Building Community Online with Collaborative Writing

Mart Stewart

After a summer concocting various formulas for opening our university campuses so that some semblance of the campus experience might be preserved and then a bumpy opening, many of us have settled back into more comfortable versions of the online teaching venues that were the default modality when we quickly devised ways to teach our classes as the pandemic emerged in February and March. A Chronicle of Higher Education survey in June reported what faculty had already suggested by anecdote and complaint, that online teaching—even if adorned with the bells and whistles of Zoom—could not hold a candle to teaching in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Faculty hoped for training courses over the summer so they could offer better courses in the fall.[1] But in our discussions with each other then and over the summer and into the fall, and in many articles and op-ed pieces in the education press, we have mainly focused on what was wrong with online teaching—everything from problems with student engagement to the dangers of co-option of teaching models by university administrations and the continued erosion of the status of teaching faculty. 

But some kinds of online teaching have worked well, and perhaps even better than classroom teaching. These have demonstrated the value of in-person classroom experience, as they worked themselves out organically in online venues, connecting to students in ways that instructional design for in-person classes does not imagine. The collaborative writing exercise that my students and I completed in one of my seminars for history majors is an example. We often ask students to write response papers to readings and discussions we’ve had about them. But these usually take the form of short bursts of reaction—in the best instances mini-essays—that live and then fade within the context of a particular lesson or week of lessons. We also ask students to write group or individual papers, but these, in my experience, are always topic driven, modified research papers, that even if completed by a group remain individualized. The writing exercise my students and I created in my Environmental History of the Global South seminar put them to work on a collaborative paper to which I contributed as well, sometimes as moderator and editor, and sometimes as author. The goal was not simply to respond to a seminar session or two of readings and discussion with a short paper or reaction, but to develop contributions to a paper that would eventually become a coherent discussion of the main themes of the class. 

On an assignment early in this course, I gave each student a different part of the same section of a reading (James Johnson’s 1818 The influence of tropical climates on English constitutions). After the students wrote about it, I then asked them to give brief presentations of what they had written. As they talked about their presentations, they noticed the common elements (and assumptions) of their respective assignments and made connections to readings of the previous week. We then developed this initial improvised exercise into a weekly writing exercise, but with the purpose of linking each week’s contributions with earlier ones in a single paper, whose themes merged with the ones we were developing in the course. I sent talking points or writing cues about the week’s readings and our discussions of them to the students at the end of each week, with rotating individual writing assignments for our ongoing collaborative project that were of three kinds: one student each week was responsible for developing the transition into the new section for the week; another would edit the other contributions to make the whole more coherent, highlight the main analytical point of the section in the context of the larger thematic direction of the paper, and bring that week’s section to a close; and, finally, these would bookend the third type of writing assignment, which was content driven and came directly from the week’s readings and our discussion of them. For these middle contributions, I provided cues that students could turn into signpost sentences, with the idea that the two or so paragraphs of each content section would contribute to the thematic direction of the whole. 

When I felt the need to jumpstart the week’s efforts, I wrote one part of the week’s section to the paper—usually one of the transitions, with the purpose of linking to earlier parts of the paper. As the quarter and this collaborative assignment progressed, students met as a group, either in breakout sessions during our class time or at other times on their own to review what they had written or to get started on the section for the week. Several times during the quarter I asked students to go over the entire paper as we had developed it, to proof and edit in the direction of knitting all into a more coherent whole, or to develop an abstract that explained the paper so far. Sometimes they chose to do this in a Zoom breakout session or by circulating the paper among themselves on their own schedule. As students became more comfortable working with each other, they met out of class online—after initial suggestions from me—to do some preliminary writing or even to shape a shared Google doc for that week’s collective contribution. The final section of the collaborative paper not only developed an explanation of the readings of the last week of class in terms of the larger themes we had developed for the class, but also responded to some summary cues I provided them. This created a conclusion to a fifteen-page, single-spaced paper formatted like an academic article that was both summary of the readings and discussions of the class, as well as a presentation of the main themes of the entire course.

This collaborative, quarter-long assignment had the advantage of including what James Lang in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons in the Science of Learning calls “interleaved assignments”—assignments that require students to go back to content learned earlier in the quarter, and in some cases to content and interests that students brought to the course with them (I developed some of the course readings out of a Canvas discussion thread that I asked students to complete before the first class meeting). Instead of encouraging students to write their paper in steps, each one adding to skills and sometimes to content that would culminate in a final paper, or asking them to do a comprehensive final exercise at the end of the quarter, interleaved assignments ask them to develop each section not just in dialogue with the one that went before it, but with other sections, discussions, and interests. Interleaved assignments foster an ability to make connections, to develop not just knowledge but a clear context for developing further knowledge, and, as Lang argues, “teaches students to develop frameworks of knowledge in a content area, that enable them to connect and organize information in meaningful and productive ways (96).”[2]Unlike comprehensive exercises at the end of the quarter that ask students to recite or work with what they learn, interleaved assignments retrieve course content as part of an ongoing exercise that culminates in something that is comprehensive in a real-world way. That in the exercise we developed they did this as they built community in the middle of a pandemic made this framework for knowledge an even more vital resource for them.

