Breuch, L. K. (2004). Virtual Peer Review: Teaching and Learning about Writing in Online Environments. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Reviewed by Mwangi Chege (Bowling Green State University, Ohio)
Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch (2004) focuses on virtual peer review (VPR) to demonstrate the great potential technology provides composition teachers. Apparently, her main concern is the question: “what do we gain by fully immersing our students in online learning environments” and what do “we lose by making this transition” (p. 1). But in her approach to Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), she takes great exception to the tendency of pitting CMC and traditional media in terms of which is superior/inferior to the other. In fact, she prefers to view VPR as remediation of face-to-face (FtF) peer review (p. 52)--a viewpoint that solidifies her position on the need for composition teachers and scholars to focus their attention on exploring how they can maximize on the many capabilities technology provides to enhance pedagogy.
In Chapter One, Breuch distinguishes between VPR and FtF peer review by invoking the concept of remediation. She cites Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin who define remediation as “‘repurposing’” of media”; that “media shift and borrow from one another…that remediation is bound in a ‘double logic’: it multiplies media while simultaneously seeking ways to erase it” (p. 8). In other words, she acknowledges the differences that characterize CMC and traditional media, differences that in her opinion are shaped and exemplified by three features: time, space, and interaction (p. 8). In Chapter Two, she discusses how these three features play out in virtual communication, how they distinguish VPR from FtF per review, and how composition teachers can exploit them for instructional purposes. In Chapter Three, Breuch examines the “tension” that comes into play when peer review is taken into the virtual world. To capture this tension, she uses the concept of “Normal” and “Abnormal” discourse, referring to VPR as abnormal discourse since it is removed from the traditional mode of interaction, the “FtF interaction” that is associated with peer review (p. 55). But, by invoking the principle of remediation, she argues that VPR does not take away “the solid pedagogical assumptions that inform pee review as an instructional activity” (p. 56). In fact, she underscores that VPR is in line with composition theory.
In Chapter Four, Breuch examines the challenges facing VPR. In her opinion, “ownership of ideas” is particularly tricky in VPR by the sheer fact that in the virtual world peer review is entirely in text form and, therefore, writers can easily incorporate feedback they receive into their own texts. But, as she demonstrates, this is an issue that teachers can navigate with their students. She also addresses challenges that technology poses, such as system failure. In Chapter Five she addresses how to deal with these challenges and in Chapter Six she wraps up her discussion by not only situating VPR in the broader composition theory, but also discussing how VPR can be applied in the classroom and other writing environments such as the Writing Center and the work place.
The main weakness with Breuch’s rendering of the subject is the way she treats the three features that characterize VPR: time, space, and interaction, especially in Chapter Two. Although in some instances she alludes to how the three intersect, to a large extent her analysis portrays them as discrete entities, an approach that impedes an explicit analysis of how they influence or shape each other. For instance, when discussing time she states, “Virtual peer review that uses synchronous technology thus allows for more immediate interaction between participants” (p. 39). Here, Breuch is acknowledging that time influences the nature of on-line interaction, but this is the far she goes in exploring the relationship between these attributes. Since their overlap is indisputable and inevitable, and given the importance she attaches to them in her discussion, a more conscious and explicit analysis of how the three attributes intersect--how they influence and even shape each other, would have been helpful to a reader.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this work is the way Breuch is able to balance theory and praxis. On one hand, she provides a solid theoretical foundation for the argument she is advancing on VPR, the need for composition teachers to shift their attention from politicizing media to how best they can exploit the enormous potential technology provides to enrich pedagogy. Yet, on the other hand, she does an excellent job addressing how educators can actually employ technology, VPR in particular, in composition instruction. With the use of actual examples from actual students’ responses she does a commendable job of moving the teacher from the theoretical realm to a concrete, classroom scenario.
Furthermore, by approaching VPR in terms of remediation and advocating teachers focus their attention on how they can maximize the potential technology avails composition instruction, Breuch’s book advances scholarship in CMC in a way that is inviting not only for those in the field of Computers and Composition, but to all teachers of composition. Such an approach is a step in the right direction since it helps in diffusing the tension that surrounds discourse on CMC and traditional pedagogies, more so at a time when it is becoming clear to scholars and teachers in the field of composition that it is impossible to divorce technology from composition.