As in many process-oriented classes, our students begin the project by prewriting to figure out what they already know, but rather than mining an isolated authorial mind, we encourage them to see that what they “know” is distributed across numerous sources, each differently connected to a topic. Prewriting with this goal further encourages students to see problems as themselves distributed across communities. Using the visual metaphor of a tree to represent the complex ecosystem by which ideas grow—cast in a simple template we’ve created in Microsoft Word, with text boxes pasted on top of a background image—we encourage students to think about a topic from “roots” to “fruits.” What elements contribute to the issue, in other words, and what consequences may spring from any combination of those causal elements? Like any “clustering” method of brainstorming, this template encourages writers to explode their topic of interest in several directions, but it is specifically constructed to bring out the ecological complexities of the topic, specifically as the topic becomes interpreted as a problem.
For example, a student may be interested in teen pregnancy. Undoubtedly a social “problem” to many, this topic, like “abortion,” “the legalization of marijuana,” and “gay marriage,” may seem like one of those rather generic, non-local, typical freshman composition topics that don’t truly engage students or teachers. When asked neither to opine nor persuade nor collect statistics nor to immediately rush to solve the problem, though, but to describe its ecological makeup and situation in an interconnected world of ideas and people, the student might brainstorm various consequences of teen pregnancy, from its possible stifling of young parents’ educational opportunities, to its costs in terms of health and welfare benefits to underemployed parents, to the challenges it presents for unskilled and immature parents, to possible other social problems exacerbated thereby. On her template, the student literally draws the conclusion that teen pregnancy constitutes different problems to different people. Healthcare costs matter mainly to taxpayers, the obstacles to adult education to the individuals in question (or their hopeful parents), and sub-par parenting to child advocacy groups and teachers. If teen parents were educated, skilled, mature, and well-to-do enough to afford high-quality full-time childcare and health insurance, in a hypothetical differently ecological situation, that is, teen pregnancy might not be a social “problem” at all (as is wasn’t, for instance, in pre-modern societies).
The causes of teen pregnancy, expressed as the topic’s several “roots,” are likewise multiple and ecologically situated, and, without stretching the visual rhetoric too far, nourished by the soil in which they are planted. Teen pregnancy may be caused by irresponsible kids (nourished by contemporary parenting philosophies or other social attitudes); the aggressive marketing of sexuality in popular culture (nourished by uncritical consumption of cultural messages); a lack of education on sexual behavior (nourished by the lack of cooperation between educational, political, and religious groups); or the absences of appropriate recreational activities in the community (nourished by the lack of cultural resources or education dollars). The list could go on, of course. The brainstorming exercise ultimately illustrates that the “problem” of teen pregnancy is itself a consequence of a number of other problems, each of which affects and is affected by different people or organizations.
In a very real way, then, this prewriting initiates a sense of community by foregrounding community’s role in defining (or creating) important social issues. More to the point of building online learning communities, moreover, this exercise empowers students to join their online groups from a position of authority. Having figured out how much they already know about a few possible topics and their extensions across populations, seeing both where they fit and where they are mere degrees of separation from affected or influential groups, students enter their small group conversation with material things to offer, rather than just abstract “topic ideas” they may or may not have vetted even for the depth of their own engagement. The follow-up exercise is overtly communal: on the class discussion board, with their classmates as their primary audience, students list and evaluate the topics they’ve exploded on their trees, prioritizing them and defending the top two or three from this prioritized list. Their writing may be explorative, descriptive, or overtly persuasive in this task, as they know this conversation will give rise to eventual group topics. In prioritizing their topic choices, writers figure out where they do and don’t have a sense of ecological distribution or anything material to contribute; in introducing and defending them, they tend to richly introduce themselves to their classmates, offering relevant details from their own embodied experiences and distributed knowledge to support claims of access or expertise on various topics. The non-traditional student who wants to write about teenage pregnancy, for instance, may report knowing a pregnant teenager from her child’s high school, for instance, giving her classmates a clearer sense of who she is and showcasing the contributions she has to make as a thinker to a community of inquiry; another may self-identify as a very young mom, opening a door not only to the topic but to the material challenges that may face nontraditional students (many of whom, of course, seek online courses).
