This semester I’ve co-developed and run a course pilot of eight sections, two instructors and roughly one hundred and thirty students total, through the use of at least eight different information systems: Blackboard, because it’s institutionally mandated and a place to store course documents and post announcements; Wikispaces, which we’ve used mostly to post editable sign-up sheets for conferences (though I think there’s more potential there); Zoho.com, an online productivity and document-sharing suite that we fell back on because our institution blocks the Google docs productivity and document-sharing suite; 750words.com, to serve as a space for daily writing; four separate WordPress installs at rhetcomp.net, to serve as a discussion space; and the ELI peer review post-beta, to implement early-stage peer review; and of course email, Web browsing and Microsoft Word.
It’s gone mostly well, though I’ll admit the successes have been varied.
The students don’t much like the blogspace, and I don’t blame them. I haven’t been as engaged as I could in managing the outside-of-class discussion, and that’s something I would change were I to do this again: I know from writing here that blogs require cultivation; that they require interest and controversy. When they don’t get that, they wither. They need risk, just like any good in-class discussion does, and we didn’t sufficiently cultivate that risk, partly because of the guidance from higher that we couldn’t make the blogspace publicly available. Students have begun liking it better, though, since I started using blog posts as examples from which to write in class. They like it when their public writing counts for something. These are findings that are likely familiar from the first wave of research on weblogs and writing instruction; the one that peaked from about 2003 to 2005.
Our students loved the daily writing on 750words.com. Sure, they fell off; they dropped some entries, especially on long weekends. But they gushed in their praise of it in mid-semester evaluations: it makes me get in the habit, they said, and it makes me do the work. We give them at least 20 minutes of in-class time every lesson to do the daily writing, and we require at least 7500 words from them every 10 lessons to earn a C. And they do it. In a 40-lesson semester, that means almost every student I teach will have written a minimum of 30,000 words by the end of the semester, in addition to their other work for the course. Again at the end of the course, every student is gushing about it. They get it: writing regularly helps you get better, and helps make writing easier. That’s my fundamental take-away from this pilot course, I think.
Our students don’t like Zoho.com. I don’t much care for it myself, and would much prefer Google docs: it’s a fussy system, hard to work through in precisely the way that you would expect of a for-profit browser-based word processor and document sharing suite aimed primarily at the corporate world. But here’s the thing: since I’ve begun to enforce its use, it means that no student can come to class and offer the excuse that their computer doesn’t work. I send them to a nearby public terminal and tell them to work with it in the cloud. That’s where their writing lives, and they’re getting used to it. I like that they’re internalizing that sense of where documents live.
Students were initially somewhat stymied by Wikispaces as a way to sign up for conferences with me, but — perhaps without realizing it — they figured out what a wiki can do, and they quickly came to understand the View History function after one student took another’s conference time slot and thought nobody would notice. In future semesters, I’d like to build on that understanding of wikis as historically contingent and composed documents, particularly in the ways that we might connect that sense to understandings of citation conventions. Documents that exist in the context of academic citation conventions are like genealogical nodes: they represent the convergence of ever-multiplicative historical-academic predecessors and (if successful; if cited) ever-multiplicative historical-academic successors.
The ELI peer review software at elireview.com gets by far the most love from our students. I’m a fan, and will say: if you’re not using it, you should give it a try. It’s really, really good for carefully focused early-stage substantive peer review. What I like best is the way that it allows instructors to set up carefully worded sets of criteria and ask students whether specific parts of the essay match those criteria, and then scaffold those criteria-matching responses into open-text response: it’s super-smart that way. Furthermore, it allows instructors to “Endorse” (that’s the in-app command) good comments, showing writers and reviewers alike that certain comments are good advice. ELI allows students to rate comments, as well, and indicate that particular comments are brilliant, bullshit, or somewhere in between. In the particular case of a recent bullshit comment, the student author was right and the student reviewer was wrong, and I intervened in a way that was productive for both. The developers are doing good things, and are super-responsive to feedback, and I encourage compositionists to test it out: it’s one of the best advances in peer response I’ve seen.
The thing is, all that work and all those information systems constituted a gear-up, a practice exercise. They got our students to flip back-and-forth among all these different information systems, and they got our students to take doing so for granted in the process of writing. After some considerable initial resistance, their in-class attention shifted to the actual doing of writing. That’s the most important part. We overloaded them with all these digital tools and contexts, and what fell away was the tools and contexts, and what remained constant was the writing. I’m proud of this semester, and I’m happy and thankful to have had the most invested, enthusiastic, and committed students I’ve ever worked with.
The takeaway: it’s never only about the tools. It’s always about the doing.