On Crafting an Assignment Sequence for a Collaborative, Web-Based Final Project in a Composition Course

Danica Savonick, CUNY Graduate Center

Generative collaborative experiences require strong infrastructural support—both material and immaterial. This post details the sequence of assignments leading up to a collaborative website project at the end of a basic composition course.

This past semester, I taught a composition course at Queens College on the topic of “Creativity.” The course, primarily comprised of first-year students, met twice a week (at 8 am!) for an hour and fifty minutes. This semester, I challenged students to take their research papers a step further by creating a collaborative website based on their theories of creativity:

Figure 1. Final Project: Collaborative Creativity Website. You will be assigned to a group based on the topic of your research essay. As a group, create a WordPress site using qwriting that publicly presents the results of your research in an interesting way. Your site must include 1) a collectively written introduction (I suggest using Google Docs to draft this) 2) images or other media that illustrate your points 3) at least three different pages that present your findings in a compelling and organized way. Each group will meet with me to discuss your strategies for organizing/presenting your information, evenly dividing up work, and meeting the assignment requirements. Your resource for help with Qwriting and WordPress: http://help.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu

Figure 1. Final Project: Collaborative Creativity Website.

Logistically, this assignment took up about four full class periods, though our conversations about websites spanned the last three weeks of the semester. I booked a computer lab for two of these classes, during which students used the entire class period to work on their group websites.

Throughout the semester, students familiarized themselves with the blogging and commenting functions of WordPress (more specifically, the version hosted by Queens College, “Qwriting”). This final website project, however, challenged them to transition from adding content to our course blog to setting up their own site. 

Students were placed into groups before we transitioned from their research papers to website projects so that they could become familiar with what their group members were working on.

For example, the group “Creativity and Oppression” contained students researching children’s art in ghettos and concentrations camps during the Holocaust, creativity and privilege in education, and the appropriation and theft of creative works produced by people of color. The other groups—Dreams and Creativity, Creativity and Writing, Creativity and Business—reflected themes that emerged through course readings and conversations. The groups helped students mentor one another through the writing process and encouraged them to identify points of intersection and divergence among their projects. Some groups shared valuable sources they found through the library’s catalogues and databases. On the day that the final drafts of their research essays were due, they brought in copies for everyone in their group. As we transitioned from research papers to website projects, their homework was to read each other’s final drafts and come prepared with ideas for presenting them on a website.

In addition to strengthening their collaborative skills, I wanted students to think about the social and public impact of research. We brainstormed who their possible audiences might be, why they might come to a website about creativity, and what they might hope to get out of it.

Since their final research papers provided the majority of the content for these websites, much of the website work involved translating between “rhetorical situations” (see Purdue OWL): from an academic essay to a collaborative website. And they were no strangers to the difficulties of translation. One blog prompt designed to initiate a conversation about websites as rhetorical situations asked students to “translate” Gordon Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay” in the context of the internet. Students rose to the occasion of this admittedly experimental assignment with aplomb.

Figure 2. Blog Prompt: Analyzing Websites. Websites: www.medievalpoc.tumblr.com ; https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/ ; www.facebook.com Bloggers are each responsible for one site. Commenters need to explore each site and add to each blogger’s response. •Begin by trying to analyze the website using Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay.” Does the website have a thesis? A motive? Etc. •Note where you get stuck and which terms do not easily apply to your website. For instance, perhaps the term “thesis” isn’t appropriate for your site and may need to be replaced with a category like “purpose.” •As in the example above, come up with some new terms that are useful for thinking about the ways in which websites are organized. Think about terms like audience, utility, navigation, toolbars, privacy, pages, etc. •As in a close reading, try and make a connection between the form (organization) and the content (information) of the website. Try and imagine this as the thesis statement for a hypothetical paper that would perform a close reading of your website. Because this is an experimental project, don’t feel frustrated if you’re unable to come up with an argument. We will work on this together in class.

