In Higher Ed, we often talk about “collaborative writing,” but what does it mean? Most scholars who have been through a dissertation understand collaboration in a traditional sense, that is: I write, other people provide feedback, and I revise. Different variations of this happen when we write for journals or edited collections. I wanted my students to understand collaborative writing differently; more specifically, I want them to experience composition as nodes in a network or neurons in a brain. The same way that a class discussion collects and refines opinions, I wanted to craft an experience that harnessed Google Docs to cultivate real-time, collaborative composing behaviors. This is what I came up with . . .
For work outside of class, I’ll ask students to compose, on their own, a writing sample of 100 words in response to a focused question on a class reading. More than an open “dump your thoughts here” prompt (which is often helpful), I ask them to respond to a specific question, for example, “What technologies do we currently use that prefigure what we see in David Eggers’ novel The Circle? What concerns does he raise about them?” Also, I’m hyperbolically firm on 100 words — not one word more or less — because I want every student coming to the assignment with the same amount of text and because it’s a little playful.
When we meet again as a group, I will have opened a Google Doc on which everyone can edit; I usually tweet out the link to students. I post the prompt at the top, and ask everyone to copy and paste their exactly-100-word responses into the document.
Before we read through the document together (which they’ve already started to do), we talk for 10 minutes about the different kinds of jobs that happen in a writer’s brain. From making up words to researching to proofreading to combining similar ideas to choosing a rhetorical strategy — a writer’s brain is busy. I want students to practice doing one of those functions while watching the others happen. I usually end with a list of roles on the board like: combiner, quote finder, introducer/titler, paragraph shuffler, new idea generator.
Two or three students apiece choose each role; some I tweak a bit depending on the prompt. I ask them to do two things by the end of the class: 1. Collaborate on a draft of one essay by the end of class that considers every valuable idea within the 100-word patches; and 2. Pay attention to what other people are doing in the document (talk to them about it) so that you can write a reflection on what you learned by observation.
What might happen:
Many students, in answering the same prompt, will have come to similar conclusions in their 100-words; that’s why the job of the “combiners” are so important. They have to go rooting through the essay for ideas that duplicative, collect them together, and find the effective way to compose them. Oftentimes, an errant idea suggested by one person becomes part of the thesis (or a counter-argument) because it’s so interesting or off-the-wall. The titling/image person (yes, we usually conceive of these as blog posts rather than essays) should spend some time looking for an audience online to engage with the essay, and that can be a productive rabbit hole. The exercise can engage out as many digital-literacy muscles as you’d like.
Google Docs is a perfect tool for this kind of collaboration because it allows us to collaborate and revise in real time. I’ve thought several times about the benefits of screen-capturing the session, in order to go back later and ask collaborators what they were thinking during specific moments. After the exercise is over, you can dissect the resulting essay as much or as little as you want, or you can concentrate more on the observations. Either way, the draft will reveal how changes made in one part of an essay affect the overall structure, thesis, title, etc. (or should). The finished product can be posted to an open course blog or shared within the digital ecosystem of the class for further comment. This is how composition often works in the world — it’s messy, it changes a lot, and it benefits from active, curious engagement. Starting with 100-words is a pretty low “creation” threshold and keeps the focus on revision and the fluidity of ideas.
Here is an example of one of these assignments. As you can see, it’s unpolished and unfinished, but it provided lots of discussion on collaboration and revision.