When Too Many Cooks Don’t Spoil the Broth

2 Oct 2018
ByVinni Drybala, English Teacher, Fieldston Upper

A great myth of English education is that the best writing is produced in solitude. Now, I do believe in the benefits of independent work — after all, students need to focus on and sharpen their own abilities before they are tested via work with others. However, this solo work often runs contrary to what professionals do. Almost everything that sees the light of day is examined by peers and/or bosses, committees and/or task forces, etc. Even creative writing — what we believe to be the last bastion of solo work — is populated by editors and collaborators.

So when I assigned a group essay to my Senior Seminar class, they reacted with a mix of amused befuddlement (“haha, wait, he assigned