Schooled: Peer Review

Nicole Fonsh has raised a discussion at the Hack Library School blog on the subject of peer review in the LIS classroom. Boy, I remember all the fun everyone had sharing papers and absorbing critical comments about their writing. The hot red faces, the nervous hands, the hours of extra reading. Yes sir, like those warm, breezy afternoons of yesteryear in the meadow, I remember those classes with pleasure.

But yesteryear is gone and the two-party practice of assigning papers to be written, submitted for grade, and returned is theoretically geriatric. Studies have shown that multi-age students contextualize and “learn better” when content is shared and interactive.

Several of my library school courses were structured in much the same way as the ones outlined in Nicole’s piece. Email everyone your paper a week in advance of class, read some or all of the peer papers, and be ready for discussion in class. One of these was moderated by John Berry (Library Journal) and was more writing-intensive, while the others were typical LIS courses. Two things I can relate about them:

1. Many LIS students aren’t very good writers and won’t often have much to share in the way of constructive criticism. Therein lies half the dread of peer review. The other half lies with those people, the less-confident writers, who loathe sharing their work with people they presume to be superior thinkers and writers.

2. Although, being a textbook editor, I didn’t usually find these experiences particularly engaging or productive, I know there were many students who were appreciative of the process. Peer review may have shown them ways to improve their writing and the ways they think about intellectual communication.

You can’t always rely on your LIS professors to be expert at judging the quality and content of your written materials. After all, they’re librarians, not Composition instructors. It’s a fortunate student who has the opportunity to share thoughts on library science and receive constructive insight on authorship with a capable peer group.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

8 Responses to Schooled: Peer Review

  1. The majority of my classmates are from humanities backgrounds, like english or history. I remember in my undergrad being taught how to do constructive peer review. I wonder why those students wouldn’t bring their writing abilities to their MLIS degree and be able to critique the work of their peers.

  2. Won’t they? If they don’t, I suppose you’d just have to ask them why they don’t bring the goods. Unfortunately, it could be that they have no goods. I hate to do it, but as one who majored in English in undergrad, I can tell you that having a Bachelor’s degree in English or History doesn’t make a library student a good writer. It doesn’t necessarily make anybody a good writer, let alone a good reader. It’s like I said, peer review can be difficult in a number of ways, depending on the expertise of the participants. Thus the discussion.

  3. I was talking to some of my classmates who are in a research methods class and from what it sounds like, many of them are struggling with the reading and understanding research methodology. It made me wonder about the education that they received in their undergrad.

    Part of me feels like maybe MLIS students should have one semester to catch up to par (it’s graduate school), otherwise they risk lagging behind the entire program and not understanding what’s expected of them as professionals. I just want to hold people to a higher standard. So ideally, I feel like the peer review process should be constructive but like you said, we all come from such varying skill levels that it’s hard for it to be helpful for everyone.

    • You said a mouthful right there. The world and the profession would be a little better off if LIS programs would raise standards for admission and hold both students and faculty to a higher academic standard. If wishes were fishes, some of those peer review sessions would prove a bit more constructive.

  4. librariankate7578 says:

    John Berry taught a similar class at Pratt (Professional Writing). It worked…kind of. It was tough for some of my classmates to open up. Many times I was the one to kick off discussion, but I did learn quite a bit from the peers that did contribute regularly.

    • I know a few people who took courses with Berry at Pratt, and I’ve had the impression that it’s a quality program there. The opportunity for library students to take a course with Berry is a unique one. I gained some invaluable insight from not only his editorial lessons, but also those lengthy diatribes for which he’s become somewhat famous.

    • willrein says:

      I took Berry’s class at Dominican U. It was a great class, and I learned a lot. I learned most of my classmates, and future colleagues cannot form a complete thought. I began to have horrible flash backs from middle school. When I was required to diagram sentences. Hopefully, after taking Berry’s class their writing has greatly improved.

      • I suspect that students are gradually becoming more accustomed to peer review. In recent years, more and more mass-market language arts programs have included more sophisticated peer review applications. When I was in grade school, we traded written work with the kid in across the aisle, read the piece, and told them it was great. Today, students begin learning evaluation skills in elementary school. They are coached to ask grade-appropriate questions and make evaluative comments on each others’ work. I like to think that more of this type of instruction and interaction will yield a natural acceptance of peer review as part of the fabric of library school.

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