Meta-Collaboration: Writing with Students to Engage Learning

In one of my favorite A Midsummer Night’s Dream passages by William Shakespeare, Theseus comments on the creation of poetry. Informing us that the “poet’s eye” in a “fine frenzy rolling” glances from “heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,” we learn about the process of making sense of the world and composing something about it.

I routinely share this passage with my English Composition students because I think that it teaches both them and me a useful lesson about writing. How often do we try to put abstract ideas into concrete form? How do we turn an early, ethereal topic into something that our readers will understand as much as one’s own neighborhood?

As a teacher of writing, I use this passage to remind me that I need to have realistic expectations of my students’ writing. How would I perform on the assignments I pass out to my students? What kind of essay would I write on the topics on which I ask my students to write? Would others appreciate what I have written? Is the advice and instruction I give my students actually good advice? What kind of essay would I write if I followed my own advice?

Too often, we grade and assess our students’ essays or essay exams from a perspective of the ideal. The A essay meets the expectations of an imagined A essay, not a realistic A. As educators, we have entire anthologies of great works in mind while we grade our own students’ work. Often when we grade and offer our comments, we expect more than the essay itself can hold. (Or as Shakespeare would put it, we see “more devils than vast hell can hold.”)

My hunch about unrealistic expectations and grading essays has been confirmed at workshop after workshop on writing and assessment. At a recent CLA in the Classroom workshop, faculty members expressed dismay and dissatisfaction with the writing samples provided, lamenting the decline of senior writing levels. Yet these educators failed to take into consideration the circumstances of the writing situation—90 minutes to read a series of unfamiliar documents embedded with layers of bias and write well-argued positions on the given topic.

My solution? Engage in what I call meta-collaboration. Write an essay each semester with your students. Complete the essay exam before passing it out to students. Do the writing assignments with students during the writing process. I participate in writing with my students, and I have discovered the following benefits:

  1. Realistic Expectations: Sometimes, it’s impossible to cram all the information we imagine students should into a 50-minute exam. Sometimes, vivid descriptions might be worthy requirements in a narrative essay, but does every sentence require such details? Sometimes, “brevity is the soul of wit.”
  2. Relevance of a Lesson or Assignment: Is it possible that some of the assignments we give our students are just busy work, with little applicable relevance? Are some lessons really “a waste of time,” requiring little engagement in learning?
  3. Share-It Culture: The Information Age and Digital Age have conjoined to create what I call the Share-It culture. With Facebook and YouTube, just to name a few, students love to share information and their work. My own use of an e-Portfolio, Epsilen, supported by the New York Times Knowledge Network, makes it easy to share my own writing with my students.

Obviously, we cannot write every assignment with our students, but my engagement in meta-collaboration as a means to highlight the process of writing has helped me to have realistic expectations and has improved the grading process itself. I feel “in-tune” with the assignment when I contribute my writing to it, making my evaluation of my students’ work a part of the process of writing rather than a distant observer with high, unrealistic expectations of an imagined product. In this respect, I see the educational environment as a “local habitation” of learning where we collaboratively engage in effective written communication.

Dan Kulmala, Ph.D. is an associate professor of English at Fort Hays State University.