Assigning Graduate Student Digital Co-Authorship: A Student's Perspective
Contributor: Krista Speicher Sarraf
Affiliation: West Virginia University
Released: 15 January 2021
Published: Spring 2020 (Issue 25.2)
Acknowledgments and Permissions: I would like to acknowledge Danning Liang, my co-authorship partner for the seminar paper described in this piece. Thank you to Danning for making my first required graduate school co-authorship experience so positive. I also thank Danning for giving me permission to publish this piece about our co-authorship experience. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Dr. Mary Stewart, who designed the co-authorship assignment in her “Collaborative Learning and Digital Authorship” seminar at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and, through that assignment, exposed me to the joys and challenges of digital academic co-authorship. I am also grateful to Dr. Stewart for giving me permission to share in this article her in-class group contract activity.
It’s a sunny fall day, and at a sunlit table in a small cafe, we tap away on our laptops. The scent of coffee and scones fills the room, and voices hum in the background. My cell phone’s alarm chimes, the sound of bells marking the end of our 10-minute free write. We stop writing and eyeball each other’s entries in our Google Document. “I see we both wrote about how our data suggests that collaboration, although it’s hard, can facilitate creativity in writing,” I say. Danning nods. “And even non-creative writers can learn from that,” she adds.
The purpose of this piece is to share my experience as a graduate student with composing a co-authored article as a required assignment in a graduate seminar. The above description illustrates one scene from my experience: my co-author, Danning, and I sat at a coffee shop and used Google Docs and face-to-face conversation to co-author a course paper for a graduate seminar titled “Collaborative Learning and Digital Authorship.” In the above scene, Danning and I independently typed our own interpretations of our coded data. Then we verbally discussed our typed reflections. This is just one example of how Danning and my co-authorship was simultaneously technology-mediated (the laptops, the cell phone alarm) and embodied (the scent of coffee and scones, the voices in the background). It is also one example of how individual reflection (independent freewriting) and collaborative dialogue (face-to-face conversation) jointly aided in the co-construction of meaning.
At the end of the semester, Danning and I submitted our digital academic composition—a Wix website of our qualitative study of two co-authoring creative writings. We also submitted individual reflection papers. The present write-up draws on my reflection piece. Although we agreed to keep the Wix site private as we pursue publication of our work, and so a link to the site is excluded from this article, I have included screenshots as needed.
Reflective work fosters individual transformation, and reflection sometimes requires solitude (Garrison, 2017). My choice to write this article as a single author is intentional and, I believe, allows for the kind of reflection that a co-authored article might not support. Further, several co-authored reflections or studies of collaborative authorship already exist in the literature, leaving room for solo authored reflections (Andersen & Robidoux, 2011; Ede & Lunsford, 1983; Lunsford & Ede, 1992; Mullen & Kochan, 2001; Yancey & Spooner, 1998; Zutshi, McDonald, & Kalejs, 2012). Thus, I also wish to illustrate how co-authored research articles can be followed by single-authored reflective pieces (like this one) about co-authorship and help graduate students to make sense of their collaborative authorship experiences.
In this article, I argue that graduate co-authorship as experiential learning can deepen students’ understandings of collaborative learning and digital authorship and offer a valuable professionalization opportunity. To support this argument, first I introduce the context of the assignment; then, I introduce my co-author, Danning, and I describe the unique elements of our relationship. Then, I review the exigence for assigning co-authored graduate seminar papers and recent related literature. After, I use Randy Garrison’s (2017) community of inquiry framework for assessing learning to analyze my co-authorship experience. Finally, I propose that graduate instructors assign peer collaboration between graduate students, asking them to co-write with other graduate students as a requirement of seminars. I conclude with takeaways for peer collaboration between composition and rhetoric graduate students, and for graduate instructors wishing for students to co-author seminar papers with other students. Through this discussion, I aim to illustrate that students and instructors can take deliberate steps to construct a positive environment that supports peer collaboration between graduate students.
