SETTING THE DIGITAL-WRITING STAGE: DESIGNING THE CRUCIAL OPENING WEEKS OF A COURSE
A Workshop with Barbara Ganley
Learning to Write in the Digital Age, A NITLE Conference
Abstract: It’s one thing to understand why we need to integrate digital practices into our teaching; it’s another to do so gracefully and effectively within a semester system. In this workshop we’ll take a good look at the opening two weeks of our courses, exploring exercises that build a strong learning community based on reciprocal apprenticeships while introducing students to the kinds of technology they’ll be using, and immersing them in the heart of our subject matter through digital writing. We’ll also consider the end of the semester and how we help students move beyond the confines of the course through self-evaluation, hypertext reflection, and an old Russian custom.
I. OPENING THE SEMESTER (In part, excerpted from other workshops described in November 2006 and May 2007 blogposts)
1. Some Guiding Principles about Learning Before We Consider Course Goals & Syllabi & Design
See my presentation collage to see how I’m thinking about teaching writing in the 21st century. The talk abstract:
Balancing Acts: transformations and Tensions in the 21st-Century Writing ClassroomThis interactive keynote will examine how digital writing in the liberal arts is not about creating old kinds of texts on or with new kinds of tools. It is fundamentally about communication in and for a hyper-networked, hyper-mediated time–it is about a new kind of writing altogether. Through teaching deeply digital writing, liberal arts classrooms prepare students with the skills, the boldness and the vision “to create better worlds.” (Miller). Together we’ll explore the pleasures and perils of inviting such writing into our disciplines, and how the new opportunities afforded by Web-based hypertext, blogging, wiki-editing, mash-ups and multimedia expression engage learners in powerful reciprocal apprenticeships, enhance critical and creative thinking, and build strong collaborative learning communities across boundaries.
Setting the Stage
It is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.
But first, long before the course opens, I have to consider how the various means of expression might have an impact on the learning and on the community, by answering the following questions:
- How and why will we use social software?
- Will we venture further into online work than blogs?
- Why blogs at all?
- Will we really blog or use the blog structure as a vessel to hold traditional assignments? Why, for example, would we blog in a course on Ireland?
- How might hypertext and digital storytelling enhance the experience?
- How might we use audio as a tool for expression and for revising and for exploring ideas? Cameras? Images we take, images we find?
- How might we want to connect with experts out in the world–would we invite them to participate in blogging-invitationals? Would we want them to respond to our work?
- What is the role of loose dialogue and conversation, of let’s-talk-about-any-thoughts-we-have in the course?
- Do we want to link to our work in other courses? To our other online worlds?
- How do we also work in traditional modes? How do they intersect and influence one another?
- How much time can be devoted to learning how to use the tools, how to become comfortable with the practices?
- How much time do we devote to meta-practices, to reading and talking about what we’re doing online?
- How can we capitalize on the fact that we have the luxury of being together in class twice a week–do we devote that time to presentations, to discussion, to lecture, to feedback, to projects?
EXERCISE ONE: What kinds of teaching will you do in class? How will your students spend their time out of class? What is the relationship between content and process? How will you make your pedagogy transparent?
These are just some of the questions I have to ask before I pull up even the most basic course blog. Based on my answers, the course blog begins to take shape, each course demanding its own look and structure. For example:
The Irish seminar blog really focuses on collaboration and so has more of a group-blog feel to it than others; one of our goals is to think about how our community of mutual apprenticeships works–how to be engaged in a liberal arts college.
A composition class balances between group and individual work, and so the unit plans are posted as we go, as we develop as thinkers and writers and see what next we need to learn and to practice.
An arts writing class takes on a ‘zine-like, real-world look with multiple columns and choices as to what is posted where and why.
EXERCISE TWO: Sketch a possible Motherblog or wiki design for your course
2. THE FIRST TWO-THREE WEEKS
EXERCISE THREE: Jot down notes about ways in which you have, in the past, opened your course. Why have you spent the first weeks this way?
