Flashback one semester
The college I teach at is very small. Think 900ish students. As such, the community is quite insular (not in a negative way). The nature of the college (a triad of work, service and academics) further strengthens community ties. The students study together, pull weeds on the farm together, play together, dine together, spend weekends on service learning trips. There are assigned dorms, but few seem to be in the correct room. The intensity with which the lives of the students are entwined is apparent in their essays, their class comments, the way a student hugs another student after a peer review.
Thus, sometimes it may be difficult to assign peer rotation of papers, especially in a nonfiction class. Especially when the first assignment is a bio, an exercise in self-exploration.
“I’ll call it the quadrangle of discomfort,” says one student. He has grabbed a dry erase marker and is drawing a diagram on my whiteboard. Class is dismissed, and I’ve turned on WERS, streaming live from Boston, my old college radio station. The student stands at the board, creating a geometric pattern as the Foo Fighters blare out over the classroom speakers,
“Do you have any other colored markers?” he asks.
I hand him red and green to add to his blue.
When he is complete it looks like an awkward pentagram, a Venn on steroids. There are loops and squares. I’m still uncertain what he is drawing.
“Okay, Professor Hunter,” he says. He is one of the few who insists on calling me simply “Professor Hunter” and not by my first name. I’ve had this student in two classes already. I know him well. It’s fun to see him at the board, mimicking my job.
“What you have done,” he continues, “is assign these personal bios in the worst possible peer rotation.”
This is not the first time an uncomfortable peer rotation has happened. One of my first years here brought a similar situation. A student had grabbed a sheet of paper or napkin and detailed how the peers I had assigned had all been very close, but that the relationships were in flux, were currently strained or evolving. That time it was a trio, and the student had drawn similar lines, but nothing as complex as the diagram now on my whiteboard.
Peer rotation is my nightmare. When I earned my MFA, apparently, all of my math skills evaporated. In went Hemingway and Lahiri; out went macroeconomics. In went Winesburg Ohio and San Lorenzo; out went fractions. I am faced with creating a rotation for my students so that they do not have the same peer read their work more than once a semester. I was happy with the foursome that I chose. It was one of the first days, so I just lumped four students together into a peer group.
My student continues to explain his problem. “Of these four students, you assigned two who were rooming together but then she dated his friend, and then she moved out and now he is with….” He is pointing to his drawing of overlapping circles and lines. The drama that has unfolded is, apparently, intense.
“Well then,” I say. “You will certainly be able to have the…” Here, I struggle with the word. “Backstory to read one another’s work.” I smile and add “Have fun with it!”