This manuscript describes a collaborative authorship experience between two graduate students: the author (Krista Speicher Sarraf) and her co-author (Danning Liang). Both PhD students in a Composition and Applied Linguistics program at the time of our co-authorship, Danning and I became co-authors through a required assignment in an elective course, “Advanced Seminar Collaborative Learning & Digital Authorship.” The final assignment of the course, students were required to work in groups of 2-3 people to collaboratively produce a final project on a topic, genre, and format of the group's choice (see the assignment sheet). The only requirement, other than that the project was collaboratively composed, was that students had to produce a digital academic composition, which could be a linear webtext (see an example) or a multimedia argument (see an example), and that students submit an individually written reflective essay that analyzes their experiences with collaborative learning and digital authorship. This article, in fact, began as my reflective essay, and it aims to argue for the value of collaborative digital authorship and reflective writing about these co-authorship experiences as a means to prompt critical reflection. Further, it was this course that exposed me to the texts that shaped my thinking for this article:
- Garrison, R.D. (2017). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd. Ed). New York: Routledge.
- Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Participation. New York: Cambridge UP.
Interested readers can browse the assignment sheet for collaborative digital authorship project in the links above; now, I turn to the relationship between my co-worker, Danning, and me, before I turn to the scholarly exigence for graduate student co-authorship.
It is important to note that Danning and I were friends and colleagues before we became co-authors. From the day I met Danning—orientation day for our PhD program—I liked her and was thrilled to have her as a cohort member. Danning and I saw each other several times a week in class, as we took four graduate courses together before becoming co-authors. I also saw Danning weekly for our regular cohort study sessions in the library, for which our cohort met for two to four hours each week to study together. Although my 45 minute commute from my home to campus prevented me from regularly socializing with my cohort outside of class, Danning and I also spent social time together (which generally involved food) about once a month.
Danning and my relationship prior to our co-authorship may have affected our co-authorship in several ways. For example, our prior relationship meant that we understood each other's working styles and entered our co-authorship with that mutual understanding. Whereas Danning tended to work late at night and up until the deadline, I tended to work on a 9am-5pm schedule and in advance. I will admit that when I began working with Danning, I worried that my "Type A" personality might clash with her more laidback personality. However, when our instructor noted our mutual interest in collaborative writing, as well as our mutual desire to build a website using HTML, our instructor matched us as co-authors.
While prior to my co-authorship with Danning, I considered her a friend—we supported one another through our victories and frustrations in the program— it was our co-authorship experience that deepened our friendship. Our working styles continue to differ, but our complementary strengths allowed us to complete our co-authored project on-time and, thanks to Danning, even while having fun. Here, many graduate instructors and graduate students may argue that Danning and my co-authorship is unique—other co-authors with such different working styles, or with a less established friendship—might not complete their projects on-time, and may have very little fun. One the one hand, I agree with those readers who claim that co-authorship can be disastrous for co-authors’ relationships. But on the other hand, I still insist that graduate students need the opportunity to co-author while in graduate school so they learn about their own authorship style and authors with whom they may be compatible. After all, experiencing co-authorship through a graduate class means that a graduate instructor can offer support to help co-authorship teams build positive working relationships. Ultimately, what is at stake here is graduate students’ preparation for academic work and enactment of disciplinary concepts, such as collaborative learning. Engaging in co-authorship during course seminars can facilitate that preparation and enactment.
Ultimately, my description of Danning and my relationship suggests that Danning and my co-authorship experience was shaped by our friendship. Further, our co-authorship depended upon significant amounts of face-to-face time and material resources, such as sharing food. It is true that students may not have the personal budget to prepare food for others, and so Danning and my food-sharing practice might not be replicable for other graduate student co-authors. Thus, our experience cannot be generalized to students who are not in the same location, or who are unable to align their schedules to meet face-to-face. Time, energy, and labor goes into building relationships, and different people manage that type of labor in different ways. Danning and I built our relationship over food that we shared face-to-face and with the luxury of long hours to spend working face-to-face. For other graduate student co-authors, they will need to manage the labor of relationship-building in ways that suit them.
Another important element of Danning and my relationship is that it required us to work across national, political, and cultural borders. Danning is a Chinese citizen and has international student status in our doctoral program. I am an American citizen and am, moreover, a long-term resident of the state in which our program is located. Thus, our co-authorship required us to navigate and potentially transcend these borders. Even if we were both American students, we would approach our work with different positionalities and identities, and therefore need to engage in border-crossing practices (Ye Wang et al., 2016). Below, I argue that graduate student digital co-authorship allows students to practice border-crossing, which prepares us for academic publishing in international academic contexts.