We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material and getting comfortable with the blog and whatever other technology they NEED to know right from the start. Together and in solo LETTERS TO THE CLASS, we examine our own voices; our learning goals; what makes a strong, effective community of inquiry, the demands of the discipline; and what it is we need to do and to learn in order for the course to “be a success.”
I call this first part of the course Cracking Open the Course and the Imagination, in my creative writing classes; “Exploring the Course” in composition classes, something we do as we pull up the blogs; Knowledge Trees in a first-year seminar on Ireland (the first part of this exploration is done online before the students even set foot on campus).
I use a variety of techniques to examine the ways in which we’ll each enter this collaborative:
personal narratives about our individual cultural contexts and learning histories, including digital storytelling,
a deep-learning exercise
image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content;
Sitting on a metaphorical suitcase following an old Russian custom:
Just before they set off on the long journey across continents and oceans to whatever new life awaited them, Russian families would gather as a group and sit down upon their bags, look around them in silent awe and reflection. How important this is to stop and make note of the moment, at what has come before, at what it means to be in this moment—we do our own version of sitting on our bags taking in the wonderment of this moment when we are about to begin our journey together.
Then we’ll write.
And we’ll thus have walked though the door of the semester, committed ourselves to this community of learners, of reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy), a moment indeed fraught with awe, a feeling that combines wonder and fear. When we study together and write together, we open ourselves up to one another; putting our writing out there can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable (particularly an eighteen-year-old entering college and quite sure that he or she was somehow mistakenly admitted in the first place and will be so woefully behind everyone else in the room) –ah, the delicate moment when there is the potential for response or evaluation from those around us.
After we write for ten minutes or so about this feeling of awe, we will talk about the gremlin sitting on our shoulders laughing derisively at us as we write for an audience, sneering at the very thought of us presuming to be a writer, at having something to say and being able to say it elegantly. We talk about ways to shut that gremlin down, how we can develop ways to write hot and read cold—to balance within ourselves the artist and the critic. We’ll talk about the evaluation process in the course, how they will see no grades until the end of the semester but they will receive a good deal of feedback from themselves, from one another, from me and perhaps even from people beyond our classroom.
We also might create and present small-group metaphor-portraits in which the groups try to represent themselves in a kind of logo or symbol that represents all of them.
EXERCISE FOUR: DEEP-LEARNING EXERCISE (an exercise from Jane Love at Furman University)
In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, about levels of diction and discourse, using archives from previous semesters for our fodder.
We’ll discuss how they will help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals as well as the group. We talk about collaboratives and about the purpose of a liberal arts education and how our course intersects with those goals. We talk about trust. About making mistakes. Asking dumb questions. Daring to ask dumb questions. About playful inquiry. About TRUST. And efficacy.
We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys and the greater conversations we will join. From our letters to the class, we begin to reflect on our blogs, we push one another to grow as learners and writers, we push ourselves. We might read Levy. Or Greene. Or Dewey and Wenger. We read each other. We always read each other. And we read deeply in our discipline. We look at online communities and try to figure out what makes them successful. We read the early-in-the-semester-works of students from previous semesters.
Blogging enhances the undergraduate course experience, I believe, when we spend time laying a careful foundation for our work online and in class, thinking and talking about how and why connecting this way plays a fundamental role during the precious brief twelve weeks we have together. Because we rarely make our pedagogy visible, students are far too accustomed to going through the motions, to taking our word for it that our assignments have value, to completing work without thinking about how it fits into their lives. I can see the difference in the depth and authenticity of student work when I have taken the time to talk about the value of slow blogging, of slow learning compared from when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline.
Ongoing hypertext narrative reflection, renewed goal setting at mid-term, some reflections can be done via podcasts.
III. Final Week
2. They prepare for their evaluation conference with me by posting the final reflection which should include a sense of what this course means to their larger learning journey, and bringing to conference a proposed grade and defense of that grade.
3. We return to our suitcases and to our original letters and Knowledge Trees–students write letters to the next class about what to expect, what they wish they had known at the start, and any other advice.
4. Other options: A gathering of quotations from one another, from other writers in our field.
Other examples of student work:
Alex and Multimedia during J-term
Links to a wiki filled with links to Web 2.0 resources