Just before the start of the academic year (2022-23), I found out that I would be teaching IEM2 – a second-year, content-driven academic writing module offered to students in the University Town residential colleges – to a class of four students. IEM2 had run its course and the two-tier Ideas and Exposition (IEM) programme consisting of a first-year academic literacies and second-year research and writing module had given way to a standalone writing module. This final iteration of my module, titled RISK and Popular Culture, was aimed at giving the four students who, for various reasons, had not taken IEM2 with the rest of their cohort in previous semesters, a chance to complete the University Town College Programme (UTCP).
The students were from Computing, Engineering and Business and initial conversations revealed that they had no particular interest in the module topic or in developing their research and writing skills. They were in class mainly to fulfill a university requirement. Two students who had been away on internships also informed me that they were ‘overloading’ to make up for lost time and would be extremely busy with their core modules. Historically, students have perceived IEM2 as ‘difficult’ and involving much more work than other residential college courses. My challenge at the start of the semester, therefore, was to motivate the students to read and engage with the concepts and ideas central to the module, participate in class discussions, share insights and feedback to identify a line of inquiry for the collaborative Annotated Bibliography (Assignment 1) and use it to develop and refine their individual project ideas. I had to think of ways to use the small class size and the extra time we had throughout the semester because of it to promote learning without burdening the four students with additional work that a 15- or 16-student class would not be required to undertake. In this piece, I reflect on how I used class sessions in the first few weeks of the semester to pique their interest and foster critical and collaborative engagements with the course content. Drawing on and adapting aspects of both the “community of inquiry” framework (Garrison, 2016) and Timothy Oleksiak’s concept of “slow peer review” (2021), I attempted to create a classroom environment in which students could participate according to their comfort level and without fear of censure or reprisal, ideas and viewpoints could develop very gradually through a dialogic process and students could learn to trust their own and their peers’ judgments. In this blog post, I briefly outline the role of teacher presence and intervention in facilitating reading as a “social practice” (Baker et al., 2019; Wolf & Barzillai, 2009) and fostering “social” and “cognitive presence” (Garrison, 2016) in a four-student classroom by creating multiple and sustained opportunities for peer engagement, collaborative learning and reflection.
Reading academic texts, especially longform articles and book chapters, can be challenging for many NUS undergraduates and, as recent scholarship on reading also testifies, the problem is somewhat exacerbated globally by the dominance of digital culture and modes of communication that emphasize speed and efficiency over depth (Wolf & Barzillai, 2009). Readings had already been selected with a 15-16 student class in mind and included both ‘conceptual’ and ‘contextual’ sources, i.e., academic articles and book chapters that introduced students to three key socio-cultural theories of risk and sources that showed students how these concepts and theories could be used as critical lenses to analyze popular culture, chiefly the news and film. Short summaries of key concepts, methodologies and guide questions were provided to help students navigate each reading before coming to class. Although students had taken IEM1, which teaches critical reading strategies, I used class time in the first two weeks to explain why learning to read effectively is important and ask questions about each student’s approach to the reading process before we discussed the assigned article in depth. Insights gained from these preliminary discussions helped me scaffold the reading process better in subsequent weeks. I would begin class discussion with “exploratory” and open questions about the assigned reading such as “What did you think of the article?” “Did anything in it surprise or confuse you?” “Why does the author belabour this point at the start? Does it detract from the focus?” “Did you detect any convergences or divergences between this theoretical approach and the one we discussed last week?” I often used short clips from recent news stories and film to illustrate, problematize or pose questions about ideas in the readings. Initially, students were somewhat reluctant to respond and uncomfortable with the ensuing silence as I waited for someone to speak. The silences became less frequent as the four students realized that I was not looking for the ‘correct’ answer, that we did not have to finish discussing the article in that session and that they could express, test out and comment on tentative or half-formed thoughts at their own pace and without fear of judgment. The small class size allowed for slow, incremental insights and deeper engagements with the material. These open-ended and freewheeling discussions also helped the students develop an understanding of “knowledge [as] a social, shared attribute based in communities of practice” (Mercer & Howe, p. 19) that could be extended to small group work and peer reviews. This is especially important for undergraduates from the sciences who often regard academic knowledge as absolute rather than contingent and contextual and themselves as its passive recipients (Ramanujan, 2022; Spanier, 1992).
