Departmental Collaboration Around Writing

A group of young sociology professors at Oakland University* (MI) got together and collaborated on a concerted effort to improve writing in their department in connection with a wider university project on writing that produced a “Writing to Learn Wiki” for faculty and students**. An account of their efforts was published in Teaching Sociology, our discipline’s journal of “the scholarship of teaching and learning.” Like much in that genre it is rather basic research and the article is longer than it needs to be, but some useful takeaways can be gleaned. Primary benefit: with this as a humble starting point, one could probably design a more robust and effective version 2.0.

They deployed several tactics: in class exercises, a library research orientation session in each class, peer review, in-class writing workshops, an online plagiarism tutorial, and a “student integrity statement” that students appended to written work. At the end of each semester they surveyed the students about their experiences.

IMHO, the project seems flawed by not including any explicit outcomes (i.e., some measure of whether students became better writers) relying instead on student self assessment (“did technique X help your writing?”), over-emphasis on citation format as a component of “good” writing, and the overarching goal of “writing like a sociologist” as something their graduates should be able to do. Given how sociologists write, this could constitute educational malpractice ;).

A few findings:

  • Students found the library research orientation sessions repetitive unless they were tailored to specific topic of a given class. The researchers distinguish between redundant repetition and reinforcing repetition.
  • Students did not like peer-feedback. In some cases mis-match of skill level meant lack of helpful feedback. In other cases, concerns about hurting feelings dominated urge to be helpful.
  • Focus on plagiarism can create an unproductive plagiarism paranoia – students’ worry about committing it outstrips their capacity for writing well while avoiding it.
  • Common message from instructors across the program seemed valuable.

The researchers also noted some “accidental” benefits of their collaborative approach:

  • Ongoing discussion of process helped them fine tune it along the way.
  • Students appreciated consistent message.
  • Reduced overhead for individual instructors in terms of thinking through and preparing various writing exercises.
  • Discussion of process helped identify more optimal timing/scheduling of the various exercises within courses.

I would add a possible fifth benefit: I bet there is more follow-through among the instructors when they are aware that they are part of the collaborative project. Whether the focus is writing or something else, I suspect that has gigantic pedagogical payoffs.

A side note: Peer feedback is subject to a classic perceptual bias: instructors see it as time saving and thrill at the interaction they are encouraging, but the aggregate amount of person-hours, its ratio to quality results, and the wear and tear of emotions may be very unfavorable.

At the end of the article the authors say that their purpose is NOT to “ease their teaching duties” (it’s about “sincere, shared commitment to improving students’ writing”). I think this is unfortunate; the latter should be assumed – the problem is that living up to it is really quite labor intensive and we should constantly be on the look out for techniques that improve our efficiency. It’s misguided to see these as antithetical.


* There is an old historical connection between this institution and my own, but I’ll leave that to Mills trivia experts.
** Built on the open-source platform PBWorks.

Six Hats and Better Meetings

Almost nobody likes meetings and almost everybody will agree that precious little ever seems to get accomplished in meetings.  And yet we keep on having them.  There are a lot of ideas out there about how to improve meetings and one useful insight is that there are different kinds of meetings and some techniques work better for some kinds than for others.

One intriguing approach for meetings of collaborative teams developed by E. deBono is called “six hats.”  I first came across it when my step-son learned about it in a week-long workshop on team-work that he participated in during “Independent Activities Period” (IAP) at MIT.  They are teaching it to young engineers as a set of skills right alongside integration by parts and balancing equations.

The basic idea is to recognize that there are different genres of contribution to conversations and that it can be helpful to recognize and manage/organize these.  They are:

  • Yellow = ideas, speculation, “how about…”, “what if…”
  • Red = feelings, emotions, intuitions
  • Blue = agenda, sequence, process, rules of the road
  • Green = creative, options, alternatives
  • White = facts & figures, observations not interpretations, usuble info, checked facts
  • Black = criticism, flaw-finding, no need to be balanced or fair

Participants can self-consciously identify the kind of contribution they are making, a facilitator can ask for specific genres, or the agenda can be dedicated to a specific sequence of contribution types.

Here are some slides from a 2010 talk I gave for Division of Student Life staff on the technique:

See Also