Why Graduate Student Digital Co-Authorship?
The world of academia is increasingly global, asking much of newly minted doctoral candidates, from the ability to show independent thinking to the ability to negotiate meaning and work across borders. In recent years, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) (2017) Statement on Globalization in Writing Studies Pedagogy and Research urged Writing Studies to take seriously that globalization has increased opportunities for cross-border collaborations, whether the borders crossed are political, disciplinary, or rank-based. Globalization is impacting graduate education in writing studies by encouraging “the building of new relationships across global and local lines” (CCCC, 2017, para. 3). To successfully engage in the border-crossing that results from globalization, composition and rhetoric graduate students need to be trained in border-crossing practices. These practices must support relationship building, reciprocal knowledge-making, and community.1
Peer co-authorship among graduate students may help graduate programs to meet their "pedagogical objective" of teaching graduate students how to navigate the world of academic publishing while fostering border-crossing (Ye Wang et al., 2016, p. 1). Although Web 2.0 supports collaboration across time and space and challenges traditional notions of solitary authorship as the norm in our field, as Douglas Eyman, Stephanie Sheffield, and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (2009) argued, in graduate school, "there is a kind of schizophrenic practice enacted—we see, acknolwedge, and even study (and research) the innately collaborative process of knowledge construction while simultaneously being assessed as singular authors" with explicit collaboration being left out of coursework. In other words, as graduate students, we learn that our field understands writing as necessarily social, yet as graduate students we are rarely required to enter into co-authorship with other students. Considering a key threshold concept of our field is that writing is a social and rhetorical activity (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015), it is necessary for graduate student professionalization to include co-authorship.
Graduate Student Digital Co-Authorship and the Threshold Concepts
Several current understandings of writing inform the assigning of co-authored projects. These understandings are foundational to Writing Studies and embedded in the threshold concepts that shape our field's understanding of the teaching and learning of writing. Taczak and Yancey (2015) argued that faculty can use threshold concepts to shape instructor-designed delivered curriculum, the lived curriculum (shaped by prior courses and curriculum), and the experienced curriculum (enacted by students). Several threshold concepts support assigning co-authored work in graduate classes:
- Writing is a social and rhetorical activity and writing is a knowledge-making activity: Co-authorship allows graduate students to experience writing as a social, rhetorical, and knowledge-making activity. Due to calls for composition and rhetoric scholars to adopt collaborative writing practices both in their classrooms and their scholarly work (Ede & Lunsford, 2001), small group discussions, peer review, writing groups, and writing centers are now mainstream in U.S. composition programs. While scholarship has examined doctoral peer review and writing groups (Wegener, Meier, & Ingerslev, 2016), a less examined scenario is peer collaboration between graduate students to meet a seminar requirement.
- Writing is a technology through which writers create and recreate meaning: Writing is a technology supported by tools (keyboards, pens) and media (pages, books, screens). Graduate student co-authorship is supported by digital tools to compose (computer, Google Documents, WhatsApp, etc.) and disseminate (Wix website) knowledge.
- Reflection is critical for writers’ development: Co-authored graduate student course papers can be followed by individually authored reflection papers about co-authorship experiences.
- Writing is an expression of embodied cognition: Co-authorship allows graduate students to experience writing as a physical and emotional activity, complicated by the chorus of multiple bodies.
The above threshold concepts can be used to inform graduate student co-authorship assignments. Here, I wish to dwell on one threshold concept that is particularly relevant to the design of co-authorship assignments: writing is an expression of embodied cognition.
Embodiment and Emotion
Despite the digital nature of my composing experience, my co-authorship experience was a deeply physical and emotional one. Thus, graduate educators wishing to assign graduate student co-authorship can look to research on embodied cognition to anticipate graduate students’ experiences. Disability studies scholars developed theoretical framing for embodiment pedagogy, or pedagogy that attends to bodies (Butler, 2018; Cedillo, 2018; Dolmage, 2012). Other Writing Studies scholars have begun to attend to emotion as part of embodiment. Scholars have researched the impact of emotion on writing transfer (Driscoll & Powell, 2016), on student perceptions of feedback (Zumbrunn, Marrs, & Mewborn, 2016), and on writing proficiency (Mohammadi & Izadpanah, 2018). In this piece, I use Garrison’s (2017) definition of emotion in collaborative learning: “emotion is an affective state that fluctuates with the social conditions” (p. 41). Embodied and affective elements of writing necessarily arise in my analysis of my own co-authorship experience, as co-authorship cannot be divorced from the body and environments engaged in the collaboration.
