Generative collaborative experiences require strong infrastructural support--both material and immaterial. This post details the sequence of assignments leading up to a collaborative website project at the end of a basic composition course.
As a student, I dreaded collaborative assignments, which would inevitably entail having to accommodate other people and get them to see things my way. It would mean email conversations, meetings, and disappointment when the other students didn’t do what I told them. It was only towards the end of my undergraduate career that I learned to see collaboration as a fundamental humanities skill that, when properly orchestrated, has the potential to untrain atomistic and individualist assumptions about how best to live and be in the world.
Good assignments teach students to desire collaboration. I learned this in an undergraduate seminar at Rutgers University on World Pictures, taught by Professor Richard Dienst. About halfway through the semester he had us share our research projects, after which we dedicated the majority of our in-class time to brainstorming directions each project could take, and finding sources that would help us answer our research questions. Through this process, I watched projects transform, expand, proliferate, and thrive. I learned that knowledge is the product of crowdsourcing--that the more minds put to a task, the greater the outcome.
This past semester, I ended the basic composition course I taught at Queens College on the topic of “Creativity,” with a collaborative website project. The course, primarily comprised of first-year students, met twice a week (at 8 am!) for an hour and fifty minutes. We began with eighteen students and ended with twelve, not uncommon at schools like Queens College given the working-class student population, many of whom juggle full or part-time jobs in addition to their academic responsibilities. The course is structured to prepare students to write a segmented research paper that draws on class discussions, readings, and their own findings, in order to articulate their theory of creativity. This semester, I challenged students to take their research papers a step further by creating a collaborative website based on their theories of creativity:
Logistically, this assignment took up about four full class periods, though our conversations about websites spanned the last three weeks of the semester. I booked a computer lab for two of these classes, during which students used the entire class period to work on their group websites.
Students were placed into groups before we transitioned from their research papers to website projects so that they could become familiar with what their group members were working on.
For example, the group provisionally labeled “Creativity and Oppression” contained students researching children’s art in ghettos and concentrations camps during the Holocaust, creativity and privilege in education, and the appropriation and theft of creative works produced by people of color. The other groups--Dreams and Creativity, Creativity and Writing, Creativity and Business--similarly reflected themes that emerged through course readings and conversations. When it came to peer review for their research essays, they exchanged papers within these groups. The groups helped students mentor one another through the writing process and encouraged them to identify points of intersection and divergence among their projects. Some groups shared valuable sources they found through the library’s catalogues and databases. On the day that the final drafts of their research essays were due, they brought in copies for everyone in their group. As we transitioned from research papers to website projects, their homework was to read each other’s final drafts and come prepared with ideas for presenting them on a website.
Throughout the semester, students familiarized themselves with the blogging and commenting functions of Wordpress (more specifically, the version hosted by Queens College, “Qwriting”).* This final website project, however, challenged them to transition from adding content to our course blog to setting up their own site.
In addition to strengthening their collaborative skills, I wanted to invite students to think about the social and public impact of research. We brainstormed who their possible audiences might be, why they might come to a website about creativity, and what they might hope to get out of it. Although I had initially hoped to make these websites public, some students expressed concern about having their work visible and available. In future classes, I hope to advocate more strongly for making the websites public while addressing students’ legitimate concerns.
Our conversations were informed by class activities that introduced students to the vocabulary of “rhetorical situations,” how all acts of communication entail text, authors, audiences, purposes, and settings (see Purdue OWL). Since their final research papers provided the majority of the content for these websites, much of the website work involved translating between rhetorical situations: from an academic essay to a collaborative website.
And they were no strangers to the difficulties of translation. One crucial blog prompt designed to initiate a conversation about websites as rhetorical situations asked students to “translate” Gordon Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay” in the context of the internet. Students rose to the occasion of this admittedly experimental assignment with aplomb.
After discussing their responses to this assignment, we had a more general conversation around the question, “What makes a good website?” Their responses would become the fodder for the rubric we designed.
But before crafting a rubric, I introduced students to the behind-the-scenes aspects of Wordpress so they knew what would and wouldn’t be possible. These slides demonstrate the basics of creating a site using Wordpress. Much of the content is drawn from helpful blogs about Wordpress and the Qwriting help site. They reflect my own limited knowledge of the platform’s capabilities, though learning so much more about Wordpress from my students was one of the great unforeseen benefits of this assignment. The website project also allowed us to continue our conversations about the importance of proper citations through a discussion of “Fair Use” policies.
After going through the process of setting up a site as a class, I handed out blank rubrics and posted the following in-class assignment:
This activity allowed us to talk not merely about meeting an assignment’s requirements, but about the pedagogy that animates them. I encouraged students to consult the rubrics I used to grade their close reading and comparative essays for examples of the kind of language they might want to include. After they had filled out rubrics based on their understanding of what makes a good website and what a platform like Qwriting allows, we tallied their results and combined some of the categories to produce a rubric that we all agreed upon.
If I were to do this assignment sequence again, I would provide less structure when inviting students to design a rubric. Rather than giving out a grid, which predetermined what the rubric would look like, I would hand out blank sheets of paper to see how students might re-imagine the evaluation process.
Once the rubrics were ready to go, we spent a week--two class periods--in the computer lab working on their sites. During these classes, I checked in with each group to inquire about their progress and discuss how they were dividing up work (was one person in charge of images or was each person designing their own page? how were citations being handled?). There were a number of questions about how to do things with Wordpress that I couldn’t answer. Often, students would share what they were learning and help one another solve these technical issues. In other cases, I demonstrated the steps I take when I need to figure out how to do something, modeling the sort of hands-on, trial-and-error, experimental approach to learning enabled by “delete,” “refresh,” “back,” and “undo.” This was an experiment in collaborating across differences, learning to identify how everyone has something to contribute to a given task.
Prior to our final class, students sent everyone the URLs for their websites. They were given a copy of the rubric for each group they’d be evaluating and told to look at the websites beforehand. I asked that they come prepared with questions about how each group chose to meet the requirements stipulated by the rubric. Here are the instructions for the presentations:
After each presentation, students handed in a rubric with scores and explanations, which I later tallied to assign a final, overall grade. Although they were tough on each other, they provided specific examples in the “explanation” category of the rubric to support the scores they awarded.
This project worked well as an extended application of a final research paper. Students who hadn’t participated much during the semester became some of the most vocal and outspoken contributors to our conversations about websites as rhetorical situations. During these weeks the class became even more student-centered, as those with advanced knowledge of web design were able to instruct the rest of the class, myself included. The assignment offered students who were concurrently memorizing calculus formulas for final exams an opportunity to utilize their creative skills, work with their hands, and make something that showcased the critical thinking they had done all semester. Rather than the slump that often occurs towards the end of demanding writing courses, the classes spent crafting these collaborative creativity websites were some of our finest. If I were to do it again, I would implement collaborative inquiry even sooner and consider allowing the websites to serve as, rather than supplement, final research papers.
"Creativity and Oppression" - Yonatan Arnon, Nikkia “Rook” Hanson, and Rebecca Rich
"The Business of Creativity" - Corey Goldman, Stephen Lau, and Ronen Shahkoohi
"Dreams and Creativity" - Riddwan Alam, Youlhuy Sung, Paula Volos, and Xian Zhong Zheng
"Creativity Checklist" - Joseph Haynes and Zainab Kalair
*I am indebted to Wendy Tronrud for lessons on effectively implementing blogs in the classroom.
Sincere thanks also to my awesome students for allowing me to share their hard work.