Teaching Collaboration in Writing
 by Rebecca Dunham

The Assignment: Collaboration in Writing in Three Parts

Sample Conversation Between Two Students Illustrating Part Two

Sample Student Response Illustrating Part Three

The Assignment: Collaboration in Writing

Part One

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.

Part Two

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 the text).

Part Three

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 to overcome?

Collaborative 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, private access.

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 person.

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"
Person B

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 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 were synergistic.