Above, I described the threshold concepts that inform my understanding of my digital co-authorship experience. Below, I analye my experience using a third framework that helped me to make sense of my experience: the Community of Inquiry Framework (CoI).
Community of Inquiry Framework
I first encountered Garrison’s (2017) E-learning in the 21st century as part of the reading list for the graduate seminar for which I was required to co-author. The community of inquiry framework is a well-known and empirically supported framework used to study collaborative writing (Hilliard & Stewart, 2019; Stewart, 2017, 2018), including how digital technology (Edwards, 2011; Zhou, Simpson, & Domizi, 2012) and relationships (Yang, 2014) support collaboration. The community of inquiry framework offers methods for knowledge construction through three elements: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.
Garrison (2017) argued that a community of inquiry with social, cognitive, and teaching presence helps students “take control of their learning by negotiating meaning, diagnosing misconceptions, and challenging accepted beliefs” (p. 24). Students in a community of inquiry do this important work through inquiry—“the process of actively searching for personal meaning and shared understanding” - and collaboration - engagement and discourse with other participants (Garrison, 2017, p. 24).
Both reflection and discourse are essential in a community of inquiry. Reflection is “the ability to think critically (rational judgement)” and discourse is “conversation, inquiry, debate, and instruction” (p. 17). Garrison (2017) stated, “An educational experience has a dual purpose. The first is to construct personal meaning through reconstruction of experience. The second is to refine meaning and confirm understanding collaboratively with a community of learners” (p. 15). Reflection aids in personal meaning-making, while discourse revises meaning-making.
Although the community of inquiry framework was developed to analyze e-learning situations, digital authorship and writing practices challenge limited notions of e-learning as referring only to fully online courses. In fact, Garrison (2017) defined e-learning as “the utilization of electronically mediated asynchronous and synchronous communication for the purpose of thinking and learning collaboratively” (p. 2). Digital authorship and writing make use of electronically mediated asynchronous and synchronous communication tools (like Google Docs and library databases). Thus, digital authorship and writing necessarily constitute e-learning. More specifically, graduate digital co-authorship is “blended learning,” or “blending face-to-face and online learning activities using synchronous and asynchronous verbal and written modes of communication that are congruent with the intended goals” (Garrison, 2017, p. 101). Throughout the remaining discussion, I use Garrison’s community of inquiry framework to analyze my co-authorship/collaborative learning experience in a blended environment.
Analysis of My Digital Co-Authorship Experience
Successful digital co-authorship requires social presence. A community of inquiry includes three categories of social presence: affective communication, open communication, and cohesive responses. In my experience, each social presence category supported Danning and my ability to function as a community of inquiry in our blended learning environment. Garrison (2017) described an advantage of written communication as promoting reflection: “asynchronous written communication is not only reflective but it is less intimidating and encourages intellectual risk taking. This freedom of expression in turn enhances the face-to-face session as more students participate” (p. 104). Danning and I used a Google Document to brainstorm, outline, and free write. The Google Doc aided in private reflection to precursor verbal discussion.
In my experience, asynchronous written communication encouraged intellectual risk-taking. Below, I share a screenshot of a shared prewriting and outlining Google Doc (Figure 3). During an early writing session, Danning and I sat across the table, and we each opened the Google Doc. Then, individually and on separate pages, we free wrote in response to a shared prompt “how are we going about answering our research question and, so far, what is it that we are arguing?”
Because we wrote on separate pages, we generated our own thoughts about our data’s relationship to our research question. The text-based Google Document helped to balance reflection and discourse, a clear advantage over verbal discourse, which “favors a spontaneous and less reflective process” (Garrison, 2017, p. 53).