Figure 2. Blog Prompt: Analyzing Websites.

Their responses to this assignment and the more general question, “What makes a good website?” became the fodder for the rubric we designed.

Before crafting a rubric we looked at these slides that demonstrate the basics of creating a site using WordPress. Much of the content is drawn from helpful blogs about WordPress and the Qwriting help site. They reflect my own limited knowledge of the platform’s capabilities, though learning so much more about WordPress from my students was one of the great unforeseen benefits of this assignment. The website project also allowed us to continue our conversations about the importance of proper citations through a discussion of fair use policies.

After going through the process of setting up a site as a class, I handed out blank rubrics and posted the following in-class assignment:

Figure 3. Drafting a Rubric. •First, fill in the blank rubric with categories along the lefthand column and scores across the top. •Then, fill in some of the boxes on the rubric, specifying what a specific score might look like. o	For example, “motive” might be a category and “5” might be the highest score. In order to get a “5” on “motive,” you might write something like “The website conveys a strong sense of purpose throughout.” •	Consult the essay rubrics as examples.

Figure 3. Drafting a Rubric.

This activity allowed us to talk not merely about meeting an assignment’s requirements, but about the pedagogy that animates them. I encouraged students to consult the rubrics I used to grade their close reading and comparative essays for examples of the kind of language they might want to include. After they had filled out rubrics based on their understanding of what makes a good website and what a platform like Qwriting allows, we tallied their results and combined some of the categories to produce a rubric that we all agreed upon.

Figure 4. Collaborative Creativity Website. Assignment: As a group, create a WordPress site using qwriting that publicly presents the results of your research in an interesting way. Your site must include 1) a collectively written introduction (I suggest using Google Docs to draft this) 2) images or other media that illustrate your points and 3) at least three different pages that present your findings in a compelling and organized way.

Figure 4. Collaborative Creativity Website.

Figure 5. Collaborative Creativity Website. Rubric (35 points possible): Category: “Purpose (Motive).” 5 points: Clearly and effectively presents a motive, Purpose is reinforced throughout. 3 points: Purpose is present but not obvious. 1 point: Has no clear sense of purpose. Category: “Navigation and Organization.” 5 points: Easy to navigate, User-friendly, Information is logically organized, Website is accessible. 3 points: Somewhat confusing or hard to navigate. 1 point: Messy, difficult to navigate, cluttered. Category: “Content: Information and Evidence.” 5 points: Website content is clear and easy to understand, All information relates to the website’s purpose, Ideas are well-developed. 3 points: Some claims are unfounded or unsupported by evidence. 1 point: Most claims are unfounded or unsupported by evidence. Category: “Design: Layout, Appearance, Accessibility.” 5 points: Aesthetically pleasing, Uniform theme, Eye-catching, Balance of images, space, and text. 3 points: Has only 1-2 of the qualities listed under “5.” 1 point: Lacks a coherent style or sense of design. Category: “Citations and Links.” 5 points: All relevant citations are formatted properly according to MLA guidelines, Citations are obvious and easy to find. 3 points: Has some errors with citations and links, Some information is not properly cited. 1 point: Many errors with citation. Category: “Introduction.” 5 points: Highlights main points, Synthesizes projects, Let’s the user know the site’s purpose, Provides directions for navigating the sites. 3 points: Achieves only 1-2 of the objectives listed under “5.” 1 point: Does not have an introduction or introduction is unhelpful. Category: “Revision, Grammar, Punctuation.” 5 points: No mistakes with grammar or punctuation, No broken links. 3 points: Some mistakes with grammar and punctuation. 1 point: Many mistakes with grammar and punctuation.

Figure 5. Collaborative Creativity Website.

Once the rubrics were ready, we spent two class periods in the computer lab working on their sites. During these classes, we discussed how each group was dividing up work (was one person in charge of images or was each person designing their own page? how were citations being handled?). Often, students would share what they were learning and help one another solve technical issues.

