Assignment: Collaboration in Writing in Three Parts
Sample Conversation Between Two Students Illustrating
Sample Student Response Illustrating Part Three
The Assignment: Collaboration in Writing
The first part of this lesson focuses on alternative models of authorship
(aside from that of the solitary author, which most texts in an English
201 class exemplify). Some reading to prepare students for the discussion:
Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault's "Magnetic Fields" or "L'amiral cherche
une maison a louer" (simultaneous poem). One might photocopy a few pages
of the facsimile of The Waste Land, and point out the collaboration
between Pound as editor and Eliot as poet as well.
Next, the discussion should move to other forms of writing which are more
explicitly collaborative. A good example could be Digital Theater at GMU
(the tape from last fall's production is on file at the library). Finally,
attention should be devoted to hypertext poetry or fiction, as seen on
the ://english matters website. There are different sorts of collaborations
which should be discussed: writer and site designer, writer and visual
artist, writer and reader.
Students should take time to browse the texts on the web site.
Working in pairs, students write a collaborative essay analyzing one of
the exhibits on the ://english matters website, using specific
textual examples. The focus is on giving a close reading of the different
collaborative examples at work in the piece. The essay should be about
3-4 pages. I would encourage students to keep a log of their writing process
as they work on the essay, including a "map" of their reading (write down
the different pages they select as they move through their reading of
Individually, students write a brief analysis reflecting on how their
writing process changed when working collaboratively. They should refer
to their journals for specific examples. What worked better? What was
different about writing in this way? What new challenges did you need
Close Reading of Lee Riley-Hammer and Mel Nichols' "Weepers": A Sample
Conversation Between Two Students to Illustrate Part Two
A: Immediately, I am interested in the importance of gender in
this piece. From the poem's index page, I was aware that gender was going
to be of issue, with the three quotes by female poets. But also, I think
right away that other subthemes were being invoked, just because of my
knowledge of these poets' biographies as well as the material in the epigraphs
÷ clearly Plath's madness and suicide, Akhmatova's suffering and loss
of loved ones, and Dickinson's isolation were all as important as the
references to death, some "terrible thing" done, and landscape within
the epigraphs themselves.
B: Another issue that re-emerged as we progressed through the exhibit
was the importance of the visual. The title of the piece, "Weepers," of
course refers to eyes: "Jeepers, creepers, where'd you get those weepers
. . ." as well as crying and sadness. The eyes are also often thought
of as the window to the soul. On the next page is the photograph of Sylvia
Plath segmented into nine boxes. When the mouse is pulled over them they
shift into separate images covering the original face. One of these boxes
is a close-up of an eye.
A: Right. And what the eye can and cannot see is a theme that emerges
throughout the poem. First, we begin with the photograph of the red purse.
Later, in the "Vanitas" section, we get a brief glimpse of the entire
photograph which the red purse appears in ÷ a man and a woman. Then the
image goes into a close-up that distorts the object beyond recognition.
All we see is red. It then pulls back into the same image we've seen all
along, centering on the red purse alone. Even the idea of the purse has
to do with sight ÷ we know that what it contains is concealed from us.
Also, the poet's eye serves as a sort of telescopic lens for us at times,
allowing us to see things we wouldn't be able to with the naked eye. In
"Woman seated at a picnic table" (the section whose image-link is the
eye) we move rather cinematically through the scene, as though the poet
were a camera. First we see a woman at a table. Then we see the girl on
the monkey-bars falling, hitting the ground in almost slow- motion. Then
we get closer to the woman and see that she is crying. And then we see
the tears like a river ÷ very close-up. And finally, "the grain of her
cheek fills the frame." I think this is important for several reasons:
it is almost like we are looking at the image of her under a microscope,
able to see cell divisions, a "grain." But also, it refers back to the
photographic trope throughout the piece ÷ a photo can be "grainy" when
overenlarged, and the "frame" would mark the edges of the image, another
photographic or cinematic term, as well as a literal frame in which a
photo could be placed.
B: The two sequences of photographs that appear and disappear on
that page are elongated lengthwise, similar to the widescreen format of
motion pictures. The effect is one of voyeurism, as the text is in second
person and implies that we might feel "uncomfortable" and that we "walk
away" before any "gesture of sympathy." Our access is somehow inappropriate.
Also, following this idea of access, this poem begins with epigraphs by
well- known poets, but inside we learn of Carolyn L. Gowan, whom I do
not believe is a public figure of any kind. This is a very particular,
A: Access does seem to be a key concept in the work's construction,
constantly drawing us in and blocking us. Later in my particular reading
of the poem, the theme of space and architecture became more and more
important. An example would be the long, collaged section on the Binghamton
Psychiatric Center. While some of the ironically collaged text from a
web page about the hospital is inviting us to come visit for a free, "serene"
"mental health break," the image of the hospital features a large metal
fence blocking most of the building from sight. We may be invited, but
the obstacles to access, or leaving, are foregrounded visually. There
is also a lot of information about architecture, some of it actually about
the hospital's structure as a "gothic castle." This idea of the gothic
(of something from the past threatening to overwhelm the present) seems
particularly appropriate when discussing a psychiatric hospital. The "castle"
concept echoes the quote that "neurotics build castles in the air and
psychotics live in them." Physical space becomes the manifestation of
that inner space of the mind which no one has access to.
