Rhetoric and Composition/Collaborating

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What is Collaboration?[edit]

During your educational career, and later in your professional career, you will sometimes have to write with other people. Unfortunately, few students learn how to collaborate effectively since most school writing assignments are not collaborative. Outside the classroom, however, people often compose documents collaboratively (even though only a single author may receive credit for the piece). Newspaper reporters, novelists, and magazine writers collaborate extensively with their editors. Scholars collaborate with other scholars to review and add insight to each other's work. Business writers work closely with colleagues, administrators, and consultants to ensure that their work meets the relevant standards. Even poets meet to discuss their ideas and techniques. In short, all kinds of writers collaborate.

This chapter offers some strategies for successful collaboration. It also discusses some of the common pitfalls that can wreck an otherwise promising collaborative opportunity.

Advantages to Collaboration[edit]

An image of two shaking hands of different races.

Collaborating writers often produce strong documents because they have a greater pool of knowledge from which to draw. No two people have the exact same backgrounds, skills, knowledge bases, or thought processes. When collaborating with your team members, you can compare notes, ask each other questions, and discover how each member can best contribute. For example, perhaps one of your team members has extensive computer skills, while another is especially artistic. While these skills might seem to have little in common, they may actually end up complementing each other, which should allow your team to create a better project than any one person could do alone.

Disadvantages to Collaboration[edit]

Not everyone loves the idea of group work. Collaboration can take more time than individual writing, since the team will often need to meet to discuss changes or additions. Sometimes the document can become disjointed, especially if the authors have not tried to match their style and tone. Team members can also get pigeonholed into certain roles when they could be helpful in multiple parts of the project. A more common problem is that some team members do more work than others; you may end up picking up the slack for less responsible or motivated classmates or colleagues. More than one collaboration has ended with one or more team members quitting in disgust.

Overcoming these Disadvantages[edit]

  • Meet early on in your project to decide its direction.
  • Devise a way to evenly split up the work between members.
  • Create a time line for when the various sections are due.
  • Set up meetings where members can gather and share progress or obstacles.
  • Meet near the end of the project to make revisions.

Conducting Meetings[edit]

A meeting.

In order to have a successful meeting[edit]

  • Create an outline for the meeting.
  • Review the outline with members before the actual meeting begins.
  • When critiquing a team member's work be diplomatic.
  • Smaller meetings with partial attendance can work well when warranted.

Setting an Agenda[edit]

One group member is usually responsible for organizing the agenda. It is important to note that the agenda describes the purpose of the meeting. Without it, members may become frustrated or question why they are at the meeting in the first place. The agenda organizer should give all members a copy of the agenda well before the actual meeting takes place. He or she may need to communicate with the other members to gather ideas for the agenda, which can be done via email before the meeting. Each group member might want to look over the assignment sheet and discuss possible items to add to the agenda. They will want to consider all the stages that need to be accomplished in order to complete the assignment. The person organizing the agenda will record the suggestions and create an agenda (or outline) which can be distributed to the members and used to guide the subsequent meetings. Including a time line can also help keep the group on task.

Sample Agenda

Taking Minutes[edit]

It is important to keep a brief and accurate record of group meetings, with infromation such as:

  • Dates
  • Attendees
  • Discussion Points

At each group meeting, elect one member to record the discussion, or take the meeting minutes. The minutes should be a brief summary of the main points discussed, and will roughly follow the agenda format. A copy of the minutes should be distributed to each member within a day of the meeting. A record of decisions made and tasks assigned can prevent conflicts by keeping team members from playing "the blame game."

Communicating Away from Meetings[edit]

There are other ways to communicate with team members when face-to-face meetings are impossible. E-mail allows you to quickly deliver the same message to multiple people, and the recipients can respond at their convenience. The telephone works great if you only have to call a small number of people and deliver a short message. Memos are a lot like e-mail, but will take more effort to send. A fax will also work to communicate information to other group members. All you need to do is decide which form of communication will work best for the respective message.

Strategies for Effective Collaboration[edit]

The two most important aspects of effective collaboration are discussion and planning.

If group members participate in active, open discussion, the group will be more likely to share a clear understanding of the assignment. The assignment may be divided up among the group members or all aspects of the assignment may be worked on collaboratively. Open discussion can also help an individual overcome obstacles. For many students, it is easier to tackle obstacles as a team than it is to do so alone.

It is very important to schedule group meetings when all members are able to attend. Committing to these scheduled times will help the group meet the required deadline in a timely manner. Although it is most useful to meet with the group in person, group meetings can also take place online when meeting in person is impossible.

  • Be honest about your abilities. If you know you aren't good at something specific, let your group members know. They'll respect you for your honesty.
  • If you're unhappy with the way a project is going, say so. This is your grade and you have a right to let your instructor know when things aren't going the way you think they should.
  • Respect your group members. Everyone has something unique to contribute to the project. You may not agree on everything, but being kind is sometimes the most important ingredient in getting things accomplished.
  • Have fun. Although it's homework, this is an opportunity to get to know new people.
  • Be responsible for your part. Do the work that's expected but don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

An Example of Collaborative Work/Group Conferencing[edit]

A female acrobat balancing on top of another.
Acrobats at Cirque du Soleils Nouvelle Experience Finale 1994.

Many students struggle with group/peer editing, and when they are put in small groups and told to help each other with their papers, they have no idea how to do so effectively, usually resulting in a lot of patting one another on the back, fixing a few commas, and then having a long conversation about last night's game. Little constructive work comes from these meetings. Many have created worksheets for students to follow, but these worksheets often invite brief and unhelpful comments. Students, however, can be taught how to do this well by having "group conferences." A group conference consists of three steps: One, students are put into groups of three, four, or five (four is ideal) and give drafts of their papers to one another, so that each student has a copy of every other student's paper in the group. Two, students read each others' papers and fill out a "group conferencing worksheet," which is very much like a peer editing worksheet; be sure to only ask open-ended questions. Three, students get together as a group with an experienced writing instructor or tutor who leads them through the worksheet, asking them the questions on the worksheet but making sure that they answer them thoroughly. The key to this is that the instructor or tutor has not read the papers. Because they don't know what the papers are about, how they are organized, how they support their arguments, or even what the purpose of the paper is, they can ask all kinds of probing questions that help the students to not only think critically about the papers they are working on, but also learn what kinds of questions make peer review effective.

If students go through this process with some guidance a couple times, their self-directed peer sessions should be more productive afterward. Students will learn to think critically about the writing of others as well as their own. Additionally, it is more productive and interesting for students because, unlike a regular one-on-one conference with an instructor, they get the input of several readers.

Planning and Prewriting · Researching