In IEM2, the collaborative annotated bibliography comprises an introduction and individual annotations that summarize and evaluate the secondary sources selected by the group. The introduction outlines the unifying principle, concept or theory the group wishes to explore and provides a rationale for the selection based on individual areas of interest/inquiry. This initial collaboration is aimed at helping students select, organize and create a dialogue between secondary sources relevant to all four projects in the early stages of the research process. In weeks 4-6, roughly 30 minutes of each class session were dedicated to group work. I provided a handout (appended below) for each stage of the process and helped students describe their individual areas of interest and listen for recurring concepts and keywords that could form the basis of their annotated bibliography. For instance, it was immediately clear that all four students were interested in examining visual narratives (television and film) rather than the news. Exploring film analysis techniques could be one way of approaching the task. Terms like ‘surveillance,’ ‘normalization,’ ‘biopolitics’ and ‘power’ recurred in their individual expressions of interest, pointing to the Foucauldian approach to risk analysis. One student’s explanation of her initial ideas allowed the group to consider intersections between the cultural and Foucauldian approaches. In other words, facilitating meaningful conversations within the group involved helping students articulate their ideas and listen to one another. I occasionally listened in and asked open questions to enhance thinking and engagement, ensure that one voice did not dominate, contesting and even seemingly irrelevant opinions were considered, and students worked towards identifying an overriding idea that would benefit all four projects. For the most part, however, I allowed the students to engage in dialogue without pressuring them to reach a conclusion. Effective collaboration, as John Trimbur (1989) has pointed out, takes time and involves both consensus and conflict/difference. By the beginning of week 5, the group had identified the Foucauldian governmentality approach to risk and as a critical lens for analyzing visual media narratives as their unifying idea.
In the next class in week 5, each student was encouraged to bring three academic secondary sources pertaining to the unifying theme and relevant to their individual project. These included conceptual sources, sources that used the unifying concept(s) to analyze a visual text and sources that outlined methodologies for film analysis. This time, each student articulated their motivation for source selection and summarized arguments made by the authors for other group members. Once again, I encouraged them to listen for recurring themes and justifications and ask questions about the sources. This dialogic process reinforced reading as a social practice and created space for “deep” engagements (Wolf & Barzillai, 2009) as students took turns to summarize and reflect on their chosen articles, make connections, use questions to “elicit reasoning and explanations” from their peers and strengthen their understanding of course concepts (Mercer & Howe, 2012). By the end of the week, they had selected four sources to annotate.
The third stage in the collaborative process involved peer review of individual annotations. Each 200–250-word annotation consisted of a summary of the source followed by a reflection that assessed its relevance to the overarching theme or to individual projects and made connections with other sources in the bibliography. Elsewhere, I have discussed how I prepare students for peer review (Ramanujan & Angove, 2017). Spread over two class sessions, peer review in this instance, involved both extended dialogue and reflection to allow students to move beyond the “correct and fix” imperative commonly associated with draft reviews in writing classes (Oleksiak, 2021). In his recent work, Oleksiak draws on feminist rhetorical theories to argue for an approach to peer review that focuses on “relationship building” among peers rather than simply on “fixing and control[ling]” drafts through “directive statements” (2021, p. 370). Although Oleksiak’s purpose is to teach students about fake news, his emphasis on process over instrumentalist outcomes is useful for building trust, encouraging conversation and active listening. This enables students to understand how peers have approached the assignment and to consider alternative methods and perspectives. In the first session, I encouraged students to read, talk and reflect rather than be in a hurry to provide feedback. Recent scholarship on peer review suggests that when students have sufficient time to read and reflect on their peers’ drafts, they make “multiple simultaneous comparisons” between different approaches to the assignment in relation to the guidelines and assessment criteria (Nicol & McCallum, 2022). In giving feedback, they gain new insights into their own work as well as an interpretation of different elements in the rubric.
As they used my peer review handout to read each other’s annotations, ask questions, make connections to other readings and share perspectives on the task, new ways of thinking, knowing and doing emerged. These could then be meaningfully folded into the introduction and used to develop individual projects beyond the assignment. For instance, one student’s annotation of an article on masculinity, surveillance, risk construction and perception in the film Shutter Island inspired another to develop a new perspective on an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, thereby contributing to scholarship on the series. Reading her peer’s annotation of a conceptual source as well as his comments on her draft helped a student who struggled with coherence signpost and establish clearer connections between key ideas in her summary. Insights gained from this exercise also made her subsequent writing for the module much more coherent. As Oleksiak affirms, “slow peer review” that is “dialogic” and reciprocal rather than “monologic and reactional” fosters genuine criticality, collaboration and learning not limited to fixing ‘deficits’ (2021, p. 371). Peer reviews for subsequent assignments comprised synchronous and asynchronous components but because students were given sufficient time to read, reflect on and review one another’s work, feedback was almost always detailed and incisive, students recognized the value of the process, learned to trust their own and one another’s judgments and did not automatically look to the teacher to confirm peer feedback.
At the end of the final semester, I received four very different but thoughtful and well-crafted essays that clearly demonstrated student interest and engagement with the subject matter. Their end-of-semester feedback and emails, samples of which I share below, also affirmed that the classroom environment provided ample opportunities for dialogue, collaboration and reflection conducive to deep and active learning:
“she really used the small class size to her advantage and as such it really created a more cosy and learning environment that was chill. as a prof, her personality is really warm, and even if i did not understand some concepts on the get–go, it was a forgiving environment and i didnt feel afraid to voice out my queries.”
“I just wanted to thank you for the past semester – I thoroughly enjoyed the module and our lessons. The paper was one of the most interesting assignments I have done in NUS and allowed me to explore aspects outside of my home faculty!