Teaching and learning from our hermetically sealed electronic communication pods erase the kinds of interactions that are fundamental to good dialogue and interactive teaching in the classroom. The body language, the small cues, the lack of interruptions (electronic glitches as well as household background activity), and especially, the indirect opportunities for reading a room that add and may be essential to successful dialogue in the classroom are stripped away by online teaching modalities. Even in “synchronous” Zoom sessions, where we at least have the advantage of some eye—or webcam—contact, and often at close range. While class sessions where an authority figure lectures can work well in online Zoom classrooms, and even be enriched by easy breakouts or chat subtexts, carrying on a genuine conversation on Zoom with students is an austere proposition. We are disembodied, cut off from each other, buffeted by static and by the absence of something we can’t quite define but that registers itself in exhaustion. We define that very generally as the core challenge to online teaching: fostering “student engagement.”[3]

But students continue to be connected to the writing they develop and extend to others on an electronic page. And when we read carefully, and work with others to interact with each other on developing a shared text, the problem of disembodiment or of limited opportunities to read the room and of “student engagement” disappears. Of course, nearly all of us in our history courses ask students to do some writing, often quite a bit of it, and these assignments can be easily re-tooled to be online collaborative ones.

It needs to be emphasized that this was not a collectively wrought paper that merely taught students how to work together as a group: collaboration is one skill that history classes can help develop in students, a skill that is also marketable, as we are reminded whenever “working in groups” is encouraged as a component of classroom learning strategies. The collective project was one that in the middle of the pandemic gave students the chance not just to work in a group, however, but to build community (not apart from the instructor but in dialogue with me). It was one that also taught valuable collaborative skills—how to work with each other not only by making individual contributions and hoping that the final is greater than a sum of the parts, but to assess each other’s strengths and to edit and revise the work of others with the interest of the group in mind. This was also not just  a single “peer review” episode, but part of the ongoing process of collaboration. Students sometimes debated differences in interpretation, and this may have sharpened their expression of key analytical points. But the process of creating a paper together absorbed any differences that might have halted progress on the collaborative task at hand. Finally, it was a great way for students to make other kinds of connections, in conversation with each other and with what each student already knew or was learning, to create the framework for further learning that is a real accomplishment. Students not only learned how to do “group work” and how to construct a project together, but also how to do it as a collaboration, with roles and contributions that changed from week to week, employing a variety of peer review and writing strategies, and creating a final project in which individual contributions were indistinguishable.

It was probably important that this exercise was improvised and was ungraded—and that my “feedback” was in the form of edits (sometimes ostensibly marked up) or in transitions or signpost sentences, as well as in a few comments in class about the direction the paper was taking and how interesting this was. And that I was shifting the reading assignments for the following week accordingly.

Will this work for other classes and in a context where we are no longer in survival mode, back to conventional grading and less generous with each other because of the pandemic is over? And for other courses than upper-level seminars with students who already have strong writing skills? I think it will, with some modifications, though the writing groups need to be smaller than fifteen students (and ideally, less than ten). I am trying a version of this in breakout workshop groups in my large general education history course this fall. I have used group document analysis and writing workshops in these courses for years—but instead, again, of making each workshop a discrete entity, I am “interleaving” them together and asking students to complete a final paper that works for all of them, and with more attention to unifying themes for this course than is customary. I think this exercise in collaboration gives us a template at least, one that can be adapted in all kinds of ways in history courses that include a lot of writing. If we already have group learning exercises built into our courses, this template can be used to lift them up into a more collaborative framework. And one that will build the kind of community that seasoned instructors have come to understand is important for any kind of success with online classes.[4] The medium itself makes this kind of collaboration much easier to develop and revise and add to than in traditional brick and mortar classroom venues, too. By the way, this exercise was in addition to the individual research papers students wrote for this class, and no one complained about the workload. I think they simply had a lot of fun, along with learning something.


Mart Stewart teaches courses in environmental and agricultural history at Western Washington University. He has received the Inaugural James C. Giesen Teaching Excellence Award in Rural and Agricultural History from the Agricultural History Society


[1]Audrey Williams June, “Did the Scramble to Remote Teaching Work? Here’s What Higher Ed Thinks,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 4, 2020.

[2]James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons in the Science of Learning (2016), 96.

[3]See Susan D. Blum, ”Why We’re Exhausted by Zoom,” Inside Higher Education, April 22, 2020. Proximity may be necessary for classroom interactions, and for the synchronicity that the best of these accomplish: George M. Leader, “Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange,” Sapiens, March 30, 2020; Alejandro Pérez, Manuel Carreiras, Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, “Brain-to-brain entrainment: EEG interbrain synchronization while speaking and listening,” Scientific Reports, 7 (2017).

[4]Beth McMurtrie, “The New Rules of Engagement,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 7, 2020.