Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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On collaborative writing

Yesterday Alasdair Cochrane from Sheffield University came down to work on a paper with me (buy his excellent little book on animals and political theory here). I’m blogging about it because it’s my first foray into co-authoring. Admittedly, when you take into account presentation, feedback, and peer review, most academic writing is collaboratively written to some degree, but this is different. I thought I’d share how we’ve proceeded in case it’s useful to others, and in case anyone out there can offer us advice.

The paper began as a short, targeted paper (3000 words) which had presented to a conference: Alasdair used the paper as a starting point to develop a broader idea. We’ve spent a day thrashing out a structure together, considered our claims and potential counter-claims, identified key areas of the literature, and assigned starting sections for each of us to draft (with deadlines).

I’m keen to make best use of collaborative tools, so we’re going to have a go at using Googledocs for our first draft. Gooledocs is good, because multiple authors can work on a document in real time, and with differing permission levels. Googledocs also has threaded comments features with primitive work-flow management features (you can mark a comment ‘resolved’). It also has revision tracking features, and it’s ‘Research’ tool allows you to search Google Scholar and insert references while you work. There’s even a real-time chat function.

Later, I expect we’ll import the document into a Word or LibreOffice, use some decent reference management software (I use Zotero), and apply an appropriate template to make it all conform to the publishing guidelines of the journal we’re targeting. The last bit requires that we structure our document properly by using the right heading levels and so forth.

So far, the process has been fun and productive – I’m looking forward to continuing the process. Anyone out there care to share experiences of give tips?

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Undergraduate writing & academic feedback

At last: I’ve spent far too many days marking student essays and seminar participation, and now I have finished. A quick check reveals that for the fifty ‘ish essays I’ve marked, I’ve written over 12,000 words of feedback. Hopefully, it will be useful for my students, who’ve been a really good bunch this year.

Apropos of this, I was chatting about feedback with a colleague earlier today; specifically the kind of responses to poor feedback that academics get from their students. I suspect that all academics will be used to the odd angry and baffled email from a student who has had a bad mark, or some feedback that they disagree with. I dread those accusatory emails, especially when they’re from a good student who I know should have done much better, and there are always one or two of those. Interestingly, I recently got a rather snippy response to my comments as an anonymous peer reviewer – so I guess not all academics eventually learn to take criticism entirely on the chin.

Anyway, our chat concerned how different the undergraduate writing experience is to the process they’ll go through if they go further in academia. For the undergraduate, the process is a solitary one – they receive an essay title, write their essay alone, submit, receive a mark and some feedback, and then that’s the end of it. However, for academics, the writing process often seems collaborative (well, it does for me anyway), and the initial feedback is only the beginning. We write something (often after a discussion with colleagues), present it at a seminar or conference, respond to audience comments, rewrite, repeat, submit to a journal, receive horrible feedback, rewrite, resubmit, receive more feedback, and then (if we’re lucky) finalise our paper and publish.

Now, the sensible undergraduate student will send an essay plan to their tutor, maybe talk through it with them, and email them questions – it’s just a shame that more don’t do this. They may even get a better taste of how academics write if they do a dissertation. But, it seems to me that the way undergraduates write – the way the structures we set in place shape how they write – is probably not the way that will benefit them the most either in terms of experience or learning. So, this evening I’ve found myself thinking about how we can make writing more collaborative for undergraduates, whilst also being able to assess them easily. I have some ideas: like undergraduate peer review of weekly tutorial questions, but suggestions from others would be gratefully received! How would you engage students in collaborative writing,is it a terrible idea?