Collaboration in Action


Classes, Collaborative Learning / Monday, April 27th, 2015
Author photo. Taken by Jennifer Brindley.
Rachel Herzl-Betz. Photo taken by Jennifer Brindley.

By Rachel Herzl-Betz

Rachel Herzl-Betz is the T.A. Coordinator of Outreach for the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where she has been a tutor since 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in Literary Studies, with a focus on Victorian Literature, Disability Studies, and Rhetoric.

The perfect teaching collaboration is an elusive ideal, more like a dream than a lesson plan. Of course, as we all know, teaching in a Writing Center or a classroom doesn’t usually look like the ideal. It can be messy, unpredictable, and strange, particularly when we throw new variables (and new people) into the mix.

Professor Brittany Travers
Professor Brittany Travers

As the coordinator for the Outreach Program at the UW-Madison Writing Center, I have more opportunities than most to build collaborative relationships.  Every year, tutors from our Outreach program give presentations and create writing lessons for more than 150 classes, student groups, workshops, and events across campus. My work as coordinator involves training a team of tutors and providing presentations myself, when time and schedules allow. I have had the pleasure of working with instructors from a wide range of disciplines and contexts. However, a recent collaboration with Professor Brittany Travers illustrates the value that enthusiastic collaboration can bring to the classroom, even when conditions conspire against us.

In the interest of showing rather than telling, I’ve invited my co-conspirator to take part as I walk through the process of creating a lesson on conference presentations for Masters students in her course on science writing. Brittany is an assistant professor in the Occupational Therapy Program, which is in the department of Kinesiology. She regularly teaches courses on the research track in the OT program, including those on data collection and analysis and scientific writing. I asked Brittany to describe how she decided to contact the Outreach program and she explains that the process actually begin at the beginning of the year.

“I first learned about the services of the writing center at my new faculty orientation, since then, I have very much encouraged my students to utilize writing center sessions. However, this was my first opportunity to work with the writing center’s outreach. I saw the “how to give a presentation” seminar on the Writing Center’s website, so I put it as a mandatory event on my syllabus. Unfortunately, only a couple of students were able to attend because others had scheduling conflicts. At the request of the students, I emailed the Writing Center to see if they could maybe come to class. I was delighted when Rachel said yes!”

I was similarly delighted when she asked, in part because it just so happens that I lead the workshop on conference presentations that she originally required. Generally, we aren’t big fans of requiring attendance at Writing Center events, because it often leads to disgruntled participants. However, Brittany’s students were anything but disgruntled. In a strong group of workshop participants, they stood out as both enthusiastic and prepared, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with the other students in their class. When we met to talk through the details of the event, she made it clear that she wasn’t interested in making any students relive the workshop. Those who had already attended would be exempt, while the rest of the class had the opportunity to experience a riff on the original.

The Writing Center Commons at UW-Madison where the workshop was originally presented
The Writing Center Commons at UW-Madison where the workshop was originally presented

I left our meeting full of energy, in part because of Professor Travers’ apparent enthusiasm for her class and her students. At the same time, I was well aware of the conceptual heavy lifting that would be required to reimagine the conference presentation workshop as an in-class collaboration. In might seem like the project simply called for a shift from one room to another, but the transition from the Writing Center classroom to Professor Travers’ classroom in the Medical Sciences Center required at least two additional transitions: one toward specificity and a second toward cooperation.

Specificity

One of the guiding principles of the outreach program here at the UW is that every workshop, presentation, or lesson must fit the needs of the specific group of students. In practice, that means taking the general concept of thesis statements or cover letters, and tailoring a lesson with a particular group’s discipline, year, time frame, and progress through the semester in mind. Workshops, on the other hand, are designed to fit as many different audiences as possible. Each time I’ve presented a workshop on conference presentations, my audience at the Writing Center has represented a broad swath of the campus community. All manner of academic levels, disciplines, and contexts have appeared in my classroom, often at the same time, and so a good workshop needs to be general enough so that an undergraduate biology major and a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric can make use of it at the same time. We might frame of the difference between the two contexts as a contrast between breadth and depth.

Luckily, I had several resources for narrowing the focus of the original source materials. Brittany explained that all of her students are preparing for the same presentation context. They will all be presenting posters of their research combined with brief explanations as observers circulate through the poster-presentation space. Brittany explains the context for their work within a clear set of expectations and challenges:

“This presentation will be held in the Health Sciences and Learning Center, hopefully in front of a large, inter-professional crowd. For many of them, this will be their first research poster presentation. In addition, we hope that the students will submit an abstract and be accepted to present a research poster on this topic at the OT [Occupational Therapy] national conference. I thought that some potential challenges to this process would be confusion over what to include on a poster and how to talk about one’s research to a broad audience.”

Suddenly we’ve gone from a broad range of possibilities to a specific length, context, audience, and purpose. In about five minutes, the students in Brittany’s class must persuade an audience of non-specialists of the significance of their research project. Their presentations have to be accessible, adaptable, and tied directly to the content presented on their posters. Brittany added to the specificity of the presentation by providing samples and the guidelines for poster presentations at the American Occupational Therapy Conference. Now, rather than helping the class determine the rhetorical situations for their individual presentations, as I might in a workshop, I could start with their common situation and help them figure out how their anticipated audience or length requirements might impact the argument that they can present.

Poster Presentation at AOTA's 2015 Conference and Expo. Image provided by AOTA.
Poster Presentation at AOTA’s 2015 Conference and Expo. Image provided by AOTA.

