The Workshop Sequence

The workshop sequence I’ve developed is intended to help teach the methodology and thought process of critical writing to undergraduates. In the short term, it certainly seems to increase the quality of papers. In the long term, I believe that students acquire new techniques for critically assessing the deep structures of their papers – the core argumentative, and the basic presentational structure.  It’s designed for maximum impact for minimal class-time. This is how I do it for upper division classes.

First Paper Outline Workshop

Students write a one to two page outline of their future paper, based on several provided essay prompts. I break them into groups of four or five. Each students takes about twenty minutes to stand up in front of their group, and present their outline. The goal is for the audience to ask for clarifications, raise challenges, and look for gaps in the argument. I tell the students that the goal is not to be antagonistic, or to crush the presenter, but to help them locate weaknesses in the paper, and to think together about how the paper might be improved. The goal is for each student to use their fellow students to locate weaknesses in their paper, so that they might be improved.

The first paper is due a week and a half after the workshop.

Second Paper Outline Workshop

The second paper outline workshop is much like the first, but importantly, there are no essay prompts. Typically, students struggle with choosing topics of appropriate size. Thus, the second paper outline workshop often forces students to focus their topic, refine their thesis, and clarify their direction of argument. Having to present an original idea in front of their peers seems to force students to write a coherent, motivated argument. Without this, papers often seem to have an automatic quality, as if the students are simply filling out some automatic template for a paper. With the peer presentations, the students suddenly seem to start viewing themselves as actually communicating, and their natural sense of clarity and order emerges.

Second Paper Draft Workshop

A week after the second paper outline workshop, the students bring a draft of the paper into class. They are broken into groups of four or five, and circulate their papers, reading and commenting on them. I tell the students that they are not editors, but simply reporting their reading experience. They are to write down where they become confused, what words they don’t understand, what questions they had, where they got lost about the structure.

It is, of course, quite valuable for the students to get feedback. It seems to me, though, that the most value the students get out of this process is from reading a number of their peers’ papers and seeing how certain standard problems crop up over and over again. They suddenly see how small lapses in structural material, transitional material, etc., interfere with clarity of communication. They see how hard it is to understand argumentative material when it is anything less than absolutely lucid. They see how simple errors, like unclear pronouns, mount up and wreck clarity.

Capstone Workshop

The capstone workshop is built for seniors to develop a single twenty page paper. The capstone workshop works much like the upper division workshop, detailed above. The sessions are simply increased: the students first bring in a short two page outline, and workshop it. Then they have two weeks to produce a longer, more detailed outline, which they workshop. Then they have three weeks to build a first draft, which they workshop. Three more weeks to build a second draft, and another workshop. By the end, they’ve received a barrage of comments and criticism, and have gotten hammered into them where their own writing tends to be unclear.

Students report that the workshop experience is extremely useful, and a majority have expressed the wish that they had more opportunities like this during their education.