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Google Docs, Take Three: The User’s Manual

posted: 3.1.13 by archived

In this blog post, I’d like to return to the topic of Google Docs and to share a teaching practice I planned to write about a few posts ago, but never got to. In one of my previous Google Docs posts, I wrote about the way I have come to use Docs to disseminate key course information via standard course genres such as the schedule, syllabus, etc. I focused on the example of the course schedule, a genre I now create as a Google spreadsheet, which allows me to better account for the highly dynamic and shift-shaping nature of the typical semester schedule in a writing class.

Here, I’d like to share another way in which I use Google Docs to, as I wrote before, “accomplish some task I was already accomplishing via pre-cloud apps like Word or Excel,” but in a “new, innovative, problem-solving way.” A few years ago, I began to notice a theme in the comments I was receiving on course evaluations from students. The theme was something like this: Dr. Michaud’s class is different from other courses. It is more hands-on and technology plays a larger role than in other classes I’ve taken. While it took me a little while to adjust to this, in the end, I really appreciate his approach.

As I encountered this theme again and again, I began to realize that what my students needed for my course was something to help them understand my priorities and values and also to walk them through the major course projects—in short, a kind of user’s manual.

I liked the term “user’s manual,” so that’s what I created or that’s what I have come to name the document I have created–a document which gets revised each term for each new course I teach. I write the User’s Manual as a Google Doc, which I then link to via the LMS, as you’ll see here:

In this way, as with my course Schedule, students always have access to this User’s Manual, wherever they are and whenever they need it.

So what’s in the User’s Manual? Well, it varies with each course, but a good deal of the material in the User’s Manual has become standardized. Here, for example, is a link to the User’s Manual from my Digital and Multimedia writing course from fall 2012.

The first page contains a kind of Table of Contents, with links to other areas in the document, so that students can easily access individual assignments, etc. The first item in this particular User’s Manual is a three-page “Overview” that I composed to share my vision for the course with the students. Next, there is a statement that I include in all User’s Manuals, called “Writing is a Public Act.” Here, I explain how we will share writing in class and warn students that almost all of their writing will, at some point, be displayed on the screen for all to see and read and discuss. Following that, there is an overview of the “Varieties of Writing” (stolen from Doug Hesse); a statement of my policy on quizzes; an explanation of how informal, low-stakes writing will work in the course; and, finally, detailed explanations of the major writing projects of the course. The document is punctuated by images and links (to other places in the document, to various locations on the internet). It is interactive and flexible, constantly changing and sensitive to the dynamic nature of my teaching. The User’s Manual I shared above runs to 26 single-spaced pages. I encourage the students not to print it out, as it is likely to change as soon as they do so.

One of the most important things that the User’s Manual allows me to do is to be responsive to students’ concerns as they wade into the various writing projects. I once had a conversation with a colleague who explained that a writing assignment, once published, is a sacred document, a kind of contract, not to be tampered with. I was shocked to hear this as it seems my assignments are always works-in-progress, even after I’ve used them for several semesters. The fact that my assignment guidelines are published in a Google Doc allows me to revise them in real-time, as the questions come in–you know the ones: “So are we supposed to…?” “Is it okay if I…” I only make changes to the assignment guidelines in class, in full view of the students, and then when they get home, they always have the most current or updated version of what they are supposed to do.

The User’s Manual: it’s an early draft of what course documents might look like in the 21st century. It’s a tool to mediate the work of the course, to talk with students about our work together, to be firm about some things and flexible about others. And it’s one of the key documents that facilitates the work of The Paperless Writing Class.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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One Response to “Google Docs, Take Three: The User’s Manual”

  1. Bedford Bits: Ideas for Teaching Composition » Blog Archive » An Open Letter to the Students in the Front Row Says:

    […] strategies of successful students. I think I’ve found another topic I need to write about in the User’s Manual for the courses that I teach (Hat tip to Michael Michaud for that […]