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Collaboration in the Paperless Writing Class

posted: 12.7.12 by archived

This semester, in my Writing for Digital and Multimedia Settings course (ENGL 231), I attempted something I’ve never tried before: collaborative writing. By this I mean having students actually produce written documents together. I’ve had students collaborate on the writing process right from the start of my teaching career. As in many writing classrooms, my students share, discuss, and comment on one another’s drafts-in-progress. In this way, they collaborate on the writing process. But to have them actually write together—that is something different entirely and yet something I’ve wanted to experiment with for some time.

So this semester, I created an assignment sequence where collaborative writing is built into the fabric of the course. The course itself is designed as a service-learning experience, with the students producing digital and multimedia writing on behalf of their client, the English department, who is seeking to promote a new minor in rhetoric and writing. The first major project asked the students to write a report presenting their findings from an analysis of the Websites of several other rhetoric/writing programs. Students were divided into groups of three, and in my assignment instructions I suggested that they write the introduction and conclusion sections collaboratively, but write the three parts of their findings sections on their own, with each student contributing his or her analysis of a single school’s Website.

As they copied and pasted their individual sections together, I suggested they would need to ensure continuity and consistency in the writing. This structure seemed to work well. The groups heeded my warnings not to spend too much time clustered around one screen, nitpicking a single writer as he or she attempted to generate text. The assignment offered clear boundaries and ways of dividing up the work. The project came off without a hitch. The reports were strong (and stronger after a second round of revision, guided by my feedback). The students reported almost unanimous satisfaction with the experience in their mid-term course evaluations. 

The second major project of the course asks students to produce some new digital and multimedia text to help the client (the English department) inform students at the college about the rhetoric and writing minor. One group is setting up a Facebook page and Twitter account and designing and administering a survey of student attitudes about writing. A second group is creating a poster series and a brochure. A third group is creating a series of video “testimonials” from students who are already rhetoric and writing minors, and a fourth group is creating a brief promotional video on the minor itself. A fifth group, consisting of the class’s two strongest writers, is in charge of editing all documents and designing the new rhetoric and writing Web page on the English department’s Website. Along the way, all the groups are submitting texts documenting their work (such as plans of work, progress reports, letters of submittal, etc.)

I’ve been shocked at how well these collaborative projects are going, how much pleasure the students seem to take from working with one another, and how much I have enjoyed teaching this class. We meet in a computer lab every day. I begin the class with some general directions, we take time each week to review each group’s project status, and then the students get to work. I circulate, working with different groups—offering ideas, feedback, direction, encouragement, and praise. Students share documents with one another via Google Docs and the learning-management-system, make video clips available to one another and to me using the free storage available on Google Drive, and communicate via e-mail or the new Facebook page. They are getting work done—not always elegantly and not always efficiently, but as we near the end of the term, I can see each of the major projects coming together.

There is a common attitude about group projects and collaborative writing: Students don’t like such projects because inevitably, certain students end up doing most or all of the work, others “slack off,” and in the end, everyone unfairly shares the credit (if things work out well) or blame (when things go poorly). I don’t want to suggest that this story isn’t true, but like all stories that exert pressure on or power over our classroom practice, I want to call it into question. In his article “Transfer, Transformation, and Rhetorical Knowledge: Insights From Transfer Theory,” Doug Brent writes:

If we think, for instance, that the ability to collaborate is an important part of our students’ mental equipment, then it will do little good to give them one collaborative assignment and move on. Collaboration must be deeply built into the structure of the entire course, or better yet the entire program, just as it is deeply built into the structure of most workplaces.

I have now seen what collaboration that is “deeply built into the structure of [an] entire course” looks like, and I can tell you, based on this initial foray, that while creating such a structure is time-intensive, the dividends that it can pay are significant. While I have no doubt that much can go wrong with such work, my experience with collaboration in ENGL 231 this term has me wanting to go back for more—and dreaming of ways to make other courses that I teach more collaborative. I’m thinking that collaboration should be woven into the fabric of the Paperless Writing Class in the same way that writing is woven in: not as something you do once or even a few times a term, but as a way-of-doing and way-of-being throughout the term.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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