This blog describes how I organized my Introduction to Multicultural Literature course around a collaborative, public final project. Rather than a traditional final paper, the course concludes with students co-authoring a digital glossary of Keywords for Literary Studies. What follows is a lightly edited version of my remarks for the Digital Pedagogy Roundtable at MLA 2020 in Seattle.
Introduction to Multicultural Literature is a course with many objectives. It needs to fulfill students’ diversity requirement, introduce them to close reading methods, build on the writing skills of earlier courses, and, of course, get students excited about college literature courses. This can leave little time for discussions of digital literacy, which I believe are crucial for our students.
To help achieve all of these objectives while also preparing students to communicate effectively in the digital age, I conclude every semester not with a final paper, but with a collaborative digital project in which students co-author a glossary of keywords for literary studies. With this assignment, students work in small groups to identify a key term related to course readings and discussions (race, memoir, ghosts, etc.) and co-author an entry for the digital glossary. Each keyword entry includes an analysis of the term’s etymology, a discussion of its importance for literary studies, and a close reading of at least one text we read that semester (often multiple texts) that demonstrates the keyword in action.
This project was inspired by NYU Press’ Keywords collections and Keywords for Digital Pedagogy, edited by Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers. I’ve also been impacted by research that shows how public writing and digital projects can increase student learning. In her 2009 NCTE report, Kathleen Blake Yancey called for “public writing” as a crucial component of a composition pedagogy that prepares students to write in the 21st century. In The New Education, Cathy N. Davidson demonstrates the benefits of assignments that challenge students to make a “public contribution to knowledge.” This call for public learning has echoed throughout the Digital Humanities community as well, by scholars like Mark Sample,Tanya Clement, Amy Earhart, Toneisha Taylor, and Roopika Risam. Considered together, their work suggests that collaborative public projects encourage peer learning, amplify engagement, and, in Clement’s words, increase students’ “sense of creative control and… desire to participate in society.” My own experience has confirmed that students care much more and put in far more effort when they know that their work is going to be read by audiences beyond the classroom.
Students are informed of the project from the first day of class when we go over the syllabus. I also refer to the assignment throughout the semester as various key terms come up. Towards the end of the semester we go over the formal requirements for the assignment. Here is the assignment sheet.
There is also a rubric.
Early on, students submit three “sketches” of keywords they’d be interested in working on: a few sentences describing why they think that term is important and what texts they might analyze if selected to work on that key term. I use these sketches to get a sense of what students are interested in, and place them in groups accordingly (three students per group works best, but four is also manageable).
For this assignment, we spend three class sessions in the computer lab. In 2017, 43% of full-time students and 81% of part-time students held jobs while attending college. Many of my students both work and commute, and can’t always find time to meet outside of class. Moreover, I can’t assume they have access to the computers, software, hardware, or bandwidth necessary for the assignment. Meeting in the lab ensures that students have face-to-face time to work on the project together and ask me questions. It also allows me to oversee the collaboration process, and check in with them about how they’re dividing up work.
We review how to use the Oxford English Dictionary, but I also introduce them to tools like Google Ngram Viewer to see if it raises any new or interesting questions about the significance of their term.
In addition, as a way to introduce some basic digital publishing skills, we go over how to select images that are labeled for reuse using image collections like Unsplash and Pixabay (or filtering Google image search results).
We also peer review their rough drafts in class. One week prior to the due date, students print copies of their rough drafts and use the rubric to evaluate each other’s keyword entries and offer suggestions for improvement.
This assignment also allows us to have crucial discussions about identity and privacy in the digital age. In the Student Collaborators Bill of Rights, the authors state that “When digital humanities projects are required for course credit, instructors should recognize that students may have good reasons not to engage in public-facing scholarship, or may not want their names made public, and should offer students the option of alternative assignments.” With this assignment, I try to help students make an informed decision by critically weighing the risks and rewards of publishing with their real names, using a pseudonym, or omitting their names altogether.
Structuring Effective Collaboration
Effective collaboration — the ability to work well in groups — regularly appears among the lists of top skills employers look for. Whether we are trying to arrive at an accurate medical diagnosis, organize a resistance movement, or complete a business report, we are constantly called upon to work with other people in order to achieve our goals. And yet, so much of education teaches us to compete rather than collaborate with the students sitting next to us. When group projects are assigned, rarely is explicit attention given to effectively structuring the collaboration process. At least in my own experience, professors told us to “do a group project,” and then disappeared, leaving the majority of the work to fall on one or two students, while everyone in the group received the same grade.
With this assignment, I always acknowledge up front how difficult collaboration is. We discuss collaboration as a specific skill: something that we don’t magically know how to do, but can get better at with practice, just like writing a thesis statement. The goal for this collaborative assignment is for students to work together to produce something that is better than what any one student could have produced individually.
We also have explicit conversations about how to divide up large projects into small components, equitably distribute work, and set deadlines. I use this handout: “Guidelines for Successful Collaboration,” adapted from Arola, Ball & Shepherd’s Writer/Designer.
In addition, at the end of the project, students have an opportunity to evaluate each other’s efforts to collaborate and describe the ways they each contributed to the project. I use these reflections to determine what score each group will get for “Collaboration” on the rubric. See Christina Katapodis’ excellent blog on student self-evaluations.
With this act of digital critical making, students use an open learning platform to co-create a multimodal composition and public resource for other readers, educators, and students.
I do this collaborative digital assignment for several reasons.
At the end of the semester, as students are stressed out by high-stakes exams and essays, this assignment gives them an opportunity to identify their personal intellectual investment in the course material, exercise their creativity, and create projects that are meaningful to them. Rather than frantically memorizing formulas in the isolation of their dorm rooms, they get to know other students in the class, and many describe making friends in the process.
This assignment also gives students an introduction to digital humanities. They gain experience using WordPress, the platform on which 34% of the world’s websites are built, and learn the basics of project management, collaboration, and digital publishing. We discuss how the keyword entries will live forever on the internet, and can be shared with friends, family, and future employers, especially as evidence of these important skills.
At the same time, this assignment allows students to practice close reading, reflect on the aims and methods of literary analysis, and use what they learn to create something that can be instructive to audiences beyond our classroom. I want students to understand that they are active knowledge producers who can use what they’re learning — not only in our class, but throughout their college journey — to make a positive impact on the world. Collaborative public projects like this are one way to do so.