Monday, March 24, 2014

Writing together- class projects as learning experiences

Of course you have assigned your students writing projects.

And you've probably had students write collaboratively.  (Collaborative writing is already the scholarly buzz word, and there are some great thoughts on that in Chapter 14 of this book.)

But have you ever written with your students?  That is what happened to me last semester. The end result was a blast- a fun project that didn't so much flip the classroom as ignore it, and in the process made for a great learning experience for professor and students alike.

Let me explain.  A course on Colonial and Revolutionary America seems hard to make dull, and my 1st time through had been a blast.  Yet on my 2nd offering of the course everything fell flat. The time slot was different, the student make up was different, even the professor (without that fresh, 1st-year energy) was different.  Discussions went nowhere.  Paper topics seemed unenthused.  We careened toward monotony.  What is a history professor to do when he can't get people excited about the American Revolution????!!!!!

Thanks to the ubiquitous and unconventional @benjamingwright I was aware that the new on-line textbook The American Yawp was in need of contributors.  The up-side of a free online scholarly textbook is the potential accessibility to many cash-strapped students. The down-side is obvious: the human capital to create such a work with quality needs to be cheap free.

Here was my proposal to Ben.  Under guidance, these students would do in-depth research on aspects of the Loyalists in the American Revolution.  Each would contribute, after which I would corral their work into 500 words.  Then - poof - my students get engaged and the American Yawp is 500 words closer to completion.  I was amazed when Ben took this deal, but hey, the man hasn't met a box he doesn't want to think outside of.

If it wasn't exactly a Dead Poet's Society turn around, it wasn't half bad either.  Dubbing ourselves the "Gardner-Webb Loyalist Project," (I'm no good with tiles) we dove headlong into everything Loyalist we could get our hands on.  A class blog became our nexus point to assign readings and post our reading notes.  Assignments were made by interest.  The Accounting Major/History Minor got the numbers problems.  The graduate school-bound student interested in the Caribbean got Atlantic World.  Other facets included class, religion, race, and Empire.  I took an equal share, reading on Loyalist ideology.

You can see their division of labor here

Their reading notes are posted along the blog here (especially below the top 3 posts)

I operated as a 1st among equals, guiding discussion and assigning topics, but mostly staying out of the way of a rejuvenated classroom.  We read everyone's reading notes, commented online and via email, and then created our 1st overview here.

After comments in and out of class, our 500 word collaborative effort can be found here.

Students reported greater enthusiasm for the course, and were intrigued to see their professor take on the role of peer-writer.  Suddenly they were the experts on things I had not read.  How to count Loyalists, Atlantic Loyalists Diasporas, etc. were their areas of expertise now, not mine.  This empowered students and kept them engaged with minimal effort from me.  Also, students became deeply appreciative of judicious word choice.  500 words suddenly seemed so short!  All of these insights led to what our classes always hope to achieve: students engaged the scholarly process as scholars themselves.  They debated inclusion or exclusion of material.  Should we cut ideological history to make room for social history?  How much social history was too much?  How to account for space and time? These were questions they brought to our discussions.  I observed, debated, fought, occasionally lost, and was generally ecstatic about it all.

I'm sure online commentators might crowd source some critiques, and our editors will have final word.  Still- I'm quite proud of this group of young scholars and their collaboration.  May it, or a version of it, live on in the free textbooks of future generations.


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  2. I had to register just to comment on this blog. This is one of the best answers to an issue that has concerned me for a great while. As an undergraduate, it is motivating to consider that there could be even a slight possibility of one's research efforts serving a purpose beyond the educational process. I have wondered why there has been less connection between allowing the students to put more effort into the research process of truly original work. Obviously, any work should be written with the intention of forming new ideas, but if we are realistic, that is not an achievement of the majority of undergraduate papers. I am aware that the students are still learning and are not fully prepared for this type of work. But, they are not alone in the classroom. This project shows that an expert can guide a project that at least has the potential of real world benefit.
    Personally, I am a person who needs purpose in activities to stay motivated. After the first handful of research papers, I feel that it is clear whether a student is capable of performing the task. The continuation of that process is great for becoming knowledgeable about history and refining technique, but if even one sentence of this project is accepted for inclusion within the textbook, it will far surpass any of my contributions to the literature.

  3. Thanks for the feedback CSPettus! I think you are correct that motivation for continued effort is critical. Perhaps projects like this one will help us answer what comes AFTER those first few research papers of an undergraduate career. At Liberal Arts college, by senior year my students have regularly written 4-5 20 page research papers. They are ready for a different challenge.