A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Collaborative Writing in the Digital Age: A Review of Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies

Review of Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies Edited by Laura McGrath 2011; Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press

Dev Bose, Iowa State University

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/collaborative-approaches (Published: April 21, 2015)

How do digital humanities scholars approach collaboration, and why should they put forth the required time and effort? While these questions are not new to the field of computers and composition, Laura McGrath addresses the challenges of conducting collaborative field research in a cogent style in . McGrath, associate professor of English at Kennesaw State University, has compiled an anthology of essays reviewing the role of collaboration in digital writing, online learning, and faculty development. She explores how compositionists have used collaborative approaches to frame their research, by examining both qualitative and quantitative methods. She analyzes the ways these scholars have utilized collaboration to successfully develop research projects at instructional and institutional levels, including online writing curricula and digital writing initiatives. While it may seem repetitive to examine projects that have already been put into place, McGrath has three main goals in doing so: 1) to examine digital tools and texts as multimodal collaborations; 2) to demonstrate the potential of generating digital user practices through collaborative approaches; and 3) to raise discussion about “long-standing stereotypes about the lone humanities scholar” that accompany integrating collaboration into scholarship (1).

McGrath follows a classic structure in the field, the typical reference anthology. The book consists of two parts, titled “Scholarship, Research, and Professionalization” and “Teaching and Learning,” and is bookended by an introduction and a section about the contributors, respectively. Each part contains five chapters. Authorship strategically keeps in practice with the book title: Only two chapters are single-authored creations, the rest being multi-authored. The book is available in bound and digital formats, although, somewhat regretfully, the downloadable PDF file from the Computers and Composition Digital Press website does not include hyperlinked headers at the time of publishing this review.

After broadly introducing the anthology’s major themes, McGrath demonstrates in the first two chapters how compositionists use collaborative scholarship to frame their approaches. In Chapter 1, Neff et. al. offer suggestions for incorporating grounded theory and contextual inquiry as methods for new media projects. Grounded theory begins with a specified set of procedures in an attempt to discover conceptual relationships between data, and to generate theory from data, while contextual inquiry interprets complex social processes by emphasizing audience and research subject participation. Both methods encourage interaction among researchers and participants through which an emphasis on user needs is to be discovered. Neff et. al. observed two key components of studies utilizing these methods: 1) an effort to move beyond producing theory, but also to intervene and improve given situations; and 2) an increasing emphasis towards action-based or applied research. In Chapter 2, Spiro examines how the abundance of data and Web 2.0 account for a cultural and technological shift towards collaborative scholarship in the digital humanities. Following interviews with project leaders and analysis of project-related articles, Spiro observed that collaborative authorship in online participatory environments led to shared and innovated knowledge production. By explaining assumptions, theories, and practices to someone from another discipline, they also come to understand their own disciplines better. But what about institutional norms favoring favor solitary scholarship? Spiro rightly observes that challenges at the institutional level include funding and infrastructure, as well as tenure and promotion policies. Spiro ultimately concludes, “the digital humanities will simply be the humanities” (70).

While the first two chapters broadly focus on scholarship, McGrath concludes Part 1 with chapters on research and professionalization. Chapter 3, written by the author, explores the possibilities of collaborative research initiatives for technology-related research. The benefits of team-based initiatives include flexible work models, professionalization opportunities, and “‘testbeds’ for theories and sites for examining practices” (83). McGrath conducted field research in digital labs at three institutions. These labs are campus centers where faculty and students meet to work on projects related to their fields. Funds allocated towards these labs include the physical space necessary to house the buildings, as well as materials and supplies, like computers and projectors. Interviewees at all three sites referenced work models from science, engineering, and technical industries. Interviewees also made connections between science and engineering models and the issues of funding and sustainability facing collaborative humanities projects. Of note, digital dissemination raises questions about research and publication. A theme emerges here: Traditional structures are often not prepared or flexible enough to evaluate alternative models of dissemination that are represented by collaborative research. Funding is necessary to keep these initiatives open. Despite these problems, ultimately it seems that team-based initiatives offer areas in which knowledge is produced, resources are shared, and products of research are disseminated.

