Desiring the Dialogic

The girls felt frustrated by unanswered OWL questions

Listen to Kelsey and Kristen explain the frustration experienced by approximately 10% of the girls we interviewed: 1) OWL consultants inconsistently acknowledged the girls’ revision work; 2) sometimes the consultants’ left the girls’ specific questions unanswered.

Kelsey (Vista; February 2003; Student interview pp. 33-34)

Kristen (Vista; April 2005; Student interview p. 53)

As we listened to the girls’ frustrations, we felt compelled to heed their concerns. Kelsey, for instance, felt annoyed when her revisions went unnoticed. She expected the consultant would see her draft’s changes. When the consultant disregarded Kelsey’s work, what should have been a partnership between Kelsey and the consultant failed. Recall Kristen’s answer when asked if she understood why the consultants neglected some of her questions: “They’re tired of reading…? I don’t know.” Her jaded response was telling—she felt the consultants ignored her queries. Even as she sought feedback, Kristen accepted that the consultants were too “tired” to respond.

These girls expected the OWL consultants to respond in helpful ways. When they revised their writing and resubmitted it for feedback, they expected feedback that responded to their revised work. The girls wanted stronger writing skills, a desire that shone through the concerns they expressed in these interviews. Their interview responses intrigue us: why did the consultants not acknowledge all of the revision work the girls insisted they had done? Had the consultants prioritized their feedback and focused on next steps in ways that were unclear to the girls? Were the consultants fatigued as Kristen’s comment suggested? Were the consultants rushed?

Larger issues may have been at work here. We did not ask the girls to describe their revision work to the consultants. Perhaps what Kelsey described as “a whole bunch of changes” amounted to little more than surface-level corrections. The girls were taught to request feedback, and Kelsey “wanted a lot of feedback.” At the same time, we trained consultants to prioritize the feedback they provided. As a result, some consultants may have eschewed either the girls’ questions or their completed revision work, leaving some girls feeling as if their efforts were futile. This disconnect is a concern, for girls’ agency may atrophy if they feel ignored.

The girls expressed frustration when they received seemingly contradictory feedback about the same paper from different OWL consultants or feedback that ran counter to what the students believed the teacher asked

Listen to Heather and Kari express their concerns about contradictory feedback, a limitation of the OWL expressed by approximately 10% of the girls we interviewed.

Heather (Rancho Buena Vista; March 2004; Student interview p. 154)

Kari (Vista; April 2005; Student interview p. 60)

Heather explained the frustration of receiving varied, often contradictory, feedback from different consultants about the same paper. What is notable is how Heather handled the contradiction: she went to her parents. To help her sort through contradictory feedback, Heather sought a consultative, if not collaborative, writing process. Her interview comment suggested that as a struggling writer, she was inclined to ask more questions rather than retreat.

Kari’s experience with contradictory feedback was unlike Heather’s. Kari explained that the OWL consultants’ responses did not demand that she process competing feedback. Instead, Kari found, at times, the assignment’s parameters prohibited the revision the consultant suggested. This disconnect was problematic for Kari and other participants. As she explained, “It’s not like they’re doing something wrong, just it doesn’t help me, because I can’t use that.” Kari’s tone is forgiving. Yet, while she understands that she should anticipate varied responses, her assessment of what she needs is unambiguous.

As users of this OWL, these girls clarified and developed their writing, exemplifying writing as a social construction (Bruffee, 1984; Harris, 1992). While we regret that contradictory and delayed feedback left some girls feeling frustrated about their OWL consultant interactions, the girls’ responses teach us what solicitors of feedback need. For some girls, the OWL facilitated further discussion about their writing. Their collective frustrations, expressed by Heather and Kari, encourage us to develop pedagogies to better prepare future OWL users. We know the act of processing contradictory feedback is a necessary skill that will benefit these girls as writers.

The girls welcomed feedback.  If the OWL consultants withheld models to complement their revision suggestions, however, the girls often felt frustrated.

Listen to Kari, Danielle, Casey, and Katelyn articulate their requests for feedback. When the OWL consultants identified vague language, these girls, like more than 20% of all of the girls we interviewed, each wished the consultants provided more: They wished the consultants demonstrated how to “fix” the issue.

Kari (Vista; April 2005; Student interview pp. 60-61)

Danielle (Vista; May 2006; Student interview p. 10)

Casey (Rancho Buena Vista; May 2006; Student interview p. 26)

Katelyn (Vista; May 2006; Student interview pp. 79-80)

Notably, at the start of our university/high school collaboration from 2002-2004, users made clear their feedback requests for specific and critical feedback. The girls using the OWL from 2004-2006 solicited slightly different feedback. They also requested specificity, but these girls asked for a certain kind of specificity–a request for models. Kari, Danielle, Casey, and Katelyn sought suggestions addressing the weaknesses the consultants identified. As Danielle explained, she would like “the kind of detail that basically explains what the problem is and a way you can fix it.” Kari, Casey, and Katelyn pushed this request a bit further while also acknowledging the complexity of their request. Kari commented, on the one hand, “[S]ometimes you want them to just hand you answers, but you can’t really do that.” It would be wonderful, she noted, if the consultants could just say “Write this for me.” But as she clarified self-referentially, “Kind of that’s your job.” As Casey pointed out, if consultants used a directive, “write this” approach, “[That might get them taken advantage of sometimes.” While Danielle requested the consultants offer “a way you can fix it,” Katelyn suggested, “They could actually write suggestions of their own, but not tell us what we should write but kind of something similar, create another scenario.”

The girls’ request for scenarios and models seemed reasonable and left us wondering. We appreciated the girls’ awareness that a “write this” approach presented challenges for the consultants. At the same time, we found the timing of this request significant. Was there a reason initial OWL users didn’t request models? The girls’ desire for concrete examples might have resulted from the curriculum; perhaps the girls had been asked to use imitation as a way to study written forms. However, this call for samples may have indicated the girls’ increasing online presence. Girls in the later years searched online for models to imitate much more often than their predecessors. Their pursuit of models suggests these girls valued seeing examples of effective writing as they strengthened their own texts.

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