Collaborative Academic Writing: Exploratory Thoughts

As a professor, I collaborate with other authors all the time.  But I rarely assign collaborative writing assignments. I often ask students to critique each other’s papers or beta-releases, but that’s not the same thing as having them collaborate to create a single, coherent document.

I’m teaching a literary criticism class next term. The last time I taught it, students expressed a lot of frustration at how long it took them to get the hang of what criticism is. You’re not writing summary, or personal opinion, or factual investigations about the author’s life.  So what do you write about?  I can’t really think of a way to get students to learn how to do lit crit, other than having them read models, talk about it, and try it.

Even though I always hated group work when I was an undergrad (and I never did any as a grad student — not once), after a conversation with my colleague Lee McClain, I think I’m going to have my literature students write their first few papers in teams. I’ll probably have some mechanism so that a student who is part of a successful team paper can request to write the next paper individually. That way, the students who are sure that they can do better on their own can opt out of the group work quickly. 


Both the advanced Lit Crit class (for advanced majors) and an American Lit survey (which will include lots of non-majors fufilling a core requirement) will meet once a week.  I’ll have to teach the 200-level survey so that it’s accessible to students who haven’t taken college literature before, and who don’t know how to do a close reading, much less literary interpreation. 

But I can expect more from the advanced class. I plan to ask them to submit a short paper on the week’s topic (psychological criticsm, or New Criticism, or semiotics) several days BEFORE the class discussion, so that I have time to read them before class.

When I used that technique last time — borrowing from a model my colleague Mike Arnzen had been using when he taught the same course — students sometimes expressed frustration that they only “got” the week’s topic during the class discussion, and they felt they’d have gotten higher grades on their papers if they got to coast through the discussions, then avoid making everyone else’s mistakes. 

I emphasized over and over again that I thought of the papers as tools for preparing them to have good discussions, and explained that they’d never really know when they finally “get” a topic unless they first tried to “get” it on their own. 

The truth is, i’m not so much interested in teaching the content of literary criticsm — how this particular theory of economic determinism to this particular poem by T.S. Eliot, or which literary works are most useful for promoting an existential or fatalistic or humanistic or theological worldview — as I am in teaching them how to learn the process of trying on a new lens for size, practicing the act of looking through that lens, and then taking the lens off and writing about the experience. 

Lit crit is not a series of names and terms to memorize, but a means by which we can learn how to try on different lenses, one after another, in order to learn more about the characteristics of our own eyeballs (the lenses that we’re born with, or that we’ve acquired for various reasons, and thorugh which we interpret everything we see).

It’s complex stuff, and I’ll have time to rework this blog entry into my opening lecture.  (Wish me luck!)  Last time, after about two months went by, each week week a different student would point to a different text and shout, “If only you had assigned this text on the first week of classes, I’d have understood everything perfectly, and I wouldn’t have had to suffer through writing all those papers when I was clueless!”

Of course, I realize that the only reason they finally got it was because they went through the difficult (and valuable) intellectual effort of trying to puzzle through it, even when they didn’t understand it yet.  I’m not about to give up the weekly writing assignments. However, I recognize that there’s little value in having a student write a three-page paper when they honestly and truly don’t understand.

I might give the students the option of revising one such  weekly paper, or dropping the lowest grade, but I’m resisitng the temptation to let them revise based on what they learned in class, because if everyone comes to class hoping to learn from everyone else’s mistakes, nobody will have invested enough intellectual energy into making itneresting, valuable mistakes.

If the reason they don’t understand is that they didn’t do the readings, or they tried to do them at the last minute, well, there’s not much I can do about that.  Still, there ought to be a way to reduce the tension level a bit in the first few weeks.  So I’ve got to remember to emphasize how important it is to make interesting mistakes.

I made an interesting mistake about a year ago, when I experimented with having freshman compu students draft some of their smaller assignments in Google Docs.  The idea was, I would be able to watch their drafting process. But that didn’t work too well, since students who are still learning the composition process, and who are still getting comfortable with writing as a process that unfolds over time, were still used to thinking of writing as a rather linear process of adding words in order to reach a word-count target. I didn’t actually go back and quantify this, but their changes were mostly local corrections, rather than the global revision that signals a shift in understanding or rhetorical approach. Of course, that’s a lot to ask of freshmen who are only beginning to understand the intellecutal power that comes from the effective use of words. And I didn’t really need Google Docs to show me that freshman comp students need to go through a long process during which they have to internalize the value of making global changes. They have to choose to throw out a draft and start over, or flip from the “pro” argument to the “con” argument, so that they can see for themselves how such a significant choice can affect the final result.

This term, I had students in a journalism course use a Google Document to plan a special online election-theme issue of the school paper.  I think it went fairly well, since the class in question only meets for one hour a week, and there wouldn’t have been enough time in class to plan the issue through face-to-face discussion.

I want my lit crit students to read, print out, reflect on, and return to the collaborative papers that they write, so I’ll probably have to devote a whole class period to the process of collaborative writing, so that they buy into it early and see its value. 

I know that this kind of collaborative thinking is vital for success in the professional world, because it’s important in my own professional life. It’s not something I learned in school, but I’ld like to introduce the concepts to my own students (so that they can start that process of internalizing a new way of thinking about writing).

In the past couple of years, I’ve done a great deal of collaborative writing in Google Docs.  I’ve joined colleagues around the world to create conference panel presentations, a book proposal, and various research notes. But in all cases, the topic was something technological. I wasn’t able to encourage my colleagues to help me draft the undergraduate English program review in Google Docs, though I have had our IT folks set up a shared network space where we can share documents. (I should also point out that Mike has expressed a desire to set up a Wiki or some other method by which Humanities staff members can maintain their own profiles on the departmental website.  I think he’s right in his guess that even our non-technological colleagues will take an interest in keeping their profiles current.)

People will learn a new tool if they can see a practical benefit, and if they don’t have to invest too much time in it.

I’ve only watched a demo, but EtherPad is designed so that all you need is the URL and your collaborators can start typing. I think it will work better for creating bullet lists and fleshing out outlines, rather than revising dense blocks of academic prose, but I’d need to try it to be sure.
If you watch the video, you’ll hear three people collaborating via a teleconference call, and see the document change as three people flesh out an outline in real time. 

I wonder if there might be some way to capture the creativity of an in-class discussion, by arranging to meet online with two or three students, either in a lab on campus, or via a conference call, so that I can guide them through the process of devleloping a thesis, lining up evidence, etc. 

If I did something like that for the class, first recording a class discussion where we move from a list of random observations to a thesis statement, t

hen meeting in a lab or by teleconference with groups of three or four students, guiding them through a 10-minute creative burst, where we are all talking with each other and typing on the same document, moving from a list of observations to a coherent defense of a debateable position, while I record the whole thing as a screencast for them to review later, would it help them to focus on the process (rather than the product)? 

The idea would be to have them replicate the process in smaller and smaller groups, with less and less direct guidance from me. Students who “get it” can opt out of the group work, which would help me to identify the students who want more attention in a group setting, and who really needs one-on-one mentoring.

I suppose my next step will be a reading list on collaborative student papers as a pedagogical tool.  No time for that tonight, though.