Help Yourself

Steve BernhardtDr. Stephen A. Bernhardt holds the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing at the University of Delaware, from which position he promotes strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a new, Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.

Collaborative Writing

posted: 7.16.13 by Steve Bernhardt

I wonder how many of my readers use collaborative writing assignments in first-year comp? I don’t mean peer review, which I expect almost all of us use to good effect. I mean having two or more students write a paper together for a shared grade.

I always try to work in at least one collaborative assignment. I suppose my commitment to co-authorship stems partly from my being engaged with technical, business, and scientific writing for so long. It’s a given in these fields that writers collaborate, often by taking authority for different sections of a document. But I suspect co-authoring is much less common in first-year writing than in professional writing classrooms.

What might be some reasons for assigning a collaborative task? It’s a good way to get students working together seriously, since all the work–and the grade–depends on a good working relationship. More importantly, writing together means talking seriously with each other about the assignment: what the purpose is, who the audience is, what the instructor expects, how to manage the work between two individuals. Co-authoring a paper provides a real context for talking about writing, about process, about revision, about editing. Co-authoring allows two people to compare their ideas about good writing and how to achieve it. Co-authoring also allows students to see how their writing skills stack up against those of a peer. In the best situations, classmates become colleagues.

The last couple of times around, I’ve made the collaborative assignment early in the term, after a warm-up assignment that has individuals introduce themselves to me as writers and readers. The collaboration begins with a serious, graded, argumentative paper concerning college debt, loans, and finance. The student teams of two have to decide on an argument, shape a thesis, gather evidence, provide some data, and reach a conclusion about good credit, bad debt, Federal loan programs, lenders, and the job market. The teams have to arrive at some clear purpose, with focused attention to some issue within the larger topic of student debt.

None of this can be done without extensive discussion between the collaborators. The assignment triggers the kind of talk that leads writers to a clear argument, consideration of objections or counter-arguments, careful presentation of evidence, and reasonable position-taking on an important issue of high relevance to beginning college students. Instead of sending students off to wrestle with a complex assignment on their own, working inside their heads and struggling with their own thoughts, the assignment sends them into dialogue with another smart first-year student. And all students are smart in collaboration.

I require that this early assignment be done in pairs, or with a threesome if I have an odd number of students. Thereafter, the work for the class is typically done individually, though whenever it makes sense, I suggest they might choose to work with someone else. We form up larger, persistent teams for the duration of the class, so that they have a team they can go to with questions, for reviews of drafts, and for close editing. These larger teams are formed by combining two of the pairs from the early assignment. That gives the teams an advantage, in that pairs of students on each team already have the experience of working closely.

I’d be curious to know if others of you use co-authoring in your classes, and if so, how you manage to make it work for your students.

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