Rhetoric and Composition/Collaborating
What is Collaboration?
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
Collaboration creates a thinking environment that produces thoroughly developed theses by opening discussion to include an awareness of opposing views and an access to diverse perspectives. 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
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 classmates or colleagues. More than one collaboration has ended with one or more team members quitting in disgust.
Overcoming these Disadvantages
- 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.
In order to have a successful meeting
- Be sure to plan meetings as early as possible for scheduling purposes.
- 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
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.
Posting the agenda Your group will need to know what is on the agenda before the meeting. This should be updated at the end of the last meeting, and could be posted in a Google doc with the meeting minutes. To-do lists give each member something concrete to do, and creating relationships within those tasks based on your project gives your group a creative advantage.
It is important to keep a brief and accurate record of group meetings, with information such as:
- 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."
Recursive Minutes with Google Docs
For longer projects with continuous minutes to be tracked, project members can create a Google Doc that tracks what was discussed at meetings and the steps going forward. Setting up a document is easy--just start a document and include the information most pertinent to your project. The benefits of tracking minutes using Google Docs include:
- Live meeting updates for members who are unable to attend.
- Synchronous/asynchronous editing, comments, and suggestions for collaborative contribution.
- Include to-do lists and keep members accountable for each other
Communicating Away from Meetings
As is often the case when working with multiple people, you may find it difficult to coordinate group meetings that fit well into every group member’s schedule. It is in times such as these when outside communication becomes crucial to whether a group succeeds or fails. When face-to-face meetings become impossible, you might find that there are other ways to communicate with your team members. E-mail allows you to quickly deliver the same message to multiple people, and the recipients can respond at their convenience. Communication via telephone may also work, but only if you have to call a small number of people or deliver a short message. Memos are quite similar to e-mail, but will require a greater effort on your part to send. A fax will also work to communicate information to other group members, assuming that they have a machine capable of receiving such messages. If needed, internet social media accounts may also be used in order to contact your group members that have prominent online presences. The final choice is ultimately up to you in deciding which form of communication will work best for the message you intend to send.
Using technology to communicate away from meetings
Using Google technologies allows groups a familiar and cohesive collaborative platform. Here are a few ways to use Google software in your collaborative project.
Using a cloud-based file storage system allows for groups to access and store files that are important to the project.
Creating a Google Circle creates a group message where users are updated when new messages are posted.
Strategies for Effective Collaboration
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.
- Determine organizational roles: e.g coordinating meeting times and location, file distribution and organization, outside expenses. Ask for help if you are unsure of your role and how to do it well.
- 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.
- When communicating in meetings, strive for solutions rather than highlighting the issues.
- Respect your group members. Everyone has something unique to contribute to the project. Use others to help them with their duties in the project.
- Have fun. Although it's homework, this is an opportunity to get to know new people.
An Example of Collaborative Work/Group Conferencing
Students are unsure of how to effectively edit each other’s work, and can easily become distracted. They need to carefully review their peers’ work in order to provide constructive criticism. Little productive work comes from group 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."
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 multiple readers in an engaging and diverse learning opportunity.