Author(ing) Author(ity): Collaboration/Isolation and Digital Students

I’m going to step away from commenting on some of the great texts I’ve been reading and use this space to just mull through some ideas that educators should consider when working with student-authors. The word author is, obviously, not easily defined, and there is a distinction many would apply between the concepts of an author and a writer. The main accepted distinction I see between author and writer is the placing of authority. An author is published, screened, vetted, edited. The author is read. A writer is one who writes–and some of the writing may not see the light of day. As educators, we shy away from applying the word “author” to our students. Students write in the class, and it is our job to help them develop towards the (add sarcastic tone) prestigious concept of “author.” To one day be big and proud. To be the author(ity).

So, here’s my argument against this whole student-writer v. student-author: in the classroom, our students are writers. Their audience is, for the most part, the professor and perhaps a few other students forced to do a peer review. But, consider for a moment, a student’s day-to-day life and how much of that includes writing to a significantly larger audience than our peer-reviewed, blood, sweat, and tears, published article. The separation and neglect of students’ existing author-ship from the classroom, I would argue, works against the goals we have set up as composition instructors.

An area where our un-acceptance of student author-ship works against the goals of the composition classroom is with collaboration. I stop here because, as an educator, student, writer, author, academic-community member, I have seen, heard, commented on the absolute importance of collaboration. Collaboration is beneficial for all of us–in every role and aspect of the academic–and we not only preach, but force our students into utilizing their peers. Collaborative discussions. Collaborative peer reviews. Critical thinking, development, writing cannot happen without collaboration! But, hey, you know all that collaborative composing you do online–the sharing, the tweeting, the retweeting, the liking, the commenting–all of those compositions you made or contributed to that have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people interacting with, all of those have no place here. That’s not acceptable collaboration. That’s not writing. That’s not author-ship. THIS is writing–the one you’re writing by yourself on your dorm-room bed in the middle of the night; the one I make you share and read and awkwardly comment on with your classmates. And one day, if you’re skilled enough doing it yourself, secluded and alone, you might get those handful of readers and be an AUTHOR!!!! (If you decide to stay in the university, of course…otherwise, well, you know, good luck!)

We take an author, who works with others/strangers on collaborative texts; who has a following and audience larger than even they realize; who participates in a community, where compositions will circulate for who knows how long online; and we take that author, shove them into a tiny room to sit quietly at a computer to write. And then we take that forced isolation and try to turn that into forced collaboration–which will lead to beneficial revisions…to be made in further isolation. Revisions that will ultimately lead to a dead file on a computer, in a folder marked with this class’s name, that will inevitably be deleted completely.

I wonder if we try something different, something new from our traditional, glorified composition lesson, might we have a better shot of really showing students what writing really is. We tell our students: “writing is collaborative,” “writing is never finished,” and yet everything we do shows the exact opposite. What if, just for a moment, we consider taking a step out of our ‘long ago demolished’ ivory tower and perhaps use a, dare I say, not prestigious piece of writing to show what composing really is. To show the importance of collaboration and revisions. Say we, for the hell of it, have students compose a Wikipedia entry. Together. We all know Wikipedia is not at ALL credible–and it gets more traffic than database articles; and even the glorified academic may or may not use it (and deny it) from time to time–but it’s an encyclopedia of texts that strangers have composed (and cited) together.

A way to consider using this in the classroom is the class can work together on a Google Doc set up as a Wikipedia entry for each text or theme covered in the unit. This entry must include research, proper citations, and audience and genre considerations (calling for multimodality). Any inaccurate or unsupported information will be “taken down” by the administrator (the professor).

As educators, we really need to start considering what we say and what we do with students, and how much our pure intentions lead to contradictions. We have a choice, we can utilize the skills and credibility students bring to the classroom to further their author(ity), or we can neglect their skills and stunt their development. We also need to be careful of blindly accepting and encouraging a single, prestigious text with our students. Perhaps what we’re really doing when we glorify the academic essay is, instead of making a writer into an author, we’re robbing an author of their author(ity).