Thank you so much and I truly appreciate your guidance.”
The first student’s reference to the classroom as a “cosy” and “forgiving” environment for extended discussion, testing and rethinking of complex ideas suggests that my attempts to create an open, inclusive and egalitarian “community of inquiry” (Garrison, 2016) based on sustained interaction was successful. It also shows that many NUS undergraduates students are willing to engage with challenging content outside their core disciplines as long as it is carefully scaffolded, they have sufficient time to read and reflect and do not have to be afraid of failing. Informal discussions with students over the years have also shown that the ‘bell curve’ is a deterrent for many who feel commitment and hard work alone may not translate to a high grade because they are in competition with their peers. It is also likely that the competitiveness promoted by the bell curve makes some students reluctant to collaborate and share insights with one another. I was able to circumvent this problem by making the four students aware that their final grades would not be ‘curved’ and that they could all potentially earn A’s as long as they engaged with the course material and used the opportunities afforded by the small class size to focus on learning. Providing so many opportunities for slow and incremental learning would be more challenging in a larger class. But I do think that focusing on learning more broadly rather than on assignment preparation alone and ensuring that instruction and assignments avoid prescription and allow for critical and creative engagements are key. Assigning and discussing readings in the writing classroom fosters criticality and helps students recognize the interrelatedness of the two processes. Designing course content that is appropriately heavy, academic and challenging and creating “safe-to-fail” spaces in which students can examine their own beliefs and assumptions, test out their ideas and writing and collaboratively arrive at new ways of thinking and knowing (Johansson & Felten, 2014, pp. 20-31) would, in my view, make critical thinking, writing and communication courses both beneficial and enjoyable for undergraduate students.
Appendix (class handout)
Preparing for your Collaborative Annotated Bibliography (in-class activities in weeks 5 and 6)
Take some time in your group to work through the template.
Step 1: Share your topic ideas with members of your group.
Step 2: To establish a unifying focus for the assignment (introduction and selection of sources) – you may respond to these questions on a shared Google doc.
Each member of the group should write down or share the key concept(s) that have allowed you to have a conversation about your individual research. Explain or define the concept(s) and how you expect them to be useful for your research, allowing you to see possible similarities. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
List your primary texts with some information about them through comparing similarities or differences. You may be analyzing texts from different genres (news media, social media, film, television shows, video games, novels, short stories, graphic novels, etc.) or from the same genre. You may even be all working on the same or similar primary texts (coverage of an issue in a particular newspaper, a specific television show, novel or film) but approaching it from different angles. Establish what is common.
Explain very briefly your choice of secondary sources (which will be summarized below) and why you have selected them, with reference to one or all of the following (as most relevant to your conversation): the key concepts, the primary texts, or methodology (how these secondary sources represent particular approaches to their data (comparison of texts, or of ideas, cinematic or news framing techniques, etc.). ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Note: What I want to see is that you have had a conversation and your individual research has benefited from common ideas or possibilities. Identify your primary sources, the differences, the similarities, and useful class sources and key concepts that you can all benefit from. Justify your selection of a core bibliography of three entries (or four, in the case of a group of four) based on a unifying idea or principle. Ensure that the key concepts in the introduction are present in your individual entries.
Step 3: Individual Annotated Bibliography entries (drafting)
Please refer to the assignment sheet as well.
Does each entry
- identify the thesis (main claim(s) or conclusion) of the research,
- use verbs to indicate methods (define, describe, compare, argue) and selection of examples (data),
- imply scope and audience (if appropriate)
- offer limitations/gaps/quotes that provide opportunity for further research (if appropriate)
- conclude with a reflection on why this particular entry has been included?
In other words, how does this entry contribute toward research ideas referred to in the introduction. How does this entry relate to the conversation around the common key concepts, as well as the other secondary sources. In short: show that this entry is not being evaluated in isolation from a larger body of work but contributes to a conversation and selection of primary and secondary sources contained in this Collaborative Annotated Bibliography.
Step 4: As you review one another’s entries, further consider the following
- Has the writer of the AB entry clearly distinguished between his/her interpretations and those of the original author? Have quotes been acknowledged?
- Is the voice of the AB writer clear in this entry or does it consist of strings of phrases and quotes from the original article?
- How can you tidy up the phrasing and eliminate repetition, thus allowing for optimal use of as few words as possible to say as much as possible? Can you improve introductory verbs, transition and flow between sentences, and vocabulary choices? Correct documentation and punctuation errors.
- Does the Collaborative AB as a whole reflect how the collaborating student writers have created a “dialogue of sources” (Alfano, C.L. & O’Brien, A.J., 2008, p. 171)? Are you convinced that each entry offers a valuable contribution to the overall conversation around a particular topic or idea?
- When writing each entry aim for fluency and intelligibility for your reader. Some detail referred to above (such as limitations or gaps) may not always be appropriate to how you intend using the source (article, book chapter, film), and then you need not force that information into your entry.
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