Reflections on OWL Response Pedagogy

These girls’ interview responses revealed a collective narrative about this OWL. Like Courtney, whose words begin this piece, many girls demanded “brutal honesty” in the feedback; they resisted being patronized as writers. Most of the time, these high school writers resisted being silent receivers of feedback. However, students’ impressions of the OWL were, at times, ambivalent and complex. Many girls understood that challenging and provocative open-ended questions would benefit their revision work. At the same time, some of the girls harbored a secret wish—that OWL consultants would be more directive and say, “Do this!” Yet, despite the girls’ conflicting desires, the girls persistently sought specific feedback for both their thesis-driven essays and their fiction, both assigned and extracurricular writing. Importantly, their interview responses help us understand teenage girls’ perspective of the feedback process.

While these girls may have been conflicted about the feedback they needed, their comments verified that they welcomed the OWL. In fact, the girls suggested the number of OWL consultants be increased so they could get feedback expeditiously. Even more, across our interviews, girls appreciated the specific feedback they received from the OWL consultants. Beyond appreciation for an engaged audience, the girls noted the feedback helped them develop as writers while guiding them in strengthening their texts, clear goals of their high school English curriculum. These observations evince the girls’ writerly agency while elucidating the girls’ commitment to developing their writing. The girls wanted feedback that demanded their attention and helped them augment their ideas.

The girls’ request for OWL feedback is strikingly reminiscent of what teachers and writing consultants identify as on-going challenges for student writers: the ability to craft specific, critical, clear writing (Raymond & Quinn, 2012). The girls sought specific, critical feedback and expressed a desire to engage in a dialogic process. Even more, these girls offer a tool to help writers achieve the shared goal of “specific, critical, clear writing” by suggesting that the OWL consultants provide writing models for the girls’ consideration. What the girls’ interviews teach us about responding to writing invites us to develop a dialogic OWL pedagogy for solicitors of feedback.

Our work addresses the research gap on girls as feedback solicitors. At the same time, it does have limitations. First, the sample size is small and narrowed to schools in a particular geographical region. Thus, the research should be repeated on a larger sample size with respondents selected from schools nationwide in a variety of demographic regions. Secondly, both the OWL itself and the interviews were optional. As a result, we interviewed students who submitted their work to the OWL; we were unable to learn from those who eschewed the OWL. In addition, our decision to interview after school suggests that we missed opportunities to learn from students who could not or did not want to stay after school. For the purposes of generalizability, follow-up studies should be conducted with different respondents, with varying levels of OWL participations, at different times throughout the school day.

Re-imagining the OWL

Informed by the OWL limitations the girls’ comments helped identify, for the next iteration of the OWL, we will re-imagine the OWL to better assist future high school writers as they develop their skills negotiating feedback. We will update the interface. We know, for instance, the interface must include both asynchronous and synchronous options for writer/consultant engagement. As part of the messaging on the interface, we will encourage writers to submit multiple writing genres and school essays. With the OWL we studied, we welcomed a broad range of genres. Going forward, we need to clarify and emphasize this invitation on the interface. To better support the girls’ request for models, we will post a wide range of student-generated questions that can accompany students’ submitted work; we will also post writing samples that encompass the range of genres these student writers must learn. With future OWLs, we want to provide all students, girls and boys, with writing resources that will assist them in addressing the issues they self-identify and issues raised by the consultants’ comments. We will include resources to help writers understand options for structuring their writing, using evidence, documenting research, and more. Even more, by adding resources on the OWL, the consultants will be able to direct writers to helpful materials as part of the imparted feedback.

In staffing the OWL, we will recruit creative writers as consultants. We trained consultants to respond to creative writing after writers began submitting short stories, chapters from their novels, and more. That strategy, however, misfired because the girls needed creative writing feedback from more advanced fiction writers; by broadening the scope of consultants’ skill-sets, we can meet those needs. In addition, we will revise the response curriculum we developed to train consultants so all consultants, whether they identify as creative writers or not, can serve the OWL users. Having creative writers as consultants will help students become more comfortable submitting to the OWL multiple writing genres. The presence of creative writing consultants on the OWL might also give high school writers greater confidence in the consultants’ credibility as respondents.

Finally, we will restructure the future OWL to add community forums. Trained university consultants will moderate reading and writing groups. High school students could also create their own groups; these groups could also be moderated, albeit to a lesser degree. These forums will allow students to create their own spaces, engaging with readers and writers from other classes and other high schools. In sharing their work in these forums, high school students will begin to create writerly communities on the OWL.

Revising the OWL Pedagogy

The girls’ interview responses make clear the need to revise the curriculum we developed for preparing high school writers for the OWL, including more initial and on-going guidance to help students process the feedback they receive. Occasionally, girls received comments that seemed contradictory to their writerly needs. This experience frustrated them and drove some to choose not to revise. With more effective preparation, we could mitigate some of this frustration. However, it may be more than a matter of preparation: through a developmental and time-consuming process, these girls are learning how to understand and act on feedback. We need to frequently show writers the available revision options; this system of constant suggestion will strengthen their writerly agency and their revision skills.

When we introduce students to the OWL, we should continue to model how to submit their OWL work and what kinds of questions to ask. To enhance the training, we should provide examples of the consultant feedback writers can expect from the OWL and facilitate a discussion about the merits of the examples. Girls and boys need to learn the feedback they receive from the OWL consultants intends to draw the writers back into their texts to revisit their ideas. Constructive feedback should help these girls understand how readers perceive their writing. Through class discussions and brief writing assignments about soliciting and processing feedback, students may also learn to articulate their writerly desires, learning to ask specific, targeted questions. Next, we need to teach students how to decode the marginal feedback and the end notes they receive. Future OWL users must practice sorting through the feedback, holding responses up against their writerly intentions. Doing so will help writers better understand the relationship between the questions they ask and the feedback they receive. In the end, as we improve our methods to teach students how to negotiate feedback, students will be better equipped to judge useful and useless feedback.

Finally, we must teach writers how to make informed choices when acting on the feedback. The consultants’ feedback should facilitate the students’ agency as writers; girls and boys must learn to decode different types of feedback even as they request more specific responses. Failing to strike this balance, students may succumb to directive feedback and lose some measure of their agency. We must continue to encourage writers to engage consultants about the feedback rather than merely receiving the consultants’ feedback. Ultimately, we need to initiate discussions with the student writers about the ownership of their texts so they can manage seemingly contradictory consultant feedback.

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