Social Writing Workshop: A Lesson Plan Sampler
Prepared for the workshop, “Social Writing,” co-taught with Anke Geertsma for the Teaching and Learning Center and the GC Digital Fellows workshop series on April 20th, 2016.
Please comment to share your thoughts and experiences with these methods!
What is Social Writing?
Social writing shares much in common with social reading, including practices of annotation and commentary, but is generally taken to mean the process of sharing self-produced writing products in various stages of completion. Social writing can also mean composing with the intention to share one’s work with a wider audience, particularly with the public through online networked spaces.
In our classrooms, it is likely that students have internalized the idea (and maybe we have too) that writing is the product of authorial genius and solitary reflection. Since writing in humanities fields and also undergraduate coursework may continue to reflect the solitary model of composition and secrecy, up to the moment of publication or submission for grade, it is no wonder that this model persists. Even in the sciences, where collective authorship is more common, there may be difficulties in using models of social and collaborative writing that allow for fair attribution of the efforts of all voices within a piece.
Social writing facilitates transparency and openness during the process of composition and editing, challenging our belief that we, as authors, must figure it all out alone.
Social writing is not necessarily collaborative; a blog post may be written by a single author with no intentions of accommodating any of the feedback it receives in its public space. However, most social writing involves some degree of collaborative writing. By virtue of placing materials in public spaces, and soliciting engagement in the process of writing, we teach students that writing can be collaborative and networked, too.
Tools and Practices
In an effort to counter the social isolation that surrounds student writing, and the treatment of student writing as essentially a waste product, Graduate Center PhD candidate Erin Glass developed Social Paper. This non-proprietary platform was created by and for The CUNY Academic Commons, and funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start-Up Grant and a CUNY Advance Grant. Social Paper allows users to post papers, adjust privacy and sharing settings on their materials, comment on others’ work, and engage in a networked community on the CUNY Academic Commons. A unique advantage to Social Paper is its ability to consolidate all writing, for all types of classes, workshops, and purposes, in the hands of the student rather than across multiple platforms, like discrete course blogs.
- Create a group on the CUNY Academic Commons, and invite all of your students. Have students write responses to readings on Social Paper instead of a course blog, and invite them to comment on each others’ work. Let students choose to share their papers with either you, the classroom group that you’ve created, or the public.
- Scaffold the process of drafting and editing on Social Paper. Instruct students to post their first draft of a paper on the platform, edit each others’ work, make edits, post second drafts, and post a final draft that can be evaluated by their peers, and not just you. Social writing can be a powerful tool to decenter the sole authority of the instructor and empower students to be leaders of their own learning.
WordPress is one of the most popular content management systems online, and it can be used for anything from personal blogs to complete websites for commerce. Many classrooms create course blogs using WordPress, and request their students publicly blog with weekly assignments and comment on each others’ posts. This model is used at The Graduate Center by the DH Praxis class, and the first course in the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program; the former is public, and the latter is just for the course participants. The CUNY Academic Commons supports WordPress, which makes it very simple to build a site for your class. However, incentivizing comments, and centralizing each students’ body of work on the blog so that it does not get swallowed by the internet, are both challenges to this type of social writing.
- Create a course website to keep your class organized, including pages for syllabus, assignments, and all other nuts and bolts. Encourage students to write short weekly responses to readings, or to write substantive comments on other students’ posts.
- Use the process of commenting on blogs to teach about the nature of authorship and digital composition. Have each student write a paragraph about their idea of an effective comments’ section, and request that the other students comment on their paragraph with their own insights. Discuss this process in the classroom, and how the format of the blog (post above, comments below, or even potentially on the side), contributed to ideas of textual authority. This is a great opportunity to discuss how information is presented can affect how we receive the authority of that information.
While most instances of writing culminate in over 140 characters, Twitter is nevertheless a social writing tool that has changed the contours and expressions of written communication. Known as a micro-blogging platform, Twitter allows users to tweet 140 characters, include video or images, and incorporate hashtags (#hashtags) that classify posts. Many academics use Twitter for professional networking and to extend their research visibility: check out this guide to using Twitter as an academic on The Chronicle, or read more about why academics are using Twitter on the Times’ Higher Education.
- Have students maintain a professional Twitter account that shares ideas related to the course, relevant links, or commentary on the week’s readings. Be sure you scaffold this experience, and have an initial lesson plan that discusses etiquette, privacy, how to compose a tweet, how to live-tweet, and other details to set your students up for successful use.
