On #560wr, TextDash, collaboration, and beanie babies.

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I’ve always wondered how much I border on anti-social, especially where classwork is concerned. Throughout much of my education, the words “partner,” “collaboration,” or “group work” used to be instant anxiety cues. It seemed like I almost always ended up as the one who cared most, and therefore the one who fretted through bottles of antacids until turn-in. So maybe not so much anti-social; perhaps mistrusting? Misanthropic? Fortunately, this changed as I joined a community of students/others who seem to share this kind of active care about what they’re working on/writing together.
We’re at the midpoint of ENG 560, a course originally modeled mostly after a now guarded word that someone here might have to pay for if mentioned publicly. Let’s call it TextDash. When I first learned about TextDash several months ago, prior to the creation of the course, this was the nutshell of how it worked: 
  • Professionals/academics from around the region/country who presumably know each other relatively well decide they’d all like to write a book* together, because they believe that the 7-12 of them all really know their way around a topic – let’s say, beanie babies. 
  • Rather than trying to chip away at such a large project like a book* for months/years, in which some contributers are bound to:

    • lose interest in bringing forward a collected work about beanie babies
    • change their opinion of their particular subinterest of beanie babies
    • be delayed by other scholarly work on their specific beanie baby interests
    • have their in-progress research devalued/augmented by other beanie baby scholarship published in the meantime…
  • The writers decide to convene for one short, focused burst of collaborative beanie baby scholarship, hoping to power through all other distractions and emerge – within very short order – with a cohesive, timely, authoritative, collection of their work. Maybe even a book*.
  • The writers agree to set aside a whole block of time (days, maybe even a week) to converge at one place and communally live, eat, sleep, research, and write beanie babies. 
  • Upon meeting, they divide up the time into chunks: topic selection, research, writing, editing, and polishing. Each takes a specific beanie baby subtopic they know (varieties, values, depreciation, the social stigma of renting a two bedroom apartment for you and your beanie babies, the indignity of Ty’s manufactured rarity, throwing out your collection once you realize they really aren’t collectibles, how to integrate that Ty tattoo … down there… into a more respectable coverup, etc..).
  • A crucial dynamic emerges: togetherness. The subtopics are sluiced from dreck and emerge in the same room. The research happens in the same room. Prewriting probably happens in the same room. Then, when it comes time to write, writing largely happens in the same room. Once everyone’s finished drafting, they workshop and revise several times with other writers in the same room. Finally, the collection is polished and sent on its way to meet whatever incarnation it will take, securing its role of influence over other beanie baby scholars for decades – maybe even as a book*.

It was obvious to me when I first learned of TextDash that this could be an awesome basis for a course, but that some things would have to change, especially when it became a summer course. The biggest and most obvious, is that this could not have the same level of immersion a true TextDash could. Assume, very conservatively, that enthusiasts of any topic, beanie babies or other, restrict themselves to 14 hour work days when surrounded with like-minded peers. Even if they meet and collaborate for only 5 days, they’ll spend 70 face-face hours in each other’s presence. Unlike those people who probably at least professionally knew each other and their work, we’re relative novices who, with some exceptions, didn’t know each other prior to entering this course. At the end of 560, we’ll have met in-person for only 20 hours. By necessity, two of those sessions have been very much NOT collaborative, but instead designed to disseminate mutually useful information in the most condensed way possible. I do believe the collaboration that 560 can look forward to will happen in the next few weeks as we write with our chapter partners and edit/revise the results as a class. The other two classes we’ve already experienced also ran up against a difference from our beanie baby counterparts – we don’t all agree on the topic we’ve selected. The first sessions were characterized by disagreement and frustration because we, being relative newcomers to the field, do not have the in-built history our established peers do. Inherently, we were going to feel like any topic we picked was being plucked out of the air. Throw in the complication that we’re not even all from the same field or headed toward the same field, and of course the quality of content brainstorming was going to be reduced. We’re not yet scholars of instruction, being that most of us have not yet taught a class. 
What this class is is an exercise in the basest components of research with an eye toward contributing to a larger discussion. We are originating, researching, and synthesizing new discussion for outside consumption. *: The word “book” has attracted far too much angst in the past 4 weeks. I don’t care if this is a book, a wiki, a novella, an ebook, or if these topics end up lacking the cohesion to justify a collection and we all take our pieces and look elsewhere for contribution (although I sincerely doubt the last scenario will happen). What we are trying to do here is to fit our research and writing into a larger assemblage which is itself joining a larger discussion. I knew from the beginning that the most attractive elements of a true TextDash would have difficulty integrating: in-person back-and-forth brainstorming, immersion with many like-minded writers, and developing a well-honed topic/subtopic relationship were all bound to diminish where the participants meet 2.5 hours per week over 8 weeks and necessarily had to do their work away from each other amidst the rest of regular life. This was never going to be a true TextDash.
Finally, there has been a great deal of – I’ll say it – negativity regarding how we’ve utilized alternatives to face-face time in this class. Speaking primarily of Twitter, but to a lesser extent Google Docs, there have been entirely unproductive snarks about how the #560wr tag has not been active enough. Still, I have yet to hear how there was going to be a robust twitter backchannel to this course when all of the above issues are considered. I love what Twitter can do for subdiscussion in some venues, like during the Computers and Writing Conference sessions, where interesting counterpoints and questions emerged alongside the presentations we were viewing. However, I was irritated by some of the useless, nonconstructive, sometimes openly negative blather some contributers seemed to flood the #cwcon tag with, seemingly being content to be heard rather than to actually say something. (for further reading on my thoughts of CWcon… just wait. I might get around to writing a horribly late post-con entry soon) Up until this week, all #560wr writers were either doing research (very much a read-only kind of mode), or otherwise not sure they had anything worth saying yet. The only thing I dislike more than no class discussion is uninspired, regurgitative class discussion. If you aren’t adding something, squawking like a parrot isn’t better. This also applies to Twitter.
So am I a misanthrope for taking umbrage with how twitchy things have gotten about this class? I hope not. I understand that, like me, participants want to get something out of this besides the class grade – I did not need to take this class for requirements at all, but instead chose to take it because it seemed damned interesting. What I’d like to believe I am is a realist with standards. In this case, my standards are fairly low: take what you can from ENG 560, even if it isn’t your personal ideal. Don’t ignore what’s good because you’ve yet to see exactly what you’d hoped to at the outset. You may yet be surprised at what you gain when everything wraps up in July, especially if you don’t set preconditions.
Kiss that frog beanie baby and see what happens, people.
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