For discourse to work, Garrison (2017) wrote that the community of inquiry (CoI) must have a shared purpose and mutual trust. In other words, the CoI must have a strong social presence. Social presence refers to the people in the community environment and the resulting work environment. Social presence contains three dimensions: affective communication, open communication, and group cohesion. The first dimension, affective communication, refers to the emotional climate in a CoI. My experience with the co-authorship project involved a positive emotional climate that supported my team's inquiry and meaning-making process.
Garrison (2017) wrote that in online environments, emoticons, capitalization, humor, personal references, and self-disclosure support a respectful and welcoming emotional environment. Danning and I used these techniques often; for example, in our project's group contract, we wrote in response to an group contract in-class activity that Danning, "creates a non-stressful academic atmosphere by reminding Krista that the world will not end if our product is not perfect, as this experience is about learning" (p. 4). The combination of humor (gently poking fun), personal reference (as we had talked in-person about my Type A personality), and self-disclosure (as it took some vulnerability for me to be honest and reflective about the stress I feel), demonstrate how Danning and I established a connection that allowed us to draw on our strengths and complement each other's weaknesses during the collaboration. In this way, these details illustrate one way to build trust that enables open communication.
In another example, Danning cooked for us on our writing days (Figure 4). This enriched the feeling of good-will between us, as I felt supported and cared for by her (and pleasantly fueled for writing). I offered my writing center office as a space to write, brought snacks, and used humor to create a positive emotional climate for Danning. Beyond creating a positive work environment, these gestures helped me to feel comfortable openly communicating with Danning, as our co-authorship felt trusting. In fact, the trusting relationship we built in our co-authorship extended beyond the classroom. The screenshot from our WhatsApp group below shows Danning and my conversation about finding a work space for our next writing session. The picture I sent Danning—sent the evening after an afternoon writing session—shows the sushi Danning made for my husband and me and shares our excitement about the treat.
To be clear, Danning and my food sharing started during our co-authorship experience, and it extended beyond work sessions and into our personal lives (for example, Danning conspired with me by creating a a Tomato Egg Drop Soup recipe for my Chinese cooking gift to my husband).
After all, when students conduct group work or collaborative writing, much of their relationship will develop outside of class. In this way, the affective dimension of our community of inquiry facilitated our overall co-authorship and, I would argue, paved the way to a long-term working relationship. A wonderful outcome for a graduate program is to meet people with whom you will co-author, and in-class co-authorship allowed us to forge a long-term professional relationship.
Open communication is the second dimension of social presence. Open communication in a successful community of inquiry must be respectful and honest, and trust between partners facilitates this kind of openness (Garrison, 2017). For Danning and me, technology facilitated open communication, especially the use of the “suggesting” mode and “comment” button in Google Documents. Rather than simply editing each other’s work, we responded to, questioned, and encouraged each other through suggestions and comments, which often included non-verbal cues like emoticons or softening phrases like “maybe” to give the other person the chance to disagree.
As Garrison (2017) argued, “A community of inquiry must be both inclusive and critical” (p. 37), and our use of the Google Doc comment feature allowed us to be inclusive of each other’s perspectives while also critiquing each other’s ideas. At times, we used the “suggesting” mode instead of comment mode to revise each other’s ideas more directly.
As illustrated above, Danning and my revisions pushed us closer to our common goal of articulating our research questions. We were able to critique and revise each other’s ideas because we shared a common goal and had a strong group identity.
The third category of social presence, group cohesion, also fostered our co-authorship. Garrison (2017) wrote that “using inclusive pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘our’” (p. 46) can help communities of inquiry to stay committed to their goals. Danning and I used “we” and “our” repeatedly in our group contract, such as in this line: “We arrived at this topic due to a shared interest in collaborative authorship, especially in multimodal and creative writing spaces, as well as our shared interest in experimenting with digital-born web texts and learning HTML” (p. 1). Here, the use of “we” and “our” indicates our cohesive identity. Further, the above excerpt from our contract illustrates the value of creating co-authorship groups based on shared interest in the same line of inquiry. Our team’s formation around our mutual, genuine interest in exploring our research questions supported our cohesive group identity. Of course, our personal friendship and compatible working styles also likely helped our sense of group cohesion.
