Group Writing Activities
I was asked in one of my classes to respond with my thoughts on group writing activities, and to detail my experiences with them. I decided that I would archive it here. Reading it back again, I realize that I did not make it clear that I feel that they are a valuable real world writing practice. However, in the academic environment I think they fail— that is the important distinction.
I feel they [group writing activities] are rarely successful, unless done among people who are equally motivated and at the same stage of educational development. They privilege the vocal, and minimize the contribution of those who are at lower levels of development in the pursuit of affirmation. They increase the disparity between those who can and those who can’t. However, collaborative writing can be highly successful among those of different skill types where distinct and individual functions with some degree of autonomy are assigned. I have great reservations about the focus on group writing in lower level courses, where skill levels and types are difficult to discern; while it is useful to use reading groups, I think writing groups grossly fail.
The majority of my experience in the English department was in a seminar group environment. It was quite successful. My group experiences in the Rhetoric department were horrible failures, with only two exceptions: A group presentation in Rhetorical theory (graduate level) where each group member explored a single topic (not a writing project), and Advanced Expository writing with Dr. Herrmann. Again, the class with Dr. Herrmann was more of a seminar-reading-response type atmosphere, rather than collaborative writing.
I believe that writing is individually constructed but socially constituted. Too much emphasis on either pole is dangerous. If the project is to constitute meaning, then group-work is essential for effective communication. However, the production of a text is an individual activity necessarily deals with the metalepsis of individual cognition of a perceived audience. Group writing does not remove this limitation, but usually exacerbates it by introducing a sort of noise into the process of invention, in the form of contradictory perceptions of the audience envisioned. Unless bound together by distinct individual talents (distributed cognition) toward a distinct action-oriented end, group writing fails. Loose structures, facilitated by the expressivist turn in most compositionists, thwart the distinctness needed for successful group projects. Group writing is a poor fit to most current pedagogy, but it is forced there by a poor understanding of social constructivism.
In my experience, most group writing activities are purely bullshit sessions. I have generally taken a submissive role: if there is a dominant voice, I will listen and do whatever task they decide for me. In the case of the Rhetorical theory assignment, my task was “Jeff improvises for fifteen minutes.” I could handle that. The dominant voice prepared a beautifully choreographed presentation, built from individual tasks. In undergraduate groups, the lack of motivation and the absence of a complex task made it easier for me to just complete the “group” assignment myself, and allow the rest of the group to coast along with me. I refuse, in most cases, to step up to be a dominant voice. I spent many years as a manager, and a trainer. If tasks assigned in school were complex, and people in the group had differing skills to access, I would have done what the dominant voice in my graduate group did. This, in my undergraduate experience was never the case. Given the simplistic nature of the tasks involved, there was no need for distributed roles. To assign them would be an unnecessary imposition of my character on the group. It was easier just to complete the assignment myself. I did not come to school to relearn “manager-mode.”