Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning

WebWritingCoverUMich2015-02One of the richest resources for digital pedagogy that we have seen recently is the new book, Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. The book is a collection of twenty essays that “explore why online writing matters for liberal arts learning and illustrates how different faculty teach with web-based tools for authoring, annotating, peer editing, and publishing.” Originating in a faculty initiative at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Trinity College (Connecticut), Web Writing, edited by Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell, was published by the University of Michigan Press in March 2015 as an “open-access” text that can be read for free online (a print edition is forthcoming, as well). The essays represent a broad range of scholarly disciplines, but are all grounded in the classroom experiences of liberal arts teachers:  “The richness of the book is that it represents authors from 15 colleges across the liberal arts curriculum who demonstrate how they use writing in disciplines like biology, history and sociology and across platforms to improve student motivation and learning.”

As the Introduction to the collection explains, the project was conceived as a conversation among liberal arts faculty who actively engage with writing in their classrooms in multiple disciplines but need guidance on ways that web-based tools can contribute to our educational missions:

Web Writing seeks to bridge philosophical and practical questions that arise from the experiences of liberal arts educators who have stepped into the digital realm. What are the most—and least—compelling reasons for why we should integrate web writing into our curriculum? Which tools and teaching methods deepen—rather than distract from—thoughtful learning? How does student engagement and sense of community evolve when we share our drafts and commentary on the public web? To what extent does writing on the web enable our students to cross over divisive boundaries, and what new challenges does it create? The book’s subtitle signals our desire to blend “why” questions with examples of “how” it can be done, presented in both print and digital formats.

Whether in persuasive essays, scientific reports, or creative expression, all academic disciplines value clear and compelling prose. The act of writing visually demonstrates our thought processes: how we respond to ideas that challenge our own thinking, consider alternative perspectives or counter-evidence, and create entirely new points of view. As college educators, we recognize that our students become more engaged in the writing process when they draft, share, and respond to writing with a community of peer readers who encourage and challenge them to revise muddled first drafts into more polished, thoughtful essays. Moreover, we now realize how a new generation of web-based writing tools—including wikis, Google Documents, WordPress, and others—can transform how our students author, edit, publish, and comment on texts in ways that advance, rather than distract from, our liberal arts mission. But exactly how college educators can make use of these tools in our classrooms is not simple, and requires both time and support from our institutions. Our motivation behind this book is to offer faculty a wide range of web-based writing examples across the liberal arts, to help all of us to rethink our current approaches and inspire us to innovate with our own students.

A perusal of the table of contents reflects the breadth of the topics addressed and their grouping under four category headings:

table of contents

The project practices what it preaches–the essays were composed and revised in an open space on the web that invited public feedback and suggestions for revision. You can read about the process in the Chronicle article “Call for Open Peer Review: Web Writing.” The WordPress plugin CommentPress facilitated this method of composition. In fact, you can still read the original drafts of the essays, along with comments, to get a sense of how reader response and feedback helped to shape the revisions of the texts.  The results of this experiment were transformative for the authors:

As educators, our compelling reason for constructing this book online is because that’s exactly what we ask our students to do when we assign them to share their writing with us and other readers. Every educator who requires students to post their words on a course learning management system (such as Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) or the open web should try the same experience by uploading their own writing for feedback from peers and the public. For many of us, our first experiences in publicly circulating drafts was equally terrifying and exhilarating. The process opened our eyes to how our writing changes when engaging with a broader audience, particularly one that talks back through comments that suggest new connections and sharpen our thinking. We hope that Web Writing will encourage more faculty to author and comment online, and that these experiences will transfer into richer forms of teaching and learning in their classrooms.

And now, even though the essays have been published in “final” form, the text continues to invite commentary, discussion, and annotation. A newly developing “open annotation” tool known as Hypothes.is is being used as a platform for continued conversation and dialogue. I’ll have another post up soon to introduce Hypothes.is more fully, but for now, if you’re interested in experimenting with it, there’s a helpful tutorial by Greg McVerry in this post, “Three Tools to Annotate the Web.” The project also offers many appropriate examples of “collaborative open spaces” on the web that I spoke about in a previous post.

One of the initiatives being developed at Austin College involves “Written Communication Skills.” The charge of this project is that “Austin College will develop signature opportunities to enhance writing and other communication skills through curricular and co-curricular programming. By 2020, every graduating student will be able to demonstrate achievement and improvement in these areas.” Perhaps Web Writing is one resource that we could use to generate conversations and ideas to move us forward in this endeavor. Maybe it could be a choice for a faculty reading discussion group next year? Let us know what you think in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning”

  1. Sounds like a potentially useful text, if for no other reason than that it underwent an online review period (looks like more than a 1000 comments were added to the effort during a couple months of it being available for review).

    Maybe this would be a good text to read together as a Johnson Center reading group selection?

    • Yes, I make that suggestion at the end of the article…and really, there are many possible ways to collaboratively read and discuss the essays. Perhaps people would be interested in some kind of online reading group, along the lines of what Bryan Alexander is doing with Putnam’s Our Kids. Or we could use an annotation platform like Hypothes.is or CommentPress to read the text together that way. Of course, probably something f2f would be most appropriate for our community. In any event, I think it would be a very beneficial exercise for us to undertake.


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