The Fantastical Designs of the Robinson Five

When the five of us met this Monday, we shared some of our wildest ideas for the design of a writing course—from asking students to produce a collaborative anthology to modeling the course’s structure upon the leveling-up system of a video game. Many of the questions this brainstorming session raised were both troubling and exciting.

How do we deliver a skills-based course via an online system constructed with content-based courses in mind? How can we see and evaluate a student’s writing process beyond grading their finished written products? How do we motivate students when we know, as writers and teachers, that the most successful students are self-motivated, are those who would complete the assigned tasks without our insistent prodding?

The problem of student motivation has occupied much of my thinking about my 101 course’s design over the past couple of weeks. Conventional OWI wisdom holds, quite rightly, that students will not complete assignments unless their grade is at stake, or that grades alone can serve as sufficient motivation for completing activities online. This seems functionally true to me. But, I also want students to understand the real-life need for writing, to think of writing not simply as a skill they can must learn competently enough to cobble together a report for a professor but as a tool for critical thinking, introspection, and giving voice to personal agency.

My initial impulse in this direction is to in some way incorporate personal writing, an approach that will no doubt elicit groans from many an experienced rhet/comp pro. (For many instructors, the phrase “personal writing” raises the specter of meandering and self-indulgent prose, nostalgic essays about the meaning of getting your first puppy or, worse, last weekend’s kegger.) Still, in Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse, Candace Spigelman argues that narratives (e.g., literacy narratives), which are often assigned at the beginning of a Comp I course because they are an easy way to get students writing without their having to conduct research, actually do involve research because of the need to select, evaluate, and incorporate experience into their writing as evidence. I haven’t yet finished Spigelman’s book and have my own questions and skepticism toward some of her points so far, but one takeaway I have garnered is that reflection or introspection or memory, i.e., the processes involved in drawing on the personal, involves a guarantee that online students must spend actual time in critical thought. An assignment that asks them about themselves, especially if it also asks for outside research to contextualize their experience, ensures that students are not simply choosing a side in some debate and Google-Scholaring a few quotes from supporting or opposing voices.

I think of this also as a means of connecting the act of writing to some real-world importance. This sort of discovery writing is the process of inquiry we emphasize among our outcomes in all writing courses. Statements like “I write to find out what I think” appear in essays on the writing craft from Joan Didion to the Norton guides. Many of my students don’t understand at first that, when they write, they interrogate their own presuppositions. Until they are writing, they do not understand that they gather research not to affirm their views but to inform themselves of other views.

This brings up a second odd idea we discussed in our meeting—namely, is collaboration necessary in the online writing classroom?

I find myself considering two contradictory impulses. One is to maximize collaboration; the other, to allow self-directed flexibility. A self-directed course could incorporate gateways (or levels, in that aforementioned video-game model) that students would pass through as they developed certain skills, giving more experienced writers the chance to demonstrate their understanding quickly—“Independent” and “reflective” students tend to be most successful in the online classroom according to a couple studies I’ve run across recently—and leaving instructors more time to devote their attention to students with the most need.

Social-constructivist pedagogy, though, from Vygotsky onward, tells us that this approach is wrong. The social-constructivist model is built entirely on collaboration, discussion boards, group work, peer reviews, and debate. I have been thinking through the benefits of this model and collaboration in general. Here’s what I’ve got (please suggest more if any occur to you):

  1. Student writing has a tangible audience, actual peers who can respond so that a written assignment doesn’t seem to disappear into the void of the internet.
  2. Group work and debates force students to confront divergent views and to negotiate tea dynamics.
  3. Transitioning to an online learning environment, much of the complexity of the individual student’s identity can remain hidden. But writing activities can benefit from exploring precisely those issues regarding the way online communications reduce or hide personal traits that would be evident in a f2f classroom.
  4. Zones of proximal development can be planned, monitored, and evaluated more evenly, and activities can be designed or adjusted in response. (Ben, you may have more to say about this, given that you’ve mentioned Vygotsky in your last post.)
  5. Engagement with others fights against the sense that online activity is unreal.

This last point may be one for further consideration. Online activities often seem unreal. Twitter posts and their replies do not force us to negotiate difference, and most social media relies on argumentation via “likes” or trolling. If this past election cycle has shown us anything, it is that the nature of our online activities and communications resides in the option to construct a personal echo chamber. Our students are familiar with this as a form of sharing viewpoints and information. How, then, do we use writing and this familiar online interface to force students to that uncomfortable place where they must question their own thinking and learn to negotiate with opposing views?

About billyboyhowell

Billy Howell is a term assistant professor of English at George Mason University.
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1 Response to The Fantastical Designs of the Robinson Five

  1. Thanks, Billy — It’s really energizing to see all of this together — even in the contradictions and struggle (which I think we are all experiencing) I’m feeling more energized than frustrated. We’ve got good ideas and a lot of options. I’m really thankful to be working with such group like this.
    Also, maybe we should get club jackets or something.

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