Written by Brittany Cottrill Lloyd
This review stemmed from a collaborative writing assignment in ENGL 345: New Media at Grand View University in the spring of 2015. This course is required for English majors and is an elective for students from various disciplines. The aim of the course was to "[introduce] theories and strategies for effective communication in digital environments and explore how writing practices have evolved in light of emerging digital technologies."
Based on the belief that true digital literacy is based on producing and consuming digital texts (National Council of Teachers of English, 2013), the major assignment for this course asked students to read a multimodal scholarly text, analyze it together, and compose a digital text. To give students additional experience writing for an authentic audience and to ask them to practice the "real world application" of multimodal writing (Hodgson, Nelson, Rechnitz, & Wiese, 2011; Selber, 2004; Stewart, 2014), the class was given the assignment to write a collaborative, academic book review—a genre new to all of the students.
Aside from the initial assignment and contact with editors, the decision-making power rested within the group. Students were responsible for determining how the work would be divided, setting the expectations for each writer, and even imposing deadlines. Much, if not all, of this was new to the students, and they often struggled with this ambiguity. Throughout their educational lives, students are told what to do; when they are asked to make the choices and take on a level of responsibility, it can feel both freeing and overwhelming. However, giving them the responsibility offered them opportunities to grow as writers and collaborators. They had to rely on themselves and others in ways that would have been less authentic if deadlines and expectations had been handed down from the instructor. They were responsible for making decisions that they may have in their future careers as writers and collaborators.
My intention in giving this assignment was to help students see the real-world application of the work they were doing. I wanted them to practice a new approach to academic discourse, particularly because many planned to continue on to graduate studies. What I didn't expect, however, was the diversity in the classroom that we would experience. The group of students in the class came from a range of majors, including English, communication, liberal arts, and design and photography. They also ranged from sophomores to seniors. This diversity in educational experience and knowledge about the field made the review a challenge.
Few students had experience with the genre we were working in, and while a number of them were English majors, they were new to the field without the background often needed to write a thorough and accurate book review. As with any text, some of the chapters were more challenging and required more theoretical knowledge, which meant that some students struggled more than others writing their reviews.
As the revision process comes to an end, and having reflected on the full process, I realize that such projects can offer value to students. Writing for publication engages them in ways they might not normally engage. I stand by my decision to do such a project. At the same time, I also acknowledge that this was a bigger feat than I could have imagined. A project like this requires balance and a release of control on the instructor's side as well as students taking ownership. I found myself struggling to find a balance between staying true to what each contributor wrote and staying true to what the chapters were about; my collaborators found it hard to identify the significance of their chapters to the larger conversation. Future attempts at such a project would need to take this into consideration. In the end, however, the project produced learning for all involved, and the product is something that the group was proud of, which is all that teachers can ask for.