Last Wednesday, in my Uses of Literacy class, we performed a social writing experiment. I’ve done similar forms of activities in the past, and it’s always interesting, so I thought I’d share. I posted a response to my students on the course blog, but I wanted to reiterate it here for any teachers interested in doing something like this in another writing class.
A quick background on the class: it’s an upper-level composition class that draws a lot of students looking to get into Pitt’s Masters in Teaching program, returning students, as well as a few seniors looking to fill the writing requirement but not necessarily interested in a literature course. We don’t have composition majors at Pitt, but some are lit or creative writing majors. I teach the course as a kind of intro to literacy studies, with a lot of focus on pedagogy. I tend to be straight with them about why I ask them to do certain kinds of writing or reading or why we’re discussing what we’re discussing because I want them to see teaching from the inside, just a little bit, before they begin to do it themselves. They do literacy narratives, interviews, mini-ethnographies, and blogging in class. Later, we do a digital project of some persuasion. I’ve taught the course twice before, and this semester I have just 13 students–a dream for me and the students! The syllabus is here [pdf] and the blog for the course is here.
Last Monday, we discussed Deborah Brandt’s “Remembering Reading, Remembering Writing,” and talk swirled around ideas of writing as individualistic and reading as social. Students lamented the fact that writing was often portrayed as something to do in isolation, and something for which they are often judged. Perhaps because many of them aspire to careers in teaching, they wanted to fix the problem (although I kept pressing them to understand what the “problem” was before jumping in to judge and fix!).
So I decided to run a little social writing experiment in our next class on Weds. It’s a wonderful class and they were good sports about it. I told them that they weren’t being graded and nothing was going to come of the writing, so they could feel free to treat it as a genuine experiment, subject to success, failure or some grey area in-between. I wanted to see and have them see what social writing looks and feels like. I set up four laptops (checked out for the day from our IT support center) and had them split up into groups of three (my ideal group size, always), one group to a laptop. Each computer had a Google doc open with a question: What is literacy good for? What is literacy? What do social theories of literacy help us to understand? What open questions do you have? Each group took 10-15 min for each question. I asked that they not just make lists, but compose. That meant that they had to write, agree on sentence choices, some form of organization, etc. They were writing together in their group, but also creating a palimpsest of answers and inquiries with other groups.
Results? They said, when we wrapped up at the end, that the experiment was a success. It helped them review the theories of literacy we had encountered so far and ask questions about what they didn’t yet understand. One student mentioned it might have been good preparation for a test, had I been inclined to give one–which I am not! (This class is assessed via portfolio, rather than exams. As I pointed out in class, professors give exams in order to get students to study and learn the material–not because they like to read or grade exams! Since students already did the work of review, an exam would be a waste of all of our time.) Students had to negotiate a space of shared writing–and many felt anxiety about changing or deleting the work of previous groups (although that did happen!). They also noted that it made class go by faster, because it was fun and they were conferring and conversing the whole time.
I think there is a lot of smart synthesis represented in the docs they composed in class. Obviously, they’re not polished papers. But that wasn’t the point. There’s a lot I heard in the discussions that isn’t captured in the text. Interestingly, I saw each group approach the problem differently. Some groups all huddled around the computer viewing the screen together. Others had one person read or summarize the work of previous groups (which was noted in discussion afterward to be sometimes difficult to follow). Some got so caught up in the debate that they didn’t or couldn’t write down most of what was discussed. Others carefully composed polished sentences to sum up ideas and provocations in the readings. As students are discovering when we share writing in class, there are many different ways to approach writing events. In this group of highly literate college juniors and seniors, there appears to be no one “right” way to write.
Here are links to the documents they produced in class (will open a Google doc for you to view, but not edit):
Has anyone else tried a similar experiment with social writing? What did you do, and how did it go?