- Create a special course hashtag, and assign a different student each week to live-tweet your class. Encourage other students to chime in, and archive the tweets using Storify. Review the twitter stream in the class, and use it to add to discussions, ensure your lesson plans are effective, and engage students in another dimension of participation and learning.
Google Docs is a proprietary platform, developed by Google, that allows users to write and comment on a text-based document in real time. Users can choose who can view, comment, or edit the document, and organize their documents in Google Drive to consolidate them. Google Docs tracks edits, so users can see who wrote what. Often used for collaborative writing on team-based projects, Google Docs has many advantages but is nevertheless bound in proprietary software regulations and is reliant on closed-source models.
- Create a living resource guide for your students in Google Docs related to your class topic, and allow students to add helpful links, their insights, and otherwise populate the document.
- Put students in teams of three, and have everyone write a paragraph. Each person in the team will edit another member’s paragraph. This offers the opportunity for students to learn effective editing, how to give constructive feedback, and how to address the process of editing with multiple authors–a skill that is increasingly a part of both academic and industry workplaces.
Etherpad is a real-time, collaborative, open-source writing tool. It functions similarly to a Google Doc, but is open source (so users can edit and adapt as needed) and more lightweight (loads faster in browser). Many tech-related fields use Etherpad in instructional settings, since its real-time collaborative properties can be useful components in running large classrooms with detailed lesson plans or lecture-based components. By running a classroom with an Etherpad component, students who are not as likely to raise their hands to stop the lesson and ask a question can still have their voices heard: an important way to incorporate all types of learners.
- Create a class Etherpad and share its link with students. Assign a new student every half hour to take notes, jotting down key terms and steps in the lesson plan. Encourage other students to discuss concerns in the comments, or add to the notes themselves. This is particularly helpful for large classrooms, and especially for lesson plans that require students to internalize multiple new terms and step-by-step instructions. The non-profit, volunteer organization Software Carpentry teaches their basic labs for computational research skills using an Etherpad along with two main instructors, for instance.
This is the most technologically advanced of the social writing tools on this list, but also one of the most adaptable and powerful. GitHub is a remote hosting service for git repositories. But wait, what’s git? Git is a version control tool that lives on your computer, and can be accessed through the command line. By initializing git, users can tell this tool to track all changes in a given directory, or folder. This is very handy for large-scale coding projects that involve multiple contributors–what was why git was originally developed. However, with GitHub, users can “push” their local git repositories (that tracked folder) to the internet, where other users can interact with it. Once your local git repository and GitHub are connected, you can make copies of other users’ repositories, edit them, and send your proposed changes back to the user who can then choose to incorporate your work into their repository.
This tool may be familiar for computer science or other science and technology related fields, but is largely foreign to humanities scholars. With the advent of digital humanities, however, many humanities researchers are turning to GitHub for collaborative writing projects, like the MLA Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities project by Matthew K. Gold. Teaching your humanities class git and GitHub can be powerful ways of introducing students to new skills they might have felt they were not capable of doing, and empowers them to engage in a variety of digital skill sets that build their public portfolio (GitHub also has a social dimension, as a sort of resume for your code).
- Teach your students how to use git and GitHub. Use the class to explore ideas of authorship, the way we connect with computers, how version control impacts our ideas of a “finished” text, and how GitHub challenges or confirms traditional ideas of authority and authorship.
You might tell your students to not trust Wikipedia as a reliable source for their papers, but why not encourage them to take part in the process of shaping knowledge through this platform? Contributing to Wikipedia involves creating an account, understanding the social conventions of the platform, drafting in a “sandbox,” and allowing your work to be subject to peer review of individuals, bots, and algorithms. Helping students to place their well-researched ideas in the context of Wikipedia pages can be an empowering way to engage social writing as a public act, even a radical act of reclaiming knowledge.
- This idea is adapted from Michael Mandiberg, from the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Core 1 class: Dedicate a lesson to explaining how Wikipedia works, and how it dovetails with your course themes and aims. Have students write a well-research paragraph (each sentence must have a citation) and integrate it into a Wikipedia article. Discuss student experiences in class, and encourage them to follow up on their paragraph in the coming weeks to see how it changes in its Wikipedia environment.
- Wikipedia Hackathons are becoming increasingly popular as a way to change the ratio of knowledge on the internet. For instance, the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at MoMA gathered a large group of people to increase the representation of women in the arts on Wikipedia and to encourage more women to edit in online spaces. Consider holding a hackathon/edit-a-thon in the context of your classroom, to increase knowledge in the field you’re teaching your students, or encouraging your students to attend an edit-a-thon and report back with their experience.