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The Power of the Crowd: Digital Pedagogy in an Undergraduate Literature Class

The Power of the Crowd: Digital Pedagogy in an Undergraduate Literature Class

Cathy Davidson's call to teachers to give students the responsibility of developing content and teaching their peers has profoundly affected my approach to teaching. This semester, the students in my "Tales of Gotham: New York City in Fiction" class did just that. They taught each other, for example, how to use WordPress and Prezi. One group of students created a version of Jeopardy to spur a discussion of characters in Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. Another group had us learning the Charleston so we could better understand Dorcas's desire to dance and her Aunt Alice's disdain for it in Toni Morrison's Jazz.

The power of the crowd: To help their peers dig into the texts, my students are dreaming up a great variety discussion questions and activities that have made the course far richer than if I had given myself the task of coming with all the content, class after class after class. Most of my students are much more engaged with the course because I have given them the reins to be active participants in it rather than passive, sleepy ones. Moreover, giving them practice collaborating, communicating online and off outside the classroom, and asking them to use real-world digital tools (as opposed to BlackBoard), better prepares them for jobs and higher education. In fact, one of my students got an internship because of her experience with WordPress and Zotero, both of which she learned to use in my class.

Most recently, students crowdsourced some annotations and collaborated on a timeline. They can be viewed on my blog. Here's what I wrote those projects:

Crowdsourcing? When asked about the term, the students in my "Tales of Gotham: NYC in Fiction" class were puzzled. Crowdsourced annotations? My students still shook their heads, though most of them knew about annotating, as many have created annotated bibliographies for "Compostion" and other classes. But by the end of that class a few weeks ago, everyone knew what crowdsourcing meant. Moreover, they were delighted with the end product, a FlipSnack book featuring their annotations of the chapter "A Goddess in Her Bath" from Mark Helprin's fabulous Winter's Tale. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the students in my courses are divided into small groups. Each group is responsible for something different each week, including leading a discussion, planning an activity, and researching the New York Times archives.

The activity groups in two different classes planned and led the crowdsourced annotation. Though I gave them the basic idea, they ran with it. Each group presented the activity to the class with a short Prezi that explained what "crowdsourcing" meant. Then the groups distributed terms, places, and names they chose from the chapter to pairs of students to research together on their laptops and iPads. The activity group had already prepared a GooglePresentation with a sample annotation, to which the pairs would add their completed annotations. As students worked, the group members and I circulated around the class, answering questions and giving them ideas for searching their terms online. It took about an hour for the entire activity to take place. Then the activity group members merged their annotations into one FlipSnack book. In some cases, the were duplicate terms between the two classes. But we decided that was OK, since in most cases the annotations were different.

This activity was successful for two main reasons. First, most of my students were amazed that a single term or place name could carry such depth. It taught them that the words an author chooses are not arbitrary but the product of careful thought. Second, my students were thrilled to have collaborated with the other class on a final product that is informative, looks good, and that they did together. The activity groups in particular were very happy that they successfully led such a productive learning activity.

Technical issues: The biggest one was the wonky internet connection in the building where the classes meet. The sketchy connection made it difficult sometimes for students to get their annotations into the shared presentation file on GoogleDrive. The activity groups came up with solutions on the spot, such as having students email their annotations or create and share a GoogleDoc with the activity group, which the group then added to the annotation collection.

Room for improvement: Citations. Everyone was told to cite their sources. Most, but not all, did cite them in one way or another, though few exhibit the correct MLA format. Despite the emphasis in Composition classes at Fordham on learning the MLA-style for citing works, some students seem to think a URL is enough. For this class students are required to cite sources, but I don't require that they follow any particular style--just as long as they get some information down. Most students will never have to cite another thing once they leave college. I'd rather have them focus on the text and enjoy its richnesses and the insights they gain through research and close reading rather than get bogged down with correct citation styles. If it were a Composition class, I would be more insistent about correct citing.

The success of the crowdsourced annotation encouraged another activity group to lead a crowdsourced timeline for Toni Morrison's Jazz. They used TimeGlider, a very easy but elegant tool they introduced to me as well as the class. I think the group was inspired to come up with this activity because over the course of the semester, students' understanding of the importance of historical contexts for the books we're reading have grown. The crowdsourced annotation of Winter's Tale was among the things that have taught them to recognize that paying attention to allusions to historical events, places, and people can reveal greater insights into the text. The timeline reflects and deepens that awareness.

Image: "George Washington Bridge, Day After Hurricane Sandy"
Credit: (c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz. Used with permission.

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