Another resource for specificity came directly from students who attended the original workshops. Before our meeting, Brittany asked the students what they had found most useful or effective, and they were kind enough to let me use that feedback in the adaptation process. I noticed two trends in the student feedback that I was able to use to frame the in-class presentation. Conceptually, they valued the emphasis on simplicity and clarity. For example, one student highlighted the flexibility inherent in providing a simple baseline accessible to a wide audience:

“We had a great discussion about the merits of making the presentation as easy to understand as possible, even if your audience is full of very knowledgeable people. This gives everyone a baseline understanding and something to take away, while leaving the presenter the freedom to insert some of the more advanced content in places that are carefully chosen for those who want/need more info.”

They responded well to the idea that simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing down a presentation, and that idea translated well to a discussion of their specific rhetorical situation. At the same time, other students appreciated the aspects of the workshop that focused on the nuts and bolts of planning out the text of a conference presentation. One student walked Brittany through the key suggestions for paper organization, while using language from the workshop:

“This workshop focused a lot on the conciseness of presentations (reducing or eliminating the lit review, focusing on main points, limiting bullet points/text) and clarity of presentations. Our presenter told us that we could not use enough sign points during our presentations (how many times can I use that word in this email?).”

Without this feedback I might have been tempted to take the nitty gritty signpost talk out of the lesson all together. After all, they were only creating five-minute talks, but the students made me realize that the brevity of their presentations only made the organization details more important. If they only had a few minutes to speak, they would need to make an impact.

Cooperation

The second key shift from the Writing Center to the classroom was a reorientation toward cooperation. The original workshop was, by necessity, a bit of a one-woman show. Like all of our workshops, it incorporated student interaction in the form of writing, small-group discussion, and collective brainstorming, but I couldn’t count on having other experienced presenters in the room to serve as leaders in their own right. However, as an Outreach presentation, I had the benefit of Brittany’s years of experience, as well as her knowledge about the field, and I wanted to make the greatest possible use of those resources. During the planning process, I designed the presentation with intentional gaps for questions from the audience and for Brittany’s contributions as a content expert. This left the final plan looking more like a choose-your-own adventure book than like a polished conference presentation (of the sort that I was teaching them to create), but with an engaged presentation partner, I felt confident that those gaps would add more than they detracted from the persuasiveness of the presentation.

In the end, though, my most effective move toward collaboration was simply in the form of encouragement. As Brittany explains about her own expectations:

“Originally, I saw my role a bit more passively, more as an attendee of the workshop. However, before her presentation, Rachel invited me to speak up and share when needed. Therefore, I felt comfortable jumping in when I saw that there was a place that I could specifically relate the material to the class’s experience or to my own experience in giving research presentations. I am glad that Rachel invited me to speak up!”

The impact of collaboration in class presentations is always useful, but this time, when Brittany joined it, I could almost see the lightbulbs turning on over her students’ heads. At one point, a student asked about how to present a research project with either negative or inconclusive results. I was able to provide genre-specific advice about the implication of ongoing research, but Brittany was able to provide something much more valuable: perspective. She knows her students and was able to speak to their shared frustration in the midst of projects that are never quite as grand in practice as they had been in theory. She spoke from experience about the value that others would find in their disappointments and, as she spoke, several students nodded along. Brittany had the knowledge of her students, and of the field, to take what I was presenting and to make it relevant to their research process.

Brittany Travers' classroom in the Medical Sciences Center
Brittany Travers speaks to students in the Medical Sciences Center. Photo taken by Professor Travers.

Obviously, I can’t encourage everyone reading this blog to find a collaborator as enthusiastic and prepared as Professor Travers. However, I can speak to the value of creating spaces for collaboration. It might have been easier to simply let the presentation slide, relatively unchanged, from one classroom to another. The students still would have learned about signposting their arguments and simplifying their language, but the final result wouldn’t have reached the same level of relevance for this specific class. Brittany’s contributions, in our conversations and in class, transformed my lesson into our lesson and made it stronger than the sum of its parts.

For readers of the blog:

  1. Have you encountered positive (or disastrous) experiences with collaboration in the Writing Center? What have you found useful or valuable in those interactions?
  2. Have you found ways to “leave space” for students, instructors, or other tutors to collaborate with you? Conversely, have you noticed ways that you (or others) inadvertently cut off co-creation?

Please share your ideas, experiences, and righteous anger in the comments below!

2 Replies to “Collaboration in Action”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and engaging post, Rachel! I love how clearly you break down the myriad factors that make for a successful collaborative teaching session, and how you walk us through the process of tailoring a broad presentation for a more specific audience. I also love how you incorporate the voices of Professor Travers and her students into your post — as in the classroom, having their voices chiming in produces a rich conversation rather than, as you put it, a “one-woman show.”

  2. Thanks for this encouraging post, Rachel. I think it’s easy to feel uncomfortable or vulnerable collaborating with people we don’t know well in disciplines we know even less. But my experiences in similar situations has often matched what you say about gaps being productive rather than problematic. My two favorite moments in collaborative situations are where the instructor chimes in on a point I’m making and says, “Oh yes, that’s very important for what we do in our discipline” and the moment when my not knowing about a gap helps students to ask their instructor a question they hadn’t thought of before. The instructor’s presence adds authority to what I have brought to say, and it allows students to realize in a new way what a great and knowledgeable resource their instructor is, just as you describe.

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