
StatePublished - 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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