As they read others’ priority lists on the discussion forum, students see sites of overlap between what they know and believe and what their classmates’ care about, as well as seeing the breadth of the class’s knowledge and the numerous sources from which each individual member draws. This discussion forum conversation thus tacitly demonstrates the concept of distributed knowledge. From seeing themselves as isolated learners, even as they charted the distribution of knowledge of a topic abstractly on their prewriting trees, they join groups based on one another’s posts, necessarily situating their knowledge and opinions in the multivalent web of ideas collectively compiled by their classmates.
Teachers have the opportunity here to point out connections with follow-up posts, serving as what George Collison et al (2000) call “generative guides,” helping students come up with a variety of possibilities from which to ultimately form the shared basis of their group research project (p. 106). Often, group formation requires a slightly broader or slightly narrower view of the topic than students themselves have tentatively decided upon. If only one student cited an interest in teen pregnancy as a topic, for instance, but several students have concerns that relate to a larger question about the health and welfare of American teens (common enough among both traditional and nontraditional college students), a single group topic could be broadly construed, eventually subdividing into public school sex education policies, area resources for emotional wellness, and campus efforts to minimize risky student behaviors. After reviewing students’ trees and discussion board conversations, an instructor can suggest that students start by talking about possible challenges in the life of the American teenager. In other words, beyond the practical reasons for asking students to share broad topics, such an approach can also reveal how topics themselves might connect to one another in a web-like way, with common causes or outcomes, prospective audiences, or similar solutions.
From the whole-class discussion board conversation, we assign students to groups, considering their topic rankings and allowing them to privately email requests for specific group membership or topic. The first small-group exercise then asks students to informally begin their shared exploration into the topic, inquiring widely—on the internet and in their lived worlds—and posting their findings to a group discussion forum conversation not limited by scholarly reputability. This initial collection of data can include personal experiences, anecdotes or information from any other source—blogs, advertisements, websites, stories told by family and friends. Such a conversation expands upon, reinforces, and publicizes the students’ original topic trees, documenting various populations, opinions, angles—“roots” and “fruits”—relevant to the topic and its definition as a problem. Inevitably, this also becomes an exercise wherein students begin to know one another—and themselves—ecologically. The personal contributions they share are frequently embodied and necessarily distributed and, as they incorporate one another’s contributions and their informal research findings into “what they know,” their individual ecological situatedness begins to coordinate with other ecological meaning-making systems.
Steeped in a multitude of opinions on or approaches to an increasingly complex topic, student groups then produce their first formal composition: a collaboratively-authored questionnaire designed to elicit information from an interested population. The data collected will eventually help students more locally situate, more fully understand, and more concretely address the problems they’ve chosen to write about; like other prewriting tasks, the questionnaire assignment fundamentally attempts to broaden the distribution of students’ knowledge of a topic. Having recognized that topics become “problems” by virtue of how they are spread across populations, and recognizing that even with the contributions of their group members, they can only cover so much of that territory, student questionnaires on the one hand simply ask others for yet more experiences, opinions, and ideas to consider. In an exaggerated (and unlikely) example, the student writing about teen pregnancy might learn from fifty people surveyed that she’s in a small minority of people who see teen pregnancy as problematic, or she might learn that several people approach the issue in a way she had not yet considered. If her survey population does not support her initial assumptions, she needs to rethink those initial assumptions amidst the broader ecology drawn by the survey population.
