C&W Workshop 4: We Wrote an E-book (in First-Year Composition!) and Your Students Can Too

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In this pre-conference workshop, Dr. Ashley Hall of Wright State University described her collaborative e-book project as a “radically traditional” assignment. After all, the primary content her students worked on wasn’t too different from the typical research essay assignment, including annotated bibliographies, literature reviews, drafts, and peer review work. These pieces covered fairly traditional first-year composition skills. The exciting part involved collecting all those research essays into a coherent whole and figuring out how to publish it as an ebook via the university’s online repository.

The workshop was fairly open-ended and conversational, which was great. We the attendees introduced ourselves and shared our interests, the workshop leaders introduced themselves, and there was room along the way for everyone to interject, share, ask questions, and direct the course of the afternoon. The main themes and takeaways I see in my notes about the workshop are:

  • assignment design: how to conceptualize and manage a major project like this using “feeder assignments”
  • student responsibilities: how to get students involved above and beyond the assignment itself.
  • technical considerations: what are the actual steps involved in creating a real publishable ebook?
  • co-creating knowledge: clarifying to the class that both students and instructor share in the activity of making new knowledge together

Hall walked us through her assignment design process in a few different ways, sharing so many interesting little ideas for activities and projects in the course. An important concept here was that of “feeder assignments”—a term Hall uses with her students as well as among her colleagues. During the 7 weeks of the main research project, which fell at the beginning of the semester, students completed smaller feeder assignments to scaffold their learning and writing skills. Not only were their initial research tasks, annotated bibliographies, and rough drafts “feeders” for the finished research paper, each essay was also a “feeder” for the larger ebook project. This meant students needed to conceive of their writing as more than just an essay for class—it was going to be used as an article, a chapter, connecting to a central theme and an overarching purpose. For this course, that theme was 3D printing—something that promised plenty of interesting interdisciplinary angles for students to think through, and something Hall was personally and professionally interested in.

As part of her planning, Hall finds it helpful to break down the rhetorical situation surrounding the assignments she’s designing. For the workshop, she did this with a handy set of categories in columns (below), using her ebook research assignment as an example:

Genre(s) Purpose Audience(s) Student Role(s) Rhetorical Situation
an ebook

chapters

 

or, it could be…

infographics

videos

web-texts

to inform and to entertain about an emerging technology (3D printing)

 

[this could also depend on the topic]
Friends and family interested in students’ work

 

Users of the online database who search by keywords (primary and secondary)

 

Be the subject matter expert on 3D printing in ___ scenario.

Students choose the sub-topic here.

Because 3d printing is new, perhaps revolutionary, and the world has questions about it.

How revolutionary?

Potentially world-changing.

 

[This space is for thinking through what we’re doing, what contribution we’re making as a group of learners/researchers]

Sometimes, Hall mentioned, it can be helpful to give students this chart directly and talk through each piece. Other times it works to give the same information and context clues in other ways.

Two of Hall’s students from this course—Ben Young and Madison Jewell—were also able to join the workshop. Both students, above and beyond writing research articles to contribute to the ebook project, served as co-editors of the full collection. To have them participating in the workshop at this conference was wonderful—it added depth and well-roundedness to the presentation and discussion that wouldn’t have been there if only instructors’ perspectives were present. Only Madison was there in person, but Ben sent a great recording of his own thoughts and experiences. We got to hear about Ben’s challenges trying to design a good cover for an ebook—something he had never done or even thought about before. Madison shared her enthusiasm and engagement in editing her peers’ writing, articulating what she learned from the processes of negotiating among so many writers, giving constructive criticisms when needed, and making tough design decisions about organization and layout.

At the audience’s request, Hall also took time to cover some more fiddly, technical details regarding how to make ebooks. Madison chimed in to explain their editorial process, too. After collecting final drafts in MS Word from all students, everything was transferred to Google Drive for sharing, editing, copyediting, and proofreading. The layout and document design for the ebook were done using Adobe InDesign and a modifiable ebook template. Hall and the student editors created separate InDesign documents for each article at first, to make sure the content of each could be edited and tweaked as needed without affecting the book as a whole. Eventually these separate InDesign files were compiled together, fitted with a table of contents and a cover, and the whole document was exported (File > Export) into .epub format. It looked so easy!

Over and over again in this fascinating workshop, Hall emphasized the value of bringing a writing class together in order to co-create knowledge. She wants to move her students from writing “in a context of justification”—merely meeting requirements because the teacher says so—to a mode of writing “in a context of invention.” Writing in a context of invention, she explains, means actually writing and doing about something beyond the checklist and beyond the grade. She de-centers grades in her classes as much as possible, instead giving students plenty of feedback and conversations about their work.

The almost-finished ebook, co-edited by Ben Young and Madison Jewell, is called Printing A New World and it should be available soon at Wright State University’s online digital repository. It was inspiring to see what their class had put together, and to hear about the behind-the-scenes planning, collaboration, and enthusiasm that made it happen. And to keep the inspiration alive, we all got to leave with our own copy of an InDesign ebook template, to use in future class projects. Making an ebook seemed to be an excellent experience for Ashley Hall’s class, and it would be exciting to see more of this kind of work coming from first-year composition students everywhere.

About Author(s)

Amelia Chesley is currently a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University. She is interested in intellectual property, remix culture, transdisciplinarity, and online communities.

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