Social presence and cognitive presence are overlapping domains within Garrison’s (2017) community of inquiry framework. My own co-authorship experience with Danning, particularly our positive emotional climate, open communication, and cohesive group identity, supported our ability to engage in critical thinking and discourse. Garrison outlines four phases of cognitive presence: triggering event, exploration, integration, and resolution. Importantly, collaborative dialogue helps individuals to move beyond personal reflection and toward critical awareness. Dialogue occurs during various stages of co-authorship. For example, consider how co-authors develop themes from coded data. Danning and my theme-generating writing session began with a triggering event: we needed to move from a list of codes to a list of themes. As we puzzled over this task, we entered the exploration phase of cognitive presence and used the chalkboard in our library study room to brainstorm how different codes might fit within larger themes. Then, we each free wrote for 10 minutes in the Google Document about the themes we saw in the coded data. As we entered the third phase, integration, we shared with each other our potential themes, noting agreement, disagreement, and new ideas. Then, we entered the fourth phase, resolution. During this phase, we opened NVivo and reviewed the transcripts. Then, we tested if the data fit the themes and revised accordingly, finally committing to a final list of themes. In this way, our blended learning environment supported our community of inquiry as we engaged in reflection and dialogue, both of which fostered critical thinking about our research project. Based on this analysis, it seems our experience with digital co-authorship as a course requirement stimulated critical thinking and growth.
The Rationale for Graduate Student Digital Co-Authorship in Required Assignments
Using my analysis of my experience as support, I am advocating for graduate student digital co-authorship to be assigned as required projects in graduate classes and to be followed by individual reflective essay assignments. Although graduate students may be encouraged to pursue co-authorship with one another outside of coursework, integrating graduate student co-authorship into coursework has two potential advantages for graduate students' professionalization as teachers and scholars. As teachers, required co-authorship may give graduate students a student's perspective of collaborative and digital pedagogies, which they may draw on for their own course designs. As scholars, required co-authorship in class can offer a supportive environment that gives graduate students the tools to pursue co-authorship beyond the classroom, both with other graduate students and with faculty.
Returning to the earlier discussion of embodiment and emotion, pursuing co-authorship in a classroom environment means that professors can encourage students toward management of emotions. Again, following Garrison’s (2017) definition of emotion as “an affective state that fluctuates with the social conditions” (p. 41), an advantage of co-authorship in graduate classes is that instructors can help set the social conditions. For example, our instructor required the co-authorship contract, a sort of social contract that set social conditions and set the expectation of a positive and supportive emotional experience. Ultimately, the teacher’s presence in a CoI framework sets the climate, goals, and direction of the educational experience, meaning that students have support in managing the affective and embodied components of learning.
Of course, some readers might argue that my single experience should not be used to shape pedagogy. While I acknowledge the limitations of a single graduate students' experience, I maintain that my experience allowed for critical thinking and learning writing with a CoI. Not to mention, the reflective piece of the graduate seminar assignment prompted my thinking about concepts I was learning both in that seminar and other seminars, including threshold concepts in writing studies and disciplinary commitments to cross-border work. Of course, there are many ways that graduate instructors might teach these concepts, and more research will be needed to determine the efficacy of graduate student digital co-authorship beyond my experience. My goal in this article simply is to demonstrate graduate student digital co-authorship as one, potentially viable pedagogy. Further, below I offer recommendations for students who enter into peer co-authorship and for graduate educators wishing to assign such projects.
Digital co-authorship taught me several lessons about collaboration and authorship that I will take into future collaborative learning experiences. Here, I share my takeaways and offer them to graduate student co-authors—these recommendations may be useful for students who are co-authoring in general (including for print publication), but it should be noted that I derive these suggestions from my experience with digital publication, specifically. While some of my suggestions may be relevant to collaborators in general, the suggestions resulted from a digital authorship experience and are not intended to be generalized. At the end of this text, I share these takeaways in bullet point form as recommendations for graduate educators.
