Experimenting with Workshops

Tiered rows of green plastic chairs in a classroom


Megan Eatman

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I’ve ended each of the past three semesters with several days of project presentations. Part of my reasoning was that I did not want to teach right down to the wire; I gave students their final project assignment and we spent some time talking about it, but then I wanted to give them time to work. Since the presentations were extensions of the project, I felt that devoting class to student presentations would help achieve this goal. These presentations also allowed students to see what their classmates were doing, so they were exposed to stronger and weaker arguments well in advance of the project due date. I also feel that practice with oral presentation, including producing an effective visual aid, is useful for students, since many will have occasion to do something similar in their future jobs.

However, in spite of what I think are good reasons for doing presentations, I decided not to do them this semester. Instead, we will spend several days workshopping project proposals and initial work samples. Last semester, I asked students to do multimodal final projects for the first time, and while the results were often really successful, I changed a few aspects of my teaching this semester in hopes of preparing them better and receiving more sophisticated arguments. By workshopping project proposals and samples, I want to:

  1. Give students an idea of the possibilities of this project. (To be fair, presentations would do this, too.)
  2. Encourage students to come up with ideas that they aren’t yet sure how to execute with the knowledge that the class can help them figure it out.
  3. Identify possible problems early, although students who present on one of the later dates will have less time to revise.
  4. Keep students, especially those doing projects with visuals or sound, focused on audience and persuasion rather than symbolism.

The last objective in particular is based on my experience last semester. I felt like last semester I did a poor job of reminding students that visual arguments need to be legible for an audience. While the author may include an image that she feels symbolizes some aspect of her controversy, that image is useless unless an audience has time to see and process it and is then likely to come to the same conclusion. We did traditional peer review with these projects, which but it did little to fix this problem. Since individuals can have idiosyncratic readings, it is easy for an author to say that this one reader just doesn’t understand her project, and authors who have invested significant time and effort into a slideshow or a poster design may be hesitant to revise at a later stage. By having the whole class evaluate the idea and the beginnings of the project, I’m hoping to put emphasis back on arguing for an audience rather than just composing a text that says something about a controversy.

I can see a wide variety of potential problems with this approach. I ask students to select a particular audience and then design an argument to reach them, so the class will have to keep in mind that they may not be the argument’s intended audience. We have spent a lot of time talking about commonplaces and imagining an audience’s values, desires, and objections, so I hope that the workshoppers will be able to imagine themselves as a different audience to evaluate the argument. I will instruct them to do so. Additionally, I have not yet decided what (if anything) will happen if “workshoppees” decline to submit their materials in advance of the workshop. My general practice is to always have a quantifiable consequence (point deductions) because otherwise the motivation for doing this, especially toward the end of the semester, might be too low.

Last but not least, I am most concerned about in-class participation. Right now, the assignment emphasizes group discussion, but I am reconsidering that aspect. While I don't want to ask students to do too much outside work, I may consider shifting some of the in-class work to online environments, perhaps a workshopping wiki. That approach could lighten students' homework (they could look at the project proposals without writing about them before class) and head off participation problems while still allowing students access to each other's comments. I will have to consider it further, but any suggestions on workshopping practices are welcome.


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