Saturday, January 24, 2009

random rants: collaborative writing, 1

Collaborative writing is a good thing as far classroom writing practices and strategies - other uses too, notably in business and technical writing. I participated in collaborative writing years back - before I'd ever even heard the "collaborative writing" - working for an engineering and construction firm when I wrote the opening narratives for project proposals.

Collaborative writing, as noted in my previous post, is one of the strategies I am recommending to increase the amount of writing students can do without unnecessarily sucking up scarce teacher time. Sometimes, however, it can, like any good strategy, go wrong. It has recently, at least for me. Not a project I designed and set up but one I am participating in. Why? Communication gaps and flawed project design would be my diagnosis.

On the face of it, the assignment seemed suitable as a hands on workshop introduction to using Word comment, review and track changes tools for collaborative writing. Rather than throwing participants who could be unfamiliar with group work in the deep end, the assignment nudged us gently into the waters of collaboration with a buddy.

One half of the writing pair (#1) was assigned to write a draft that the other (#2) would revise and return for #1 to submit to the workshop facilitators. That was have been an important clue I should have heeded: channels and chains of command imply hierarchy and power relationships where there should not be any. Another notable gap was the absence of pre-writing collaboration, process feedback or any communication guidelines.

The assigned topic included responding to the week's reading assignment, but the writing prompt was as poorly designed as the rest of the assignment. I won't lay it all on design. There was no pre-writing communication between #1 and #2. Collaboration is built on, depends on, lives by, succeeds through, cannot take place without ongoing communication between/ among collaborators. Additionally, collaboration is, unless otherwise designated, non-hierarchical. Tasks can be distributed but there are no bosses or minions doing their bidding, just partners (in this case writing partners or "edit buddies" as Mary called them in English 90).

The short version: communication attempts initiated but failed; hastily written, un-revisable draft (not following assignment sufficiently) submitted; "writing buddy" requested to address gaps and resend; comments on draft made (more like marking than copy-editing); "draft" returned - but still no replies received to any of my emailed queries/requests. The score for communication attempts is now 0 for 3.

Should I try to rewrite the not even really a draft anyway and submit it, cc'ing yclept partner?

Is there, design gaps and other speedbumps not withstanding, value in the lesson, something to be learned. Yes indeed, although probably not what the facilitators/ moderators intended. FWIW I'm still trying - without success - to determine what distinguishes moderators from facilitators (or from group leaders for that matter).

So what valuable lessons are to be extracted from this experience? Think on that, add comments if you will. Part II and my take to follow...


vlorbik said...

rewrite or not,
cc yclept partner.
you've gotta keep *that*.

Vanessa said...

Thank you Vorblik - rants can come forth unbidden with a purity and passion too often missing in more "considered" writing. Watching what and how you say something is a kind of poison.

Fortunately the partnership was short term. In a not for credit, not required "professional development" workshop, the teachers (also yclept) behave no better than most students.

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