In order to write effectively across audiences and contexts, I teach collaboration as a skill for negotiating relationships in the classroom, community, and workplace. My goal as a writing instructor is to teach students to name their differences as a way to understand difference in others. This understanding is the foundation of my focus on teaching collaboration; that in order to collaborate we must be able to see and respect our differences to foster empathy for one another, from peers and community members, to future clients and colleagues. I foreground collaboration with intersectionality, that systems of power affect us differently based on our social and cultural identities (race, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, etc.). My experience teaching a professional writing capstone course taught me that collaboration is a job requirement across the landscape of professional work. I believe that if students can understand their own identities they are better able to empathize with the experiences of others, thus communicating more effectively and consciously.
One method I’ve used to teach collaboration is a “step across the line” activity for students to see one another’s differences and similarities. I schedule this activity before major collaborative writing projects. I use “cross the line if” statements about education, mental illness, personal safety, and access to technology, to name a few. At the end of the activity, I facilitate a discussion about what they noticed and felt during the exercise. Across the courses I’ve done this exercise, students are generally surprised at both the diversity of experiences of their peers and the alarming oppression of others. For example, men are surprised to learn that women use a variety of personal safety tactics when walking alone at night (walking in groups, pretending to talk on the phone, carrying keys like a weapon, etc.). This empathetic response is the beginning of my approach to teaching collaboration.
In Introduction to Professional Writing, my students worked with Nuestros Cuentos, a Lansing-based community project in which Latinx elementary students wrote stories about their families and home communities to be published in a book. My students collaborated on promotional videos targeted to potential funders, social media strategies, and posters focused on art, community, and education. But because my students were primarily white, I foregrounded this project with a unit on privilege and cross-cultural technology design (Huatong Sun). One group created a logo for Nuestros Cuentos. Before making the logo, they did research on the meaning of different colors and shapes to Latinx cultures and communities. Then, collaborating with the director, they chose a combination of orange, yellow, and green. Working collaboratively and consciously, students were able to recognize their limited knowledge before creating cultural representations outside their own experiences and identities.
In another Intro to PW course, I partnered with REO Town Commercial Association and Violet & Fortuna, a contemporary circus duo who perform regionally from Lansing to Toledo. Students collaborated to create social media strategies, promotional packets, brochures, and researched and composed reports on REO Town’s history and international circus festivals, respectively. Before my students met their community partners, we discussed previous experiences with group work, identifying unequal workload and different working styles as the two biggest problems they encounter. I then introduced collective approaches to collaboration that focus on active listening, including and valuing all ideas, and addressing conflict through empathy and communication. What I found was that students who usually take charge during group work were consciously making room for more input from their collaborators. And students who tend to remain quiet during group work, shared their ideas more often.
In teaching collaboration as collective practice, I challenge students to understand their power, privilege, and oppression in relation to others because I believe that students who are able to empathize with one another, will more meaningfully impact our institutions, communities, and futures.