Prior to our final class, students sent everyone the URLs for their websites. They were given a copy of the rubric for each group they’d be evaluating and told to look at the websites beforehand and come prepared with questions. Here are the instructions for the presentations: 

Figure 6. Instructions. Requirements:  •Everyone should speak •Should be at least five minutes •	You should come with a plan and having rehearsed--you may want to have a script  Content 1. Describe your website, highlighting the categories on the rubric (suggest why you deserve a five). 2. Who is your intended audience? How did you tailor your website to them? 3. Describe the decision making process and how work was divided up.  4. If you had more time and resources, what would you do to enhance your website?  5. Field any questions.

Figure 6. Instructions.

After each presentation, students handed in a rubric with scores and explanations, which I later tallied to assign a final, overall grade. Although they were tough on each other, they provided specific examples in the “explanation” category of the rubric to support the scores they awarded.

This project worked well as an extended application of a final research paper. Students who hadn’t participated much during the semester became some of the most vocal and outspoken contributors to our conversations about websites as rhetorical situations. During these weeks the class became even more student centered, as those with advanced knowledge of web design were able to instruct the rest of the class, myself included.

Figure 7. Website by Yonatan Arnon, Nikkia “Rook” Hanson, and Rebecca Rich. "Creativity and Oppression." How Oppression Molds Creativity, Affects Public Views of Creativity, and Hinders Creativity: Mission Statement. Text of post reads:  Though a somewhat ragtag team of people who had never spoken much to each other before this project, all of us had a common idea about creativity that blossomed through numerous discussions, readings, and joinings with our peers. All three of us come from backgrounds of oppression, and those backgrounds made themselves clear in our writing. Our mission? What is creativity? How does creativity form in the deepest pits of despair, and how does that shape it? How do creative works made in those situations become useful to prosecute crimes against humanity? How does privilege affect one's access to creative means, one's ability to be seen as creative and use that creativity for profit and success? And how, despite creativity often being thought of as an innate trait that belongs to no single person, can it be stolen and wielded against the oppressed while simultaneously shoving them into a nameless, faceless group of "uncreatives"? We strive to answer these questions, and we strive to find more and more answers as these questions navigate our very lives.

Figure 7. Website by Yonatan Arnon, Nikkia “Rook” Hanson, and Rebecca Rich.

Figure 8. Website by Corey Goldman, Stephen Lau, and Ronen Shahkoohi. Tag cloud featuring creativity, inspiration, business, idea, imagination, element Heading: “imagination unlimited” Youtube video: what is creativity?

Figure 8. Website by Corey Goldman, Stephen Lau, and Ronen Shahkoohi.

Figure 9. Website by Riddwan Alam, Youlhuy Sung, Paula Volos, and Xian Zhong Zheng. "Dreams and Literature." Text of post reads: Researching this topic has allowed me to realize that there are multiple examples of literature that were inspired by dreams. All of these have surfaced throughout the years, whether we are aware of it or not. Books like Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, are some of these. However, two of the most well-known and prominent examples of texts that have stemmed from a dream are Mary Shelley’s Gothic novelFrankenstein– also known as The Modern Prometheus – and the 18th century British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. Both these writers refined their dreams into something creative, and in this case, their motivation led to Frankenstein and to “Kubla Khan” becoming two very significant pieces of English Literature. Frankenstein is about a young man, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a monster from various body parts he collected from corpses of people, as a result of his obsession with creating life. After the creation, Frankenstein realizes that his actions are wrong, and so he rejects the creature and runs away from it. The creature then turns against him, and a series of devastating events take place.

Figure 9. Website by Riddwan Alam, Youlhuy Sung, Paula Volos, and Xian Zhong Zheng.

