Thursday, July 15, 2010

Writing Papers for Your Peers

I'm in the middle of reading Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. It's really good so you might as well go out and buy it (try it through the link below. All income I earn off of these type of Amazon links will be donated to More on the book later though.

For now, I'm linking to a Salon interview I found via Alex Bain's Favorites. There are lot's of amazing insights (that's why I'm saying buy the book), but one comment on the power of peer review really stood out for me. In high school or undergrad at CAL, when I was writing a paper, I would do my best, but my definition of "best" usually meant "best grade". I was writing for my teacher and trying to check all the appropriate boxes. I later realized that I was gaming the system at the expense of my true understanding of a subject.

As I got to business school at Kellogg, I realized that grades meant less and started writing for idea exploration and for an audience that consisted of my friends/classmates and me. This drastically changed the way I thought and learned, and that shift is one of the reasons I write this blog, it keeps me in the same mode -- learning everyday.

In the comment below, Shirky talks about how he tries to make his students write for each other and the broader Internet, and how he hopefully get's them to shift their learning objectives at a much younger age than I was able to shift at. I wish I would have understood this at a younger age.

"CS: What I mean is that what I wrote at Yale was for an audience of a single person, my professor, and that it was intended to convince him that I knew what I was talking about so he would give me a good grade, rather than being intended to communicate something to him that would convince them to change him mind, or trying to give him a framework for thinking about something. In a way, writing a college paper in its current structure is almost custom-designed to crush in the student the idea of writing as a communicative act, because it feels like a long, highly structured interoffice memo rather than an address to the world.

I'll tell you two things I've done here at NYU with the writing my students do for me. One, I assign them write for each other. So they think, "My peers are going to read this and also my professor is going to read this." You'd think they'd be more concerned about me reading it, but the quality goes up when they know their friends are going to read it.

The other thing I do, with some of their stuff, is publish it online. I took a whole bunch of papers by my students from a class we did on the effect of the Internet on the 2008 Presidential election, and I just put them in a big folder and put them online. People's reaction to this was: "Oh, I may actually be communicating something; I'd better get it together here."