Lesson 1: Reflect and Regulate Your Collaboration Process
Graduate students may find that intention shapes successful co-authorship experiences. Collaborative learning and writing require intention, as fully engaging in dialogue with members of the community of inquiry may not come naturally to all learners. Ede and Lunsford (1983) described co-authorship as “conceiving, drafting, and revising a text together” (p. 152). Danning and I fully conceived of, drafted, and revised our text using Google Documents, which allowed us to write/revise individually and together. Sometimes we divvied up writing responsibilities and assigned each group member a chunk of the article to write, and sometimes we literally typed on separate computers to write an article section together. We learned that some tasks best suited the first model; the literature review, for example, required separate reading so it made sense to assign each person a chunk of the literature to read and write about. Other tasks worked well with a closer collaboration; thematic analysis, for example, required the co-construction of meaning about the data. Thus, we used reflective freewriting to think about potential themes, but then—importantly—we literally typed our thematic analysis together, each using our own computer to type in the Google Document, modifying each other’s writing moment by moment. Metacognition also supports successful co-authorship experience. Metacognition, or being able to “regulate the thinking and learning process” (Garrison, 2017, p. 60), aids the kind of authorship that Ede and Lunsford (1983) identified. Danning and I engaged in metacognitive practices by beginning each meeting with consulting our timeline and contract, a conscious decision to monitor and manage our activities.
Lesson 2: Balance Project Vision and Team Skillset
Graduate students should also be aware of the range of options for digital academic authorship. Students may write traditional, linear PDF style articles and a variety of web-based texts like this one (or these: Price, 2009; Stewart, 2018;). Digital academic compositions are ideal for authors who wish to reflect their argument in their paper’s design. However, not all arguments require or support experimental design, and not all graduate student co-authors will have the skills—or the time to acquire the skills—needed to compose multimodal, non-linear texts. Thus, although Danning and I initially wanted to use HTML to code a digital born web text, our article was best supported by a linear, traditional academic article format, especially since our participants opted-out of video interviews. In other words, our article did not lend itself to video content. Not to mention, I had only used HTML to design one other website, and Danning would have needed to learn HTML in order to compose a web-text from scratch. So, we wrote a linear article and presented it using a simple, classic web layout. While simple, the web layout offers readers advantages over a static PDF layout, as readers can quickly navigate to the conclusion or methods section via the website (Figure 8).
Graduate students co-authoring digital academic compositions can use simple, elegant web design to support academic genres and gain exposure to digital composition; however, it's key that graduate student co-authors consider the resources and skillsets needed to engage in digital composition, ranging from understanding WYSIWYGs to coding.
Lesson 3: Discuss Authorship Order Early
Danning and I faced one last challenge that provides an important takeaway for graduate students: the authorship-order decision. Being that this was our first co-authorship experience, we lacked a clear model for regulating the authorship-order decision and decided on authorship order several weeks into the writing process. Ultimately, Danning and I chose alphabetical order for our co-authored article. Although we are both satisfied with our decision to list our names alphabetically, it would be better to be intentional about authorship at the beginning to ensure group cohesion, as authorship-order disagreements can lead to friction in collaborative writing groups. Graduate students who are negotiating authorship might consult APA’s guide and talk to more experienced writers.
Suggestions for Graduate Educators
To support graduate students as they navigate the challenges outlined above, teachers of graduate students may consider the following recommendations when assigning digital co-authored work:
- Allow students to choose their co-authorship partner. Encourage students to choose based on shared research interests, compatible working styles, and personal relationship.
- Ask students to write group contracts prior to beginning co-authorship and provide students with feedback on their contracts.
- Share your experiences with co-authorship and authorship order. For example, if authors are listed alphabetically, how is the workload divided? How do co-authors judge 50/50 distribution of work (by time spent, by number of words written, etc.)? What happens if a co-author does not hold on their end of the agreement (when can you bump a first author to second author status?)? For class projects in which students are required to share the workload 50/50, can students still choose first author based on type of contribution (like project management) or level of contribution (like having the initial research idea)? These questions merit in-class, large group discussion before writing groups begin to work together. That way, individual students can think about authorship order and how to handle potential scenarios. This provides students with a powerful tool for co-authorship discussions: students can reference the instructor’s suggestions to make the authorship order conversations less awkward.
- Encourage students to shape their group's emotional climate (by encouraging them to reveal personal details, using humor, including emoticons in communiques, etc.).
- Allow students to choose their digital composition's format (from digital born web text to linear text). Encourage students to align their composition choices with their argument. Also, help students to have realistic expectations about the additional work that complex digital designs require. If possible, scaffold co-authored projects so that the text-based article is due 3-4 weeks before the digital article due date. That way, students have enough time to prepare their digital compositions.
