American Lit: Collaborative Writing & Group Work

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-11-02-amThis semester as I prepared my syllabus for the American Literature: Origins to the Civil War course, I wanted to get my students more engaged in collaborative multi-modal projects. One of these was to write a blog post comparing the American Puritans to one religious group from the HBO series The Game of Thrones. While students cringed reading Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, it paled in comparison to things many of them had seen on the show or read in George R. R. Martin’s books that the series is based on. Talking about GoT provided a necessary bridge in class discussions as the parallels between Puritan New England to today became clear. While not every student had seen the series, those who had found YouTube clips to fill them in and they shared their relevant knowledge. Meanwhile, those who hadn’t seen the series became primarily responsible for locating good passages in the texts we read to quote from as examples in their posts. I divided up GoT viewers between the groups, showed students where they could find wiki pages and blogs about GoT, and explained that this would give them enough information to write a blog post comparing religions even if they hadn’t seen the series. It was fun for viewers and non-viewers alike, and all were able to do their part in collaborative group work. Below are some resources for educators, if you are interested in trying this in your classroom.


Timing Group Work with Short Goalsscreen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-08-50-am

The students at our college respond particularly well to group work in literature courses and it inevitably leads to more familiarity and comfort in the classroom. At first, a student-directed project with loose guidelines can be daunting, but it often leads to more interesting and original projects. To help students get started, I divided up their time for them with 10-minute goals. I wrote these up on the board and reminded them each time their ten minutes were up that they should move on to their next goal. Here is how I divided their first 50-minute group work session (our class periods are 75 minutes long):

  • 10min: choose religious group from GoT, begin researching group
  • 10min: do background research on Calvinism and Puritanism
  • 10min: start drawing parallels (write them all down)
  • 10min: each person look at one text we read for class and find quotable moments
  • 10min: divvy up the rest of the work and create a shared Google doc to write in

I walked around the room and answered questions. Group size ranged from 3-5 people (depending on attendance), and this seemed to work well for the project. I referred students to my own blog posts about the assignment on the class blog and on my pedagogy blog. This helped them get their creative minds going.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-11-27-52-amCitations for Digital Media

My blog post provided an example of how to use images, videos, and other media to create a multi-modal project. It also allowed me to demonstrate how to translate MLA style citations into citing digital media on the blogosphere. Students often take images and social media for granted and don’t think about how to use digital media ethically. This project gave me an opportunity to talk about doing due diligence to their digital sources.

While private class blogs and Blackboard can create productive, safe digital communities outside the classroom, I find students hold themselves more accountable when they know that the blog is public. Of course, I always give them the option to opt-out and email me their posts, or to create “discard” profiles on WordPress that aren’t linked in any way to their identities. This protects them and gives them the ability to participate in the digital community we’re building together outside the classroom. In the “real world” (after college) students will need to hold themselves accountable for citing sources, writing coherently, and representing themselves professionally. I believe college is the perfect time to begin experimenting with digital media tools, and to apply the writing skills they have acquired over the course of their education.

Pros & Cons of Collaborative Writing screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-09-30-am

Collaborative writing seems to be underestimated by composition instructors; it is certainly difficult to assign grades and address individual issues when students have written a paper together. While I don’t advocate for collaboratively writing every paper, I do think at least one collaborative project a semester is productive for many reasons. To take a note from John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas, collaborative work engages students in cooperative learning. As students struggle with how to merge their ideas and make them flow together, they have an ongoing dialog about what their writing is doing at any point in the essay and how it all connects back to an overarching narrative they are in the process of constructing together. That kind of collaboration can be scary and difficult, but it can also generate creativity and give each a wealth of feedback mid-process. That’s more than I can give each student individually once the essays are already written and submitted.

The downside can be that some students fall through the cracks or down give an equal amount of work to the project. That’s why I asked students in their second group meeting session (about 30 minutes) to give me a Task List that detailed what tasks each group member was responsible for. Also, these are static groups so at the end of the semester they will be filling out group member assessments and self-assessments. This holds each member accountable, and they see the assessments at the beginning of the semester so they know what my expectations are for each of them.

The Problem of Triggering Content

The HBO series The Game of Thrones is widely known for its high volume of sex scenes and murder–I’m not sure it has left much unexplored when it comes to either. Yet, nowhere in this assignment do I require students to watch it, and I very clearly state that some content in GoT they choose to write about may be triggering to their audience that they are writing to in their posts. Students are already exposed to so much violence in the news, and I don’t think educators do students any favors when they try to shelter them from the darker content of life. The world is a dangerous and unfair place, and students need literacy, self-reliance, and confidence to say “no” to violence.

What’s funny from this Americanist’s standpoint is that some events in the HBO series either compare or pale in comparison to what the Puritans did to the Native Americans and to each other (see the Witch trailer below). Not to mention, many early American settlers and Puritans were completely nonchalant about death in their writing. American Puritan families suffered under malnutrition, exposure, anxiety, and depression. Families slept together in the same beds, and largely policed each other in what historian Carol Berkin calls “institution-poor societies” by peeking into each others windows. The eerie part of the project for many students is seeing how today’s society is still like Puritan society, especially when it comes to “slut shaming” and religious justifications for violence.


So I will end with what I told my students about audience: “Finally, consider what kind of tone you want your blog post to have and who your audience is–is this for just the class or for a modern, GoT-viewing audience?  [For example,] Ladygeekgirl writes for a modern audience, an audience that would interpret Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame as very clear, public, and brutal “slut-shaming.” As ladygeekgirl warns, parts of GoT can be triggering for rape culture and misogyny, so be aware of this as you yourself do research for your group and as you write for a modern audience. Sometimes not acknowledging how a modern audience will read or view the material can lead one into trouble. So if you get the sense that there’s an elephant in the room (many parts of the Puritan texts and GoT are extremely violent–think of how many times we read “knocked on the head” just in the first paragraph of Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative), ask yourself how you would read this in a present-day context and try to address it in your post.”

Showcase: Student Work

At the end of the project, I had the enormous pleasure of reading the multi-modal projects students collaboratively created in their respective groups. Some of those posts are featured above (you can click on any of the photos–each is linked to a post from our class blog). You can read all of the posts students wrote for the project by reading our class blog under the category “American Puritans & Game of Thrones” and I assure you they will not disappoint! I myself learned a great deal from my students by the end of the project; they have shown me new ways to think about the television series and about the American Puritans. One of the greatest surprises was to see the attention some posts received from a GoT-viewing audience. I encourage you to comment on their posts and engage with them on the topic and the choices they made. Happy blogging!

Update: read more about managing group work effectively in a more recent post I wrote for Cengage’s Today’s Learner Blog: “5 Tricks for Successful Group Work.

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