Optional Collaboration and "Winging It"

Apple pie and a mushroom cloud


Megan Eatman

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Screenshot from an in-class composition

I’m a big fan of "winging it" in the classroom, a practice my colleague Scott Nelson addressed in a 2012 Blogging Pedagogy post. Typically, my improvisation is restricted to my lesson plans, which I leave informal and loose so that there is room to shift gears depending on the class's needs, interests, and concerns. This semester, though, my “winging it” extended to the broader arc of the course. Once I got to know my Critical Reading and Persuasive Writing class, I rewrote their final paper assignment to include collaborative and multimodal options. The resulting projects were exciting, but that shift also led me to consider how flexibility affects student perceptions of the instructor’s ethos.

My section of Critical Reading and Persuasive Writing, a lower-division class aimed at students who already have credit for our introductory Rhetoric and Writing course, had four units. In the first two, students wrote analytic papers that discussed features of an online public of their choice; in the second two, students wrote arguments for or about issues important to that public. The third unit required students to construct a multimodal composition, and the fourth unit originally required a traditional textual composition. Normally, I would reverse those assignments so that students would have to flesh out an argument in text before writing on the same issue in other media, but I wanted their projects to be “born digital” rather than translations of existing papers. The results were good. Students turned in assignments in which it was clear that medium wasn’t an afterthought.

I had a feeling that I wanted to rewrite the Unit IV project before I saw the results of Unit III, and I had warned students (both in class and with a note on the assignment page) that the assignment was undergoing revision. But, while I wanted to offer students the option to continue their exploration of multimodal composition and produce larger, more complicated projects than they could achieve individually, I also didn’t want to disappoint students who were counting on writing a traditional, individual paper. Ultimately, I created an assignment with two options. Students could either remix their Unit III argument for a different audience and in a different medium, or they could produce a multimodal collaborative project on a topic of their choice. Since all the Unit III arguments were multimodal, an individual, traditional paper was still an option, but I also tried to facilitate collaboration. Early in the unit, I asked students shared their project ideas in small groups, and several of the groups became collaborative work groups after those meetings. Of my 17 students, nine ended up working on collaborative projects, and the other eight worked individually. Of those eight, four turned in text-based arguments.

While I was happy with this change and the resulting projects, having a collaborative option, as well as the option to do a multimodal or traditional argument, made teaching the last unit somewhat more difficult. I had to ask students to decide on a project plan very early in the unit so that I had an idea of their needs, and most classroom activities had to be tailored to have value for a wide variety of projects. For the most part, we focused on broader issues of argument construction: for example, finding appeals to suit specific audiences and anticipating and addressing counterarguments. If I were doing this sort of project again, I would have asked students to focus more on identifying the conventions of different kinds of arguments in different media and publications, because some students seemed to master some of those conventions more readily than others. Since we had already done a unit on multimodal composition, I think those activities would have been especially helpful for the students who chose to do traditional textual arguments. Spending more time discerning how an article in Slate is different than a college essay in structure, not just appeals, may not have had immediate utility for the multimodal groups, but could have still reinforced a method for understanding different rhetorical situations.

Finally, I wondered about how my flexibility in the classroom affected my students’ perceptions of me as an instructor. For me, “winging it” is the result of confidence and experience. This is a class I’ve taught before, a student population with which I’m familiar, and I feel comfortable enough as a teacher that I don’t worry about a sudden mutiny. For students, however, improvisation may make me look less prepared or less experienced because the prior experience that allows me to reconstruct assignments on the fly is obscured. That concern would not stop me from adapting lesson plans and assignments to suit the class’s needs, of course, but it has inspired me to reflect on how improvisation affects my ethos and, importantly, how it might play differently for me, a relatively young woman, than it does for some of my colleagues.


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