Know Your Theory! – Collaborative Writing Pedagogy Edition

The National Writing Project is an amazing thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute for the last couple of years. The Invitational Summer Institute is an intense four-week experience where educators get together to talk about all things writing. I’ve transitioned from completing the program (becoming a Teacher Consultant in the process) to co-directing the four-week institute.

For this summer’s ISI I’ve appointed myself Theory Czar. To that end I’ve flung myself into the exciting realm of composition theory. This new series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon the excellent A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 3/5 summary and 2/5 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. 

Know Your Theory! – Collaborative Writing Edition

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The first post in this new series discusses collaborative writing pedagogy. Simply put, collaborative writing theory attempts to explain the benefits, pitfalls, and rationale behind asking students to write together. The chapter begins with a reference to the model of solitary authorship promoted during the Romantic era (late 1700s to the mid 1800s). This is when many colleges in the United States began offering coursework in composition. Consider the Romantic trope of the tortured artist toiling away in isolation, producing masterworks out of his or her suffering.

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The notion that a text is the result of a single author persisted in composition pedagogies until poststructuralist theorists like Michel Foucault infamously heralded the “end of the subject.” This stuff gets complex pretty quickly. In terms of collaborative writing pedagogy, all we need to know about the advent of postmodernism is that we no longer understand a text as a freestanding object created by a single person. Writing is always an act of collaboration. The chapter offers the following strategies for thinking through collaborative writing assignments in the classroom.

Delay Students’ Collaborative Writing:
Collaborative writing is difficult and should therefore not begin until the school year is well under way. In the time leading up to the task of collaborative composition, be sure to implement a plethora of social constructivist tasks: group work, peer review, class discussion, and even collaborative revision. It’s also worth mentioning that although every class benefits from community building activities, any teacher with her eye towards collaborative writing should invest a significant amount of instructional time on developing strong interpersonal relations and a positive class identity.

Design the Assignment for a Group, Rather Than Redesigning an Individual Task:
A mistake I’ve only recently begun to remedy in my own practice is the art of creating and assigning effective group work. Tasks given to a group need to be designed for a group. This means a significant increase in difficulty: for instance tasks that are labor intensive, require specialization, and/or involve deep levels of synthesis. The collective brainpower of the group means a higher zone of proximal development. A higher ZPD should mean more difficult tasks.

Discuss Methods and Problems of Collaborative Writing before the Project Begins:
Spend time ‘pulling back the curtain’ on the the basic methods and common pitfalls of collaborative work. This means discussing power dynamics based on race and gender (i.e. females doing all of the work). Go over consensus-building strategies as well as ways to help students actively listen to each other instead of resorting to adversarial majoritarianism.

Choose the Type of Collaboration:
The authors mention dialogic and hierarchical collaboration. Dialogic work involves students working together on every aspect of a project, whereas the latter involves breaking a task down into discrete components and assigning each part to a different group member. Dialogic work brings with it all the joys of messy discovery; hierarchical methods are more efficient and timely. Many types of collaborative writing require an interplay between dialogic and hierarchical teamwork.

Anticipate Problems:
Working collaboratively leaves us open to the reality of rejection. As one of my old bosses used to say, “Rejection of your ideas does not mean rejection of you as a person.” This is tough enough for anyone to do, regardless of age. Talk to students about this.

Anticipate and Prepare for Student Resistance:
Many students oppose group work. In my limited experience, I think much of this resistance is the result of unchecked power dynamics. “I’m the one that ends up doing all the work,” is a common (and valid) refrain. And some students do their best work when writing in isolation. It’s your job as the teacher to decide when to require group work. The chapter recommends helping students see how prevalent collaboration is in the work world, how individual writing improves from having worked with others, and how thinking through complex tasks with others typically increases understanding for everyone.

Let the Class Decide How the Groups Will Be Constituted and Discuss the Pros and Cons of Each Possibility:
Grouping students for successful collaboration is tricky. Students, like anyone, want to work with their friends. It’s important to stress to your class that while everyone enjoys working with people they know and feel comfortable with, doing so can leave certain students feeling unloved and unwanted. Additionally, we live in a world of others. It’s our duty to make sure students have the tools necessary to work successfully with all manner of individuals.

Give the Groups Autonomy in Deciding Their Methods and Timetables:
Creating and adhering to schedules and milestones is both essential to healthy collaboration and a key component of self-management. It’s important to devote class time to helping students through this process. As always, never assume that students know how to do these things.

Prepare for Dissent within the Groups and Prepare to Manage It in Two Dimensions: The Instructor and the Students:
The authors explain that successful collaboration allows for group cohesion, creative conflict, and the protection of minority views. Welcome rather than dread dissent. Tell students to anticipate in advance the presence of conflict and to welcome it as a sign of creativity and generativity. Handling dissent will require the direct instruction, scaffolding, and modelling of specific strategies. The authors recommend pulling from the academic traditions of “counterevidence” and “minority opinions.” Managing disparate ideas effectively is a great way to practice thesis, antithesis, textual evidence, etc.

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As common sense as collaborative writing seems, I must admit I do remarkably little of it. I think there are probably many reasons for this: a culture that uses competition to pit students (and teachers) against one another, our education system’s strain of individualism, the difficulties of interdependency, and the challenges of devoting class time to something that won’t explicitly show up on a high-stakes exam are but a few examples. However collaboration has never been easier. Something as simple as a shared Google Doc allows multiple authors to work on a single text with only a few clicks. A cursory internet search yields a plethora of decent, free resources to help students work together. Although I’m not entirely convinced that collaborative composition is robust enough to carry the theory/practice weight of a full-blown pedagogy, the ideas presented in this chapter are certainly worthy of thought and implementation.

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6 comments

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  6. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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