At the same time, writing a questionnaire also requires students to think carefully about how their language and assumptions will be negotiated and interpreted by a specific audience, so that the questionnaire design itself models the principles of emergence and enaction. This exercise affords a teacher an opportunity to discuss style and rhetoric at the level of the sentence, providing both a kind of fine-motor exercise in writing and a kind of micro-lesson in the way that emergent knowledge is brought forth into enacted statements and question structures. If writers’ language does not clearly coordinate with their auditors’ understanding, or if their emergent knowledge is insufficient to elicit the purposeful engagement of a specific audience, they won’t get the results they seek. A group might be researching students’ social behaviors, for instance, in pursuit of information about fitness, alcohol, drugs, and campus life, and draft a multiple-choice question like this, intended for a broad swath of the campus population: “What do you do on weekends? a) work, b) party, c) go home, or d) participate in a student organization.” The most obviously socially-determined aspect of the question, and thus the most likely to create error, might be the word “party,” a word which signifies alcohol or drug use for some populations, with or without an actual “party,” but might for others suggest a more formal gathering, with or without alcohol or drugs. Furthermore, we can point out the multivalence, on college campuses especially, of words like “work” and “home,” which will mean differently to nontraditional students who no longer consider their parents’ residence “home,” to those who have one or more off-campus jobs, and to those who consider school “work” their highest weekend priority. Thus a conversation as apparently basic as, “Are you going to party tonight?/No, I’ve got to go home,” can be seen as intrinsically social and thus prone to errors in translation.
We find our hand gets a little heavier during the process of questionnaire formation, as we temporarily shift from designer and guide to what Scott Warnock (2009) calls the “instructor or project leader” (p. 3). Because this process is new to most students, we have some specific instructional content to share: the benefits of open-ended over multiple choice questions, for instance; how demographic information might be necessary or interesting; or ways that syntax might lead or bias respondents. When technology is available, this may be done by video lecture or narrated PowerPoint; otherwise, a detailed handout and follow-up reinforcing activity like a discussion or low-value quiz can adequately convey the basic information. A questionnaire template with some suggested question types (and a visual walking-through of the template using a word-processing program’s “comment” feature or a simple font change), gives students some guidance as they begin. Then, weighing in as students draft questions in their group discussion forums, we can model verbal precision on a case-by-case basis and help students avoid pitfalls. Our students also submit their final questionnaire for an okay (or final recommendations) before distributing it to their prospective respondents. Time permitting, one may also have student groups themselves trade, attempting to answer one another’s questionnaires and reporting on any problems that might have arisen.
A follow-up lecture on basic data collation, also presented via narrated Powerpoint or Adobe Presenter, can introduce simple elements of visual rhetoric like charts and graphs and get students comfortable with the idea of generating a few questionnaire-based claims for their final paper. An added bonus at this stage is the way that the data collation process demonstrates first-hand the rather slippery nature of statistical evidence. The size and demographic details of their subject pool; any potentially biased, confusing, or misleading vocabulary in their questions; the failure to link two sets of answers so that they accurately posit relation or causality—any of these things can dramatically skew results.
The penultimate prewriting task, before students begin drafting their final essays, is to assemble a collaborative annotated bibliography of scholarly or other reputable sources; Palloff and Pratt (2007) have argued, “this type of search and the reporting back to the group on the results can be an effective assignment leading to the expected learning outcomes of the course” (p. 120), as student collaborators in effective learning groups must “work together to generate deeper levels of understanding and critical evaluation of the material under study” (p. 120). In short annotations posted to the group discussion forum, students point out to their fellow group members what aspects of an article might be helpful as they all draft, ideally situating the information in the context of conversations they’ve had throughout the project, and briefly explain how they determined that the source was credible. They are encouraged to reply to one another’s postings, to praise or critique or even offer thanks. Even in a task where the shared rewards seem so obvious as a collaborative bibliography, still the solitary author paradigm occasionally creeps in, as students may seem inclined (or trained) to see their high-quality research contributions with what we call an “Easter-egg” mentality, as if finding a good source means it’s yours to keep, and to share sources is to give someone undeserved help or to diminish one’s own success in researching. By now, though, so much of the work has been shared that most students are enthusiastic about sharing scholarly sources, and such sharing not only provides the whole group with needed materials but definitely further develops the sense of community.
In ecological terms, students’ finding professional and published materials not only widens the distribution of the group’s collective knowledge but collaboratively constructs a concrete model of emergent knowledge—those “larger meaning making structures,” lent authority by academic scholarship or professional media, in which they will be asked to participate in their final papers (Gillam, 2008, p. 52). In this step, they accumulate numerous clear models of what passes for legitimate discourse on the subject in academic and professional settings.