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Combining Forces: Collaboration as a Tool for Teaching Digital Literacies

Posted by on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 in News.

by Chelsea Yarborough, Graduate Teaching Fellow, and Derek Bruff, Director

In February we kicked off the spring semester learning community on teaching digital literacies with a conversation focused on collaborations at the university. The goal of this session was to consider the ways that different people have worked together to help students create digital projects that are worthwhile and yield excellent results. The Center for Teaching invited two pairs of instructors to serve as panelists and to talk about the assignments they collaborated on and how they benefitted from the collaboration. Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, assistant professor of religious studies, and Bobby Smiley, associate director of the Divinity Library, represented a collaboration between a faculty member and a librarian. Sophie Bjork-James, assistant professor of the practice of anthropology and Kellie Cavagnaro, doctoral candidate in anthropology, gave us a window into the collaboration between a teaching assistant and a faculty member. Unfortunately, Kellie was unable to join us in person. She was, however, able to send comments to CFT director Derek Bruff who offered remarks on her behalf during the conversation.

Sophie Bjork-James opened our conversation by talking about an assignment that she and Kellie Cavagnaro collaborated on in her class The Politics of Reproductive Health. She named that while she is often open to exploring different forms of technology, using technology is not where her strengths lie. She offered a shout out to the Center for Teaching’s Course Design Institute on “Students as Producers,” naming this workshop as the catalyst that helped her imagine the assignment for her course. Bjork-James’s assignment initially asked students to create some digital product exploring and making an argument about a topic from the course. The project changed over time as she realized that it was important to be more specific about the goals and outcomes of the project in order to yield the type of response she wanted. The current version asks students to create either a short digital video or a piece of audio appropriate for a podcast.

While Bjork-James created most of the parameters of the project, it could not have been executed without the technological knowledge and training of her TA, Kellie Cavagnaro. Cavagnaro’s role was to give students the basic media training that would equip them to do the work they needed to do in both a practical and theoretical matter. As a team Bjork-James and Cavagnaro decided that students could Google technical information, like how to create a podcast, but what they wouldn’t get on their own was the media theory that would help them think through what a podcast does and why they chose this particular medium. Cavagnaro gave them that training.

One of the challenges of teaching collaborations that Bjork-James mentioned was that more people means that you have to be extra clear about expectations. If she were to do it again, she would make sure that both she and the TA were telling students the same thing about the expectations for the project and she would spend more time making sure that everything was clear. Overall, students were given an opportunity to delve into a new media form, they were given space to consider why this form over others, and they produced something that they might share beyond the course. In fact, “Hagar Rising,” a piece of speculative audio fiction produced by student Sarah Saxton Strassberg, was recently shared on VandyVox, a podcast from the CFT and Vanderbilt Student Media that features the best of student-produced audio from around campus. (For more on Sophie Bjork-James’s assignment and to hear “Hagar Rising,” listen to Episode 56 of the CFT’s other podcast, Leading Lines.)

Our second team was librarian Bobby Smiley and assistant professor Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh. Wells-Oghoghomeh opened her comments by saying, “Bobby and I were a match made in collaborator heaven.” She saw this collaboration as a vital aspect of the project and doesn’t think it would have been executed as well without both of their expertise in the project. In her class, Slave Thought, Wells-Oghoghomeh had her students curate a digital archive on a topic of their choice. She scaffolded the project so that students were building throughout the entire semester and they were receiving feedback along the way. The four parts of the project were a research question, an annotated bibliography, a 5-7-page narrative, and finally the exhibit itself. Students got to choose their topic, but they were assisted in creating a topic that was manageable and would be effective for this project.

Smiley entered the conversation also expressing his appreciation for the collaboration, naming and celebrating that projects like these give him an opportunity to work closely with faculty, and in this case, teach in his subject area. In addition, he has done work at other points of his career in the digital humanities. The original intent of the collaboration was for Smiley to do an information session for the class about research. However, upon hearing about the project, he realized that the web publishing platform Omeka would be a great fit for the project, and that he could help students learn the system as they developed their research. As a part of the class, Smiley did an information session and also met with each student to help them with their projects and assist them in developing their research along the way. He commented, “It is important that we think about the research process and make manifest for students the invisible layer of knowledge that we assume students have access to.” By helping students with their research process and development of their archive, both Smiley and Wells-Oghoghomeh saw that students needed more one on one help than they had originally thought. This is why this collaboration was so helpful and both were clear that they benefitted from it and the student projects did as well.

As we opened the floor for discussion one of the most generative questions was, “Do you think you will approach future student assignment differently because of what you learned from these collaborations?” Bjork-James remarked that she realized that she does want the TA to take the responsibility of mentoring during the digital literacy project and to help students develop their work. She also named that she is interested in exploring other resources on campus to see what other projects and ideas might develop. Wells-Oghoghomeh named that through this project she learned the vast capacities of the librarians. She remarked that Smiley is a part of her teaching team now. The collaboration was so valuable that she wants to continue developing it and making sure that all of her students have an opportunity to learn the research process and potentially try something more creative than the production of a paper in her courses. The collaboration also changed the way she looks at assignments. She said,  “If I can imagine it, somebody can help me do it.”  Both teams were positively affected by their collaboration and the work they put into the digital media assignments in their courses.

The major takeaway from the conversation was that we are better when we put the time and effort in to work together. If we think of teaching as an isolated art, we only have the capacity that is within ourselves. However, if we think of our teaching as a possible point of collaboration across the university, we utilize resources better, offer our students a richer experience and expand to more possibilities in our assignments. This is the gift of collaboration and why it is helpful, and often necessary, to combine forces.


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