- Assign individual reflective writing so each student reaps the benefits of text-based, independent reflection to promote critical thinking about digital co-authorship.
The above recommendations offer teachers of graduate students with ways to assign digital co-authorship projects to graduate students.
Implications and Conclusion
Because many graduate students, including myself, also teach undergraduate composition, graduate students may use their co-authorship experience to develop undergraduate collaborative writing assignments. However, it is important to note that my experience with graduate level co-authorship may not extend to undergraduate contexts. However, some implications may be extended. For example, undergraduate students may appreciate some freedom in choosing their writing partner for such an extensive project. Additionally, group contracts and intentional efforts to shape the group’s emotional climate may help undergraduate student groups to succeed. For undergraduate students it will be especially important to scaffold co-authored digital compositions, with in-class workshop time to create web texts. Finally, the value of reflective writing also applies to undergraduate contexts, and teachers who assign undergraduates co-authored projects can grade individual students on their reflection essays, not on the text their group produces. This sends an important message to undergraduate and graduate students alike. The value of in-class co-authorship is not in the quality or effectiveness of the co-authored text, but is in the hands-on opportunity to co-construct meaning, challenge biases through dialogue, and engage in a community of inquiry.
Through exposure to collaborative learning theory and the community of inquiry framework, graduate students can deepen their understanding of collaborative learning and digital authorship. However, simply reading about collaborative learning and digital authorship is not enough to enact a community of inquiry. Graduate students should discuss collaborative learning concepts in class and create their own co-authored digital compositions. Through experiential learning, students may apply their knowledge of collaborative learning (like that social presence and cognitive presence overlap) to a real context (like by laughing with Danning when we eventually shucked my method of setting a timer for 25-minute work periods). As a result, graduate students can deepen their appreciation for collaborative learning and digital authorship. Perhaps most excitingly, in-class co-authorship assignments can empower graduate students to form co-authored research teams within and after graduate school.
It is also important to note that student co-authorship may have an unexpected benefit: collaborative authorship may be “a subversive alternative to patriarchal norms” (p. 53) that privilege the autonomous author (Doane & Hodges, 1995). Not only did Danning and I co-construct meaning, but we also engaged in the kind of relationship-building that feminist pedagogies prioritize. Danning and my experience sharing food, for instance, served as a kind of cultural exchange that not only built community but fostered productive border-crossing (i.e., sharing foods from our cultures) (CCCC, 2017). Composition and rhetoric scholars have explored the overlap between collaborative and feminist pedagogies (Martorana, 2017; Reda, 2009) and embodied pedagogies and feminist pedagogies (Wilcox, 2009), arguing that pedagogies can foster students’ sense of community and prize ways of knowing that depend on bodily and relational experiences, rather than cognitive and individualist ways of knowing. Future research on graduate student co-authorship might investigate what students learn to value from these assignments.
Ultimately, graduate digital co-authorship invites graduate students into an important style of academic writing and knowledge-construction. In my experience as a graduate student in 2019, collaborative writing is now mainstream only in some parts of my academic experience. Small group discussions, peer review, writing groups, the writing center, and co-authorship with faculty members have been part of my academic training. However, I have only been required in-class to co-author once (the experience shared in this paper). Of course, “out there in the real world” scholars in our field voluntarily enter co-authorship. Perhaps scholars learn on the job the lessons I have shared here, such as the importance of the authorship-order discussion, etc. Even so, it is exciting to imagine that graduate educators can proactively assist in graduate students’ professionalization to include co-authorship.
Lastly, I wish to address a common hold-up to assigning collaborative writing: the worry that group dynamics will fail. However, my experience illustrates how students can take deliberate steps to construct a positive environment. Of course, some collaborations may fail regardless of students’ efforts to construct positive environments, and Danning and I possibly succeeded because of our individual personalities and prior relationship. However, it is eye-opening to consider how students can purposefully use humor, personal references, and self-disclosure to build a positive emotional climate. And even if the co-authored product fails and the group dynamics are painful, graduate students who co-author for class still learn invaluable lessons and writing, learning, and meaning-making as necessarily social activities. After all, remember our field’s Threshold Concept 4.2: Failure can be an important part of writing development (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015).
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