The concept of houses is evoked in terms of the body and gender as well.
Houses, of course, represent the domestic sphere commonly occupied by
women. There is also a quote about the archaelogical ruins of a Paleolithic
Siberian society which indicate that in this culture, the left half of
houses were reserved for objects of women and the right half for objects
of men. This then connects with the repeated use of the word "left" (also
associated with wrong and evil in a later quote). Added together, this
is saying that women are "wrong" ÷ or at least that language and culture
implies such a thing through subtle associations and connotations. I follow
this chain of associations only as an example of how the reader must collaborate
in making meaning from a poem of this sort ÷ the text is much like a web
with meanings which reverberate off of one another as you continue to
make your way through it.
B: Yes, the issues of exteriority/interiority and left/right are
both spatial issues. The nature of the web-based media also has a dominant
spatial dimension. How do we conceive of the connection between hyperlinks
if not spatially? Emphasizing these different spatial factors takes advantage
of this medium. Another spatial factor is the relation of parts to the
whole. On the main page again, we see the face of a woman (presumably
Plath), but it is fragmented by the different sections that make up the
piece. Whatever identity that is to be uncovered will be fragmentary.
Some things will be disclosed, like bits of evidence, while others remain
concealed. What is in the purse? Who is the man standing next to the woman
on the bridge? The sound and music are additional elements of fragmentary
influence. We hear bits and pieces of lyrics decontextualized, creating
a haunted mood. In the end, although I am pulled in the direction of trying
to uncover the essence of some particular identity, I do not think that
there is a single identity to be uncovered. This piece is not about one
A: Other compositional elements which I think add to the feeling
of transience and instability in the piece are the screens of scrolling
text, the flashing images, and even the background color chosen for the
piece. The scrolling text and the flashing images demand that you place
your full attention on a screen immediately, or else you will miss something.
As new lines of text, for example, are uncovered, earlier lines disappear.
On some screens, they do not ever reappear. You are unable to see even
the entire piece of text you are reading at one time. The flashing images
work in a similar way. Color also seems important in the piece, especially
red, blue, and black. The black background color seems particularly interesting
to me in terms of space. When on "capriccio4" the text is broken with
large breaks, what one would normally call "white space" on a paper page,
the authors have created "black space." This sort of void has a very different
effect on the reader than white space, one which seems to work well with
the subject matter of the piece. Clearly, the composition here is as important
to the effect and meaning of the piece as the actual words are, highlighting
the fact that even in traditional poetry or prose presentation does have
an effect, even if that effect has been rendered invisible for readers
through its ubiquitous use.
A Sample Student Response to Illustrate Part Three
"Thoughts on Collaborative Writing Process"
When deciding on how to go about doing this assignment collaboratively,
my partner and I decided that we would work through the exhibit together
on the same computer. We spent quite a while exploring the exhibit and
following several paths. Although experiencing the exhibit separately
would allow for perhaps a greater variety of personal interpretation,
experiencing it simultaneously was more social and a better match for
how we went about writing our response to the assignment. After we had
finished going through Weepers to our satisfaction we began talking about
some of the issues and themes that we drew from the exhibit. But instead
of talking, we decided to conduct our conversation in writing by switching
off at the keys of the word processor. In this way, we were able to read
what the other person had articulated and use that as a point of departure
for our own comments. This allowed the writing to develop spontaneously,
unlike an essay with a formal structure written by a single commentator.
We thought that this technique would be a good way to brainstorm about
some of the issues that interested us with the exhibit. We planned to
use this conversation as a resource for a more organized essay, but instead
decided that the written conversation was interesting and compelling on
its own. We edited the conversation together and made minor changes to
clarify some points. We liked the flow of ideas and found that writing
down our ideas in this manner was very productive ö it both produced a
lot of substantive commentary and was more carefully argued than if we
had been speaking with one another and jotting down notes. I was impressed
with how many issues we were able to bring up in a brief conversation.
This technique may work better with me and my partner than for some other
pairs because we know each other well and are able to draw on a shared
vocabulary and knowledge base.
If I had written this alone, I would not have thought to discuss some
of the issues that my partner brought up, and it would have taken far
longer for me to organize my thoughts. My discussion would probably have
focused on one or two particular aspects of the exhibit rather than touching
on several more. What we came up with is not a 5-paragraph essay, but
what it lacks in organization it more than makes up for in dynamism and
wealth of ideas. I think the mediation of the text in this conversation
forced both of us to be more lucid and specific than we normally would
be in a spoken conversation. The collaboration also created a product
that neither of us could have come up with alone. I believe our efforts