Issue 1, Spring 2008
A Pair of New Eyes
In May 2007, fourteen seniors graduated with an Honors degree in English, and by May all of these students were intimately acquainted with the Writing Studio. As in other programs, the English honors thesis is the culmination of an intensive Senior Seminar. Each year, students work under the director’s supervision in peer writing groups and individual discussions with faculty advisors to develop their ideas and to hone their writing. Director of the undergraduate English Honors program, Professor Mark Schoenfield, oversaw their work just has he had the previous year and in his first three-year tenure. Professor Schoenfield supports the peer review process, both as Honors director and in his regular classroom. Although he had utilized small writing groups in the past, he realized his presence sometimes undermined the process. “If I was a member of the group during the course of the semester,” he recalls, “they kept looking to me as the authority rather than responding to each other.” Moreover, as individual students are required to meet with Schoenfield throughout the semester, he found that much of his commentary on each project had been exhausted during the group discussions.
With the relatively new service of the Writing Studio at his disposal, Professor Schoenfield contacted Studio Director Jennifer Holt. “I thought the Honors program had particular needs, and the Studio was a creative place to meet them,” Schoenfield recalls.
The Honors students were divided into four groups. After having collaborated in a peer-only environment during the fall Honors seminar, each group was assigned a graduate writing consultant. English graduate students John Morrell, Sarah Childress, Josh Epstein, and Christina Neckles filled these roles. Over the course of the semester, these peer- consultant groups met three times: having exchanged drafts (of one chapter from each thesis) the previous week, the 1 ½ - 2 hour meetings were spent discussing ideas and plans for revision and expansion based on the group’s comments.
Schoenfield liked the idea of “introducing a new brain in the middle of the process” and felt having graduate students participate in the groups added an “extra level of professional opinion.” As for the honors students, they too generally saw the graduate consultant as a beneficial addition. Honors alumna Ashley Owens said her consultant “served as a kind of mediator as the three of us took turns discussing each other’s work.” But, Owens added, “he also contributed revision suggestions of his own to each of us and I could tell that he had spent a great deal of time with our drafts between meetings.”
Of course, additional readers present a potential problem: both Schoenfield and his students were worried about contrasting advice from peer reviews, the graduate consultant, and faculty advisors. Some students found the meetings made them unduly self-conscious, but others were pleasantly surprised by the results. Owens, in particular, appreciated her discovery that “I needed to ultimately trust myself and my own way with words and my own vision for the project.” Schoenfield credits his students’ intelligence in handling such issues: “Learning to evaluate and integrate criticism,” he notes, “is one of the most important parts of growing as a writer and a thinker.”
In the end, Schoenfield was pleased with the results that the writing groups had on the theses. Although some students invested more in the process than others, he thought it important that he was not “micromanaging them” and emphasized the overall improvement he saw in both basic and complex aspects of writing (especially organization, logic, and structure).
As with all writing projects, there is still a lot of room for revision in the Writing Group structure. There was a consensus that the groups added, in Schoenfield’s words “an extra layer of organizational chaos.” Graduate Bryan Spoon points out the pressure of printing “400 pages a week” and that the lag between meetings could make discussing the overall project a bit “like trying to talk about the shape of a lake from individual rocks you pick up along the shore line.”
This year, Schoenfield tried to lift some of the organizational stress by integrating writing consultants in the brainstorming process. Nevertheless, the potential value of the experience seems to outweigh most of the drawbacks. Spoon and Owens echo each other precisely, both asserting that the experience is “definitely worth it” for thesis writers. While meetings for the English Honors Thesis groups for this year are still in progress, we hope the experience will again prove beneficial to all involved.