While the last chapter presented research on team-based initiatives, Chapter 4 (Ridolfo et. al.) and Chapter 5 (McCarthy & Nahas) focus on practical examples of professionalization. It is of note that two of the research centers under study in these chapters, Michigan State University’s WIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) and University of Texas, Austin’s Digital and Writing and Research Lab (DWRL) are also explored in Chapter 3, a fact which speaks to the collaborative scholarship of this anthology. Ridolfo et al. argue that research centers present a model for graduate students offering valuable collaborative experiences, especially those interested in community-driven research projects. Infrastructure and space play key roles in how centers are run; co-authors of this chapter describe professional experiences ranging from the establishment of content management systems for university-community collaboration to the acquisition of independent servers. Chapter 5 also concentrates on professionalization practices but focuses on the concept of “play” as a metaphor for collaborative research. The authors borrow from James Gee’s notion of the “situated learning matrix,” (a broad set of parameters used to maintain a learning environment through game play), to demonstrate that “identity formation and the interaction between people, tools, and spaces help us to understand how collaborative research using digital tools can work” (146). In other words, the very same complex, social processes that the grounded theory method analyzes occur in digital writing centers. At the DWRL, up to forty graduate students from different disciplines teach in the center’s five networked classrooms. Not only are these graduate students professionalized within a digital space, but also they create an interdisciplinary affinity. Thus, Part 1 of the anthology wraps up by positively emphasizing team-based initiatives as real-life applications; that is to say, the digital infrastructure of initiatives (like WIDE and DWRL) is as much about researchers working together as it is about acquisition of space and materials.

The second part of the anthology moves towards practical applications of collaborative new media curriculum design. Chapter 6 (Barton & Moberly) investigates the challenges of establishing an interdisciplinary new media program. Despite discursive and financial barriers, scholars need to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. While these challenges may include “strict separations … between various disciplines and communities of scholars” (165), the question of infrastructure returns: For example, how do different departments resolve administrative concerns, including time-sharing agreements, securing physical space, and splitting the cost of expensive software licenses? The authors present a rationale for interdisciplinary collaboration by calling up Wilhelm von Humboldt’s educational model of disciplinary tradition. Humboldt’s model encourages professors to act as autonomous identities—that is to say, independent researchers. At the same time, Humboldt expects such autonomy to create competition between researchers of differing disciplines; hence, departmental boundaries are created. The authors suggest designing a curriculum in which students take courses from instructors in different departments. The pedagogy of the courses “are yoked together … in a manner that helps students recognize that the disciplinary boundaries are artificial and that learning is a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavor” (175). A key component to constructing a new media program is productive interaction between new media scholars and practitioners. Thus, the need to encourage conversation is essential.

Transitioning away from the challenges of establishing new media programs, Chapter 7 (Gustafsson et. al.) explores collaborative approaches towards curriculum building, specifically focusing on distance learning. The authors discuss how they “established a shared teaching culture” (184) as facilitators of a cross-cultural multimodal environment. During the study, they chose to remain separate from student conversations, allowing students “to take ownership of the exchange activity by participating actively and sharing responsibility with group members” (184). Interaction was minimal, allowing just enough contact to intervene without influencing results. In an online environment, assumptions about teaching need to be renegotiated. To do this, the authors argue that choice and use of technology is “tightly coupled” (196) with design considerations of how students negotiate and interact with provided instructions. Of note, methods of writing instruction changed throughout the course of the study to reflect more useful strategies; for example, the curriculum shifted towards a more blog-oriented environment two years into the study. Such a move is acceptable in collaborative new media projects, particularly those utilizing the grounded theory approach, so long as researchers agree upon patterns (in the case of Gustafsson et. al., shared learning outcomes) generated by data. STEM researchers would benefit from this chapter, since the population under study consisted of science and engineering students.

The remaining chapters of the anthology focus on collaborative digital pedagogies. Chapter 8 (Barratt et. al.) demonstrates the various ways in which collaboration took place between rhetoric and composition specialists and librarians in an information literacy and digital composition course. In the so-called “polyphonic classroom,” each instructor brings particular expertise to the classroom but also has a voice in overall assessment and implementation of goals. The composition instructors’ expertise, respectively, in digital film editing and HTML coding complemented the librarian’s knowledge in critical assessment of information and information-seeking strategies. Together the team created tutorial documents, including websites and how-to documents, and detailed rubrics and assignments. Of note, Barratt et. al. describe working around logistical challenges like coordination of grades and student feedback. An assignment sequence is provided in this chapter, a “creative research project” comprised of five components: Research topic e-mail, annotated bibliography, script, documentary movie, and website (229). Student pre-surveys responses collected information on students’ perceptions about the role of technology in the classroom and the purpose of the creative research project. Answers indicated that students came into the classroom expecting to learn a skill or tool that might help them meet larger goals concerning research, academics, or career. Interestingly, post-survey responses indicated that students learned more about the technology (such as film making software and HTML coding programs) rather than the research itself, which the authors attribute towards research not being a “novelty to the students” (237).

