Teaching Research with Collaborative Writing

Sometimes, I end up staying up too late thinking about my classes. During the semester, this usually means toiling over how they aren’t meeting outcomes as I anticipated or gushing over something smart my student(s) said.

But it’s winter break, and what am I doing?

Rewriting the course I’ll be teaching in the spring, of course.

I’m struggling.

I was looking forward to this class when I started in the fall, but by the end of the semester I felt most critical of my approach to it. So I’m changing a lot of things for the spring semester, and I think it’s going to be much more successful in helping students to not only meet the outcomes of the course but also to understand why the writing strategies taught in the class are so essential to their academic and personal lives.

One thing I’m very excited about is emphasizing multiple perspectives and effective revision strategies through a collaborative research project that kicks off the semester. As a class, we (including me!) will collectively write a research project. Then, I will task students with revising the project independently.

I hope this project will model source integration strategies, as well as show students how we bring our own perspectives to individual topics and that there are multiple ways to address the same topic using the same information. I think there will also be productive conversations about academic integrity and what constitutes plagiarism and (un)ethical uses of your sources.

This project will be challenging for students, but I think it will also challenge me as an instructor.

It’s already challenging me, to be honest.

Mainly, what topic are we going to collaboratively investigate?

Fortunately, I have narrowed the choices slightly. This spring, I’m going to be teaching with Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. I ordered the edition with readings specifically for this collaborative research project.

But now that I’m sitting down to actually write the class, I’m concerned about choosing the “right” topic. If you aren’t familiar with the version that comes with readings, my choices are the following inquiry questions:

  • Is higher education worth the price?
  • Is pop culture actually good for you?
  • Is fast food the new tobacco?
  • Why does it matter who wins the big game?
  • What’s up with the American Dream?

Honestly, all of these questions are fairly provocative. So how do you pick one?

I’ve thought about letting the classes vote on which line of inquiry to take. Whatever question gets the most votes is the one we will address in our collaborative project, and the others will be up for grabs when students are unleashed to conduct a research project on a topic of their own choice.

This brings me to some other concerns. First: is it better to have all three of my classes working on the same question? Pros: a much less taxing prep process because all classes will be reading the same material. Cons: Will my experiences in one class inappropriately affect the other two classes? And won’t this be an issue regardless of whether they are using the same question or different ones?

Second: How do I foster understanding multiple points of view and a healthy amount of debate while also coming to a consensus for our collaborative thesis? This is partially why I’ve chosen to also have an independent revision component. If someone really just disagrees with the argument the class chooses to advance (if any!), that student will have the opportunity to radically revise the paper when all is said and done. I’m also concerned about helping students see other points of view during class discussion. Some of these topics might be more controversial than others for certain students (and some students might just be apathetic about some of the topics). I’ve discussed controversial topics in classes before, but I want to make sure we end up with a topic that encourages productive discussion and learning and not ineffective argument that shuts down the other sides rather than understanding them.

Third: For a book that so heavily emphasizes research as entering a conversation, why are all of the questions closed? I have always taught research that begins with developing a strong, open-ended inquiry question. So this first project kind of flies in the face of one of the more important things I think seeing research as conversation teaches: that there is (almost) always more than two sides to a topic, and a good researcher/inquirer goes beyond for/against and yes/no answers to their questions. Of course, we could infer broader answers to the questions the authors pose; we do this in common conversation when we provide more than “yes” or “no” to a closed question.

Fourth: I need to account for unintended consequences, especially if I select a topic for the classes to work with. For example, I teach at a public university with a wide variety of learners, including many non-traditional students. They have a variety of backgrounds and experiences. I do not want to have a topic that alienates a group of students or even a single student. Likewise, I don’t want to choose a discouraging topic. As valid and interesting as it will be to discuss “Is higher education worth the price?” I’m not sure that I want to be the teacher that discourages a student from pursuing that degree, even if I don’t mean to. (I mean, clearly I think higher education is worth the price at least to some extent. I have two degrees and lots of debt to illustrate this.)

And here I am, awake at almost 1am (the latest I’ve been up ALL BREAK!), thinking about how to continue with my course planning and development in the best manner possible.

Readers, I would really appreciate your weighing in here. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve been teaching composition for 40 years or if you’re still in high school. Leave a comment with your thoughts and/or vote my poll about what topic you would be most interesting in researching.

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