The girls wished OWL consultants’ feedback was more specific, critical, and clear
Listen to Kati, Elana, and Kara. Their words capture the top limitation (at 30.2% of all girls interviewed) expressed by the girls. Together, these girls, like other interviewees, were emphatic—they wanted targeted, discerning feedback from the OWL consultants. These girls deplored coddling.
Kati (Vista; February 2003; Student interview pp. 9-10)
Elana (Rancho Buena Vista; March 2004; Student interview pp. 82-85)
Kara (Vista; February 2003; Student interview p. 23)
Such expectations were clear for many interviewees and consistent with our experience working one-on-one with high school and university writers. Like any engaged writer, Kati demonstrated her awareness of the potential breadth of consultants’ comments. She spurned feedback containing insufficient “information.” Kati discounted the value of these end comments because they omitted specifics and were too far removed from the essay itself. For her, end comments withheld the assistance she needed; she wanted to know exactly where the consultant was suggesting a change. Kati’s comments implied the OWL worked best by imparting proximal and precise feedback.
Like Kati, Elana desired more direction from the consultant. Contemplating what she perceived as a vague response, her frustration was palpable. As she requested, “I would appreciate it if they didn’t patronize me.” Elana welcomed insightful feedback. She clarified, though, that the consultant’s comment, “I’m confused,” was insufficient. She yearned to know “Why?” If the consultant explained what made a particular idea unclear, Elana believed she would better understand the feedback, thereby benefiting her as a writer.
Many interviewees commented they found empty praise suspect. Kara, for example, condemned “really nice” consultants. She found feedback proclaiming “Good job!” useless. In fact, many students quickly and conclusively drew parallels between what they perceived as “nice” OWL consultant feedback and the feedback they received during collaborative classroom experiences. “Nice” OWL feedback, they told us, echoed frustrating and useless peer responses during in-class revision. The girls rejected the notion that tutors had to “be nice,” preferring a more honest response over palliatives. As Kara asserted, “That’s not something I want.”
In part, the girls were responding to the feedback structure that consultants were trained to deliver. Consultants were instructed to offer general feedback in terminal comments that corresponded to specific marginal comments. However, girls’ interview comments suggested that the girls preferred the more specific feedback rather than general observations. It is, of course, possible that the girls only requested targeted comments as a result of their exposure to the feedback culture created on the OWL. In other words, perhaps writers expected specificity because this digital response site provided such specificity. At the same time, however, Kati, Elana, and Kara’s comments insinuated that these girls expected OWL consultants’ feedback would assist writers in strengthening their texts; our interviewees used the OWL to better understand what was unclear in their writing.
Girls found some OWL consultant responses uninformed
Girls expected knowledgeable feedback. Approximately 17% of the girls we interviewed identified those occasions when they felt the consultants did not know enough about the genre they were writing or about the required classroom texts to respond. Listen to Koriayn detail the feedback she received from OWL consultants in response to her creative writing and Carmen comment on the feedback she received to her essay on Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem.
Koriayn (Rancho Buena Vista: March 2004; Student interview pp. 142-143)
Carmen (Rancho Buena Vista: March 2005; Student interview p. 24)
Commentary about uninformed feedback fell into two categories. On the one hand, girls expected consultants to have a considerable breadth of knowledge about different writing genres. Some girls chose to submit creative texts (i.e. short stories, novels chapters, and poems). So when consultants’ responses revealed their limited experience responding to girls’ fiction and poetry, girls identified this as an OWL limitation. Koriayn’s experiences using this OWL as a creative writer, for example, unfortunately represented many students who submitted creative writing pieces. She explained that sometimes she found consultants’ responses frustrating, commenting, “[T]the person who always picks it up, always has these comments for me, and it’s like, ‘Okay, well that’s, that’s not really helpful. That’s not what I asked.’” She was surprised and frustrated when the consultant did not seem to know the purpose of italics.
Cassandra, another interviewee, had a similar experience. Cassandra felt the OWL consultant misunderstood the word “waif,” “[a]nd just like just, they didn’t have, like, very constructive criticism for the fiction so I didn’t pay much attention to what she said.” Cassandra’s and Koriayn’s experiences using this OWL as creative writers unfortunately represented many students who submitted creative writing pieces; some writers were justifiably dissatisfied with the feedback’s quality. Their responses, along with those of their peers, underscored why some girls questioned the consultants’ credibility in this area.
On the other hand, girls also expressed disappointment when the consultants had not read the primary texts the girls were writing about. As Carmen noted, “it’s just easier and more helpful if they have a lot of knowledge in that department.” She equated the consultants’ familiarity with her sources with their response expertise. For Carmen, and others with similar complaints, the consultants’ lack of knowledge resulted in feedback that was less than helpful or, at worst, irrelevant.
The girls’ request for informed, critical responses to their writing, both creative and thesis-driven, was encouraging. These girls enjoyed writing; receiving feedback on their academic and extracurricular writing served these girls and their emerging writerly agency. Yet we gave little, if any, initial thought to creative writers’ needs when we designed the consultant training. We had overlooked creative writing contributions when we designed the OWL, developed the curriculum for training OWL consultants, and staffed the OWL. However, as the girls submitted more creative writing, we revised the curriculum so OWL consultants could meaningfully address the girls’ writing.
We did, however, anticipate writers’ concerns like Carmen’s that the consultants “didn’t read the book.” Often, writers to expect consultants to be familiar with each referenced text (literary or otherwise) and often appreciate consultants’ ability to ensure content accuracy when they solicit feedback (Brooks, 1991). In the initial design of the OWL consultant training, we aimed to strengthen consultants’ skills for working with all writers, regardless of the texts the writers were reading. At the same time, the consultants could benefit from on-going instruction for OWL scenarios like Carmen’s.
Moreover, as we introduce writers to the OWL, we must remember to provide realistic expectations for the writers. While we teach new writers how to use the OWL, we must also create and promote venues on the OWL to support those writers. We knew the OWL was unfamiliar to these high school writers. We also knew that these writers had not been exposed to a physical writing center at their high schools. Therefore, this university-to-high school OWL was an introduction to the world of writing centers in any form. Writers’ comments about consultants’ perceived lack of knowledge reminded us that we had created no space in the writers’ classrooms or on the OWL itself for writers and consultants to discuss their writing issues. An updated OWL could include a consultants’ blog or writers’ forum where writers could have the opportunity to discuss their frustrations about consultants’ perceived lack of knowledge as well as other writing concerns.