Chapter 9 (Bulger et. al.) focuses on digital textual analysis tools as pedagogy in a collaborative new media student project. The chapter is from the perspective of four graduate students from different disciplines. Chapter 10 (Sayers) also discusses the use of innovative pedagogical methods, posing possible trajectories for “tinkering” in language and literature classrooms. For Bulgur et. al., uses of digital textual analysis tools range from isolating all of the verbs in the novel Clarissa to finding all of the times students quote from a particular source. The purpose of these graduate students’ project was to question assumptions from their disciplines in an effort to create shared literacies. The team’s textual analysis was process-driven. Also included was a visual rendering of the results. Bulger et. al. found that visualization tools allowed them “to concretize abstract concepts by illustrating the basis for [their] analyses” (271). The common strand between these last two chapters is the notion of “play.” Sayers defines tinkering as a notion existing between informal training and tactical creation “presumably without thesis or formula” (279). That is to say, it is experimentation with the added caveat that students document changes between experiments. Accordingly, the its rhetorical components are situated testing, play, and experimentation—all of which fit within the larger framework of collaborative approaches. Of note, Sayers remarks upon tinkering as being driven by context; framed this way, tinker-centered pedagogy, like digital textual analysis tools, is also process-driven.

Ultimately, McGrath’s text will be useful for instructors. It provides collaborative models for teaching and research, and it proves to skeptics that collaboration is a useful approach to curriculum and program development. Digital humanities scholars will particularly find the discussions of grounded theory and contextual inquiry useful in producing field studies. Similarly, the analysis of writing initiatives like WIDE and DWRL provide useful models for professionals interested in developing programs on their own campuses, particularly for the sake of professionalizing graduate students. In addition, instructors will find the chapters detailing online and hybrid writing assignments to be useful. The assignments are based in pedagogical frameworks that can help students become deep learners who view the applications of their work beyond physical and virtual classroom walls. For example, in Chapter 8, when Barrat et. al. discuss the benefits of teaching HTML code, it is emphasized that students not only learn to create a website from the ground up, but that they analyze how sophisticated design looks and evaluate websites for their user-friendliness (235). Thus, coding serves as an invention and a synthesis activity. While McGrath obviously focuses heavily on programming and software, she incorporates perspectives on utilizing learner-centered activities, which can be useful for instructors with varied levels of technological expertise wishing to promote a high level of self-engagement and critical reflection through technology. The variety of readings will provide instructors and administrators with several approaches for collaboration.

There are very few weaknesses in McGrath’s text. It is exhaustive and functional. One area for improvement, however, is service. She briefly mentions in the introduction that service design projects can potentially overlap with research opportunities, as opposed to service in its own right. This may be beyond the scope of the book, but it is an important concern for tenure track expectations in which service is classified as its own category separate from research and instruction. Additionally, suggestions for approaching administrators with a plan for proposing a digital writing initiative would have been appreciated.

Returning to the opening question: How do digital humanities scholars approach collaboration, and why should they put forth the required time and effort? McGrath’s anthology demonstrates how the extensive availability of digital tools and texts serves as material for research and instruction. Collaborative Approaches also affirms the potential for generating digital user practices through collaborative approaches. As a field concerned with production, consumption, and analysis of texts, the digital humanities stands to benefit from understanding how users interact with these texts as well as with one another. Collaborative composing helps students to understand important rhetorical concepts like audience, purpose, and context. These assertions call for integrating collaboration into the field’s scholarship. With these benefits in mind, it is important for digital humanists—and even digital rhetors and digital compositionists—take the time and effort to utilize collaborative approaches in computers and writing. Ultimately, McGrath calls for a change on how institutions should view scholarship in the digital age.


McGrath, Laura (Ed.). (2011). Collaborative approaches to the digital. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press. Retrieved 28 May 2013 from http://ccdigitalpress.org/ebooks-and-projects/cad