Figure 10. Website by Joseph Haynes and Zainab Kalair. "Creativity Checklist: Teaching Creativity." Text of post reads: I believe that creativity should be taught for two main reasons captured in one: creativity is absolutely essential to the effective development of the individual and society. More specifically, it is required for an individual or country to thrive economically, socially, and environmentally. According to concordcoalition.org, the total national debt of America today is well over 16 trillion dollars. Nations around the world are concerned with the development of new energy sources, finding a cure for HIV and cancer, reducing the impact of global warming, and making the most efficient use of the fossil fuels available. One common theme among all of these challenges is that they require creative solutions. It takes creativity to effectively express oneself to peers and superiors. It takes creativity to write a poem, or paint, or compose a musical piece. It takes creativity to have a dream and a vision like Martin Luther King Jr. and many others who sparked revolutions around the world. It takes creativity to see the success in failure or take the risk. What is life without creativity? Students spend roughly eight hours a day at school, about half of the time spent in waking consciousness daily. If creativity is so vital, how much time should we allot to the cultivation of this quality? The importance of creativity is not the question. The real challenge is how do we teach creativity in our schools? In the book Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom Raymond Nickerson lists a few effective ways to discourage creativity in schools such as: “cultivating unquestioning submission to authority,” “adhering to the lesson plan at all costs,” “promoting the belief in the compartmentalization of knowledge,” and “discouraging curiosity and inquisitiveness” (1-2). During one class this very semester, the teacher told my friend that even though his formula works, he could not solve the problem in a particular way since that is not what is required of him. He would even have to show his method of arriving at the correct solution on the exams and it would have to align with what is taught. Another friend of mine told me that he is not allowed

Figure 10. Website by Joseph Haynes and Zainab Kalair.

Sincere thanks also to my awesome students for allowing me to share their hard work.

 

 

About the Author

Danica Savonick is a doctoral student in English and a research fellow with the Futures Initiative at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her dissertation explores how aesthetic pedagogies can address conditions of neo/liberal racial capitalism and materialize social justice. She is a graduate teaching fellow in the English department at Queens College, where she teaches courses on U.S. literary and cultural studies. Her article entitled “The Problem of Locomotion”: Infrastructure and Automobility in Three Postcolonial Urban Nigerian Novels” will be published in Modern Fiction Studies’ special issue on “Infrastructuralism” in Winter 2015.




'On Crafting an Assignment Sequence for a Collaborative, Web-Based Final Project in a Composition Course' has 4 comments

  1. August 6, 2015 @ 12:45 pm Favorite Resources for Teaching with Archives | archiveseducate

    […] in setting the priorities of a given assignment in HASTAC blog posts here and here, while her article in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy provides a complete case […]

    Reply

  2. June 2, 2015 @ 12:40 pm HASTAC Highlights: Digital Scholars Descend on Michigan State University, May 27-30 | archiveseducate

    […]  Her HASTAC blog posts here and here offer insights into the collaborative process, while her article in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy provides a complete case […]

    Reply

  3. May 22, 2015 @ 6:56 pm Silas Munro

    Fantastic project and excellent breakdown of the pedagogy. I am all for students becoming masters of their own domain interns of incorporating technical knowledge in the classroom. I myself do my best to remain teachable and learn from and with my students at times too.

    I do take issue with the use of the phrase “student centered” when used in connection with students taking on this role of teacher. Could you elaborate on how you define student centered?

    Reply

    • Profile photo of Danica Savonick

      August 26, 2015 @ 4:27 pm Danica Savonick

      Hi Silas. Glad you found this assignment helpful! I’d love to hear what phrases you prefer to use to describe pedagogy instead of student-centered (which often becomes a catch-all, ambiguous, ill-defined term). I try to use it sparingly, and instead describe my pedagogy as “collaborative” and oriented towards equality and social justice. In this case, I’ve used it to describe the background, facilitator role I was able to take on as students took ownership over their final projects. Each class became more about their projects and their feedback on each other’s work, and I was there simply to guide them in the process when they got stuck.


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