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Generating Consensus on Textual Interpretation Through Circulating Critique

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worksheet showing two rounds of exercise
Image Credit: 

Chris Ortiz y Prentice

Brief Assignment Overview: 

This exercise has groups of three students answer questions about an assigned reading; read and revise other groups' answers; consider other groups' revisions of their first answer; and revise their first answer--all in preparation for class discussion.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Rigorous and accurate reading is at the heart of this exercise: it is designed to argue to students that not all readings are correct and some are better than others. The goals are to get students to read closely and to use textual evidence to support their answers. Having each group critique (or agree with) each other's answers raises the stakes enough to make the students try in earnest; putting the students in groups of three reduces the fear of offending that often prevents productive peer review. Discussion is used to bring the students into concurrence and a sense of certainty, two things often lacking in humanistic discussion, which I believe often leaves undergraduate students feeling like texts mean anything at all, which is to say nothing.

Required Materials: 

An assigned reading and loose-leaf paper

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

The exercise has students break up into groups of three (a magic number for discussion purposes). The groups answer three questions about the reading (see "Instructions for Students"), writing down their answers on paper. Each group passes the paper to the next group. This group considers the other group's answers: any one they agree with in its entirety they place a check mark next to. If they think something needs changing, they revise the original sentence in a space provided on the sheet. If they think the answer is wrong, they place an X next to the answer and, in the provided space, explain why they think the answer is incorrect.  Then they hand the sheet to the next group and repeat the process. Each group criticizes the original answers, but they can also see other groups’ work. This generates consensus or disagreement. At the end of the exercise, the groups pass back the sheets until they get back their original answers. They then consider the other groups’ responses: Did they get check marks? Were there revisions? Did they get X’s? They then have a chance to revise their original answers. Now they are prepared for discussion: I ask one student the first question. Heads nod in all directions and hands start to go up; there is consensus and even side-taking, because each person now has a strong idea of their own answers. The discussion after this exercise was the best I have witnessed in my short experience as a teacher.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

The success I experienced was likely due to asking the right questions. We were reading John Ruskin’s “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” which suits itself well to three very straightforward questions: 1.  In your own words, what is the Pathetic Fallacy for Ruskin? 2.  Why is the Pathetic Fallacy a Fallacy? (What is fallacious about it?) 3.  Why is the Pathetic Fallacy Pathetic? (What is pathetic about it?) There are better and worse answers to these questions, perhaps even right and wrong answers, and that is key, because it gives the students a stake in their responses. Select a text and write questions that students feel they can answer with some degree of correctness and comprehensiveness. 

Instructions For Students: 

Instructions for Students:

Part I. In your group, answer the three questions after discussing it with one another. Record your answers in the space below and then hand the sheet to the group on your right.

1.  In your own words, what is the Pathetic Fallacy for Ruskin?


2.  Why is the Pathetic Fallacy a Fallacy? (What is fallacious about it?)


3.  Why is the Pathetic Fallacy Pathetic? (What is pathetic about it?)

Part II. Read the answers from the other group. Are they different than yours? If you agree with one of their answers and believe its entirely comprehensive, please place a check mark in the left margin next to the answer. If you think its missing or wrong about something, rewrite their sentence in the space below, indicating which sentence you're rewriting by numbering it accordingly. If you think the sentence is incorrect, please place an X in the left margin next to the sentence and explain below why you think the sentence is incorrect. Once you're finished, pass the sheet to the right and repeat Part II for the original group's answers.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

If you evaluate what students are saying as they discuss, you can know whom to ask to get discussion started on the strongest possible foot. Evaluation is written into this assignment, since each group is evaluating the answers of the others to complete each pass. I believe this is why making small groups works well, since individuals are often more shy to criticize than groups. This exercise generates some team spirit. Since I use the exercise to generate classroom discussion, I don’t give it a grade.


Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

This exercise, although very simple, holds several advantages. When it came time for discussion, I asked a student I’d been listening in on to answer the first question, "What is the Pathetic Fallacy?” Her response was concise and strong; I was satisfied. But two other students added nuances in Ruskin's text they found when critiquing other groups' answers. The first question took care of the second. Then I asked the third question (to a different student), and again the student provided a superior answer, which also tied in a previous comment from a different student. I think we all left class feeling like we were sure what Ruskin means by the “Pathetic Fallacy,” why he thinks it is a fallacy, and why he believes we pity a person making it. To emerge from discussion with clarity like this is very rare in my experience.

Additional Resources: 

Another advantage of this exercise is that it requires very few resources.

Course Description: 

E314J: Psychology and Literature::

This course explores key literary and psychological works in which the two fields become deeply indebted to one another.  The course is designed with both English majors and non-English majors in mind. The skills it focuses on help students succeed in upper-division courses in many majors across campus, including English.  These skills include close analytic reading and critical writing, as well as methods for understanding texts in their formal, historical, and cultural dimensions.

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