Aversive Evaluation

As part of our class I have graduate student discussion leaders grading (“peer reviewing”) the memos of their classmates. I developed this assignment after watching several generations of students devastated by their first peer review experience. If we can only curb the love bombing and get our students accustomed to a little more direct critique, I hope it will curb our trend of total personality melt downs from moderately positive reviews. Anyway, building up a thick skin starts here, and learning how to critique your friends in a productive, respectful fashion is a skill we can learn.

They’re pretty freaked out by the assignment, and have developed among themselves an  amusing adaptation to the system. For the last several weeks, the discussion leader will write comments on the other student’s paper, but put their criticisms and suggested grade on a post-it note, affixed to the second page. The presumption is that I add the other comments, and decide on the final grade.

I haven’t raised an objection, both because it seems that we’re making progress with this skill and because I suppose I am the editor/fall guy in this relationship. But I wonder what the discussions of this technique sounded like.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Aversive Evaluation

  1. You should ask them! It might produce a really good discussion about the role of criticism in their future academic lives. Plus, then you can report back; I’m curious too.

    I’m a grad student in sociology but I was a grad student in philosophy earlier. There’s a lot of things I didn’t like about some of the culture that I experienced in philosophy, including a lot of rank eliticism, but one thing I miss constantly is how normal it was for people to critique one another’s arguments. I’ve established that with some friends in my sociology grad program, but it’s been hard, and I usually feel like I’m violating a social norm when I openly disagree with other grad students in class. (I don’t think I’m a jerk about it — I hope I’m not, although maybe I wouldn’t know if I were — but the way I perceive it is that the act of unvarnished expression of disagreement is itself interpreted as a sign of aggression.)

  2. Noah

    I’m with Elizabeth – ask the students what they thought! I think we’d all learn a lot from their reactions.

    In my grad program, I think there would be a pretty wide range of reactions. I could see a lot of friends doing what your students are doing. At the same time, some of my friends from outside the US were trained in academic cultures where the criticism is much more direct. As you might imagine, this causes some misunderstandings early on!

    Like Elizabeth said, I’ve been in a lot of classes where it’s hard to critique other grad students in class. Granted, I’m at a point in my grad school career where it’s been a while since I took classes. But I think it is very important for students to learn how to give and receive critiques. Memos seem like a great way to teach those skills, because it is outside of the public performance of the class itself. (For that matter, how often do we openly disagree with others in any sort of public forum, as opposed to a more private setting?)

  3. Jenn Lena

    Elizabeth and Noah: Some of the students in the class found and read this post. They have spoken with me one-on-one about their thoughts. I’m now encouraging them to share their impressions here. (I won’t do it without their permission.) Updates to come.

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