The Iowa model sucks
Students sometimes complain of bad workshop experiences because their classmates have either not learned how to give a good critique, did not participate in the workshop, or did not put honest effort into their critiques.
More often, the format of the workshop itself is the source of disappointment. The Iowa model, replicated throughout the country, divides the discussion session into two parts: 1) it opens with things readers liked about the story, and 2) closes with things readers did not like. The writer is silent throughout the session, except for the very beginning when he or she reads their work aloud to the class.
First, reading your work aloud has no value, especially if you turned in something you know needs help. I always turned in weak or bad stories for workshop — the stories I knew needed help. My philosophy was, why solicit feedback on something unless I knew it had problems? Turning in something great was a waste of time. What does reading something lousy out loud do for anyone? Nothing.
Second, I never gave a damn whether my classmates liked my story or not. Similarly, I hated being asked what I liked about someone's story. Sometimes I hated everything about someone's story — its premise, characters, genre, structure, and so forth. Which is fine. I'm not the audience for that story. I will never like scifi vampire erotica, but lots of people do. And so when that happened, the best I could do was say something trite: "The descriptions were good." What a waste of the writer's time.
Finally, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what’s "working" or "not working" in a story without first talking about what we think the story is trying to do — what is the goal of the story? Who is the main character and what is the journey that they are on? What emotion is the story trying to evoke? What is the story trying to say?
What works is what contributes to the goal of the story; what doesn’t work is what takes away from the goal.
The writers goals are paramount, not the tastes of readers
During discussions reviewers must explain their underlying assumptions about a story. If one person thinks the story is about the main character becoming radicalized, they will have a very different opinion about what's working than someone else who thought the story was about the comfort religion provides in times of grief.
The writer also needs to know how different readers interpreted the story differently, because he or she had intentions for their piece. Did she succeed? Did she fail? Is there a disconnect between her intent and its effect? If so, why? Did it land perfectly, and everyone interpreted it in exactly the same way. If so, maybe it's too obvious, too simple.
When I run a workshop, I do two things that correct the problems outlined above: I keep it anonymous and purely descriptive.
To ensure anonymity, I ask that students bring hard copies of their story to me, without their name on them, and later I distribute them to the class. After workshop, critiques are passed to me, and I give them to the writer in private. If the writer chooses, they may break their anonymity at the end of workshop and ask the class questions.
The benefits of anonymity:
Running a descriptive workshop requires more engagement from the moderator than a traditional workshop. You can't just let the class have at it. Their inclination, always, will be to start talking about the things they liked or didn't like, because that's easy. That's the way we talk about a movie after it ends. So in one sense during a descriptive workshop you have to act like a literature professor provoking discussion about an assigned reading.
I ask opened-ended questions, starting with "Who is the main character and what is the journey that they are on?" After one student answers, I say, "Does anyone want to build on that? Disagree with that? Other interpretations?" There will always be different interpretations. Always. You will be surprised how diverse the interpretations can become. Students will drift toward comments about what they liked and didn't like, but I always pull them back, and that can be tough.
What is key — and I can't stress this enough — is to never state your own opinion, ever, because the professor's opinion is always "right" and student's will coalesce around your ideas and abandon their own. Do not let this happen. You may be the most experienced writer, but you are only one reader. You will only buy one copy of the person's novel. The writer needs to understand that as well, and take their classmate's comments seriously, not listen to the professor's feedback to the exclusion of all others.
After the class has thoroughly explored their many interpretations, I "open it up" and ask the class if there is anything in the story they didn't understand, or had questions about. These comments are best when they are phrased as open-ended questions such as, "Why is the main character's teacher also her brother-in-law?" The pace of questioning should be slow. The class should consider answers to these questions and discuss different possibilities.
After a descriptive workshop, it's a good idea to conference with the students who were critiqued that day. Students sometimes need help translating feedback into a concrete revision plan. I ask them open-ended questions like "What surprised you about your classmates' feedback?" or "Did anything they said disappoint you?" I follow up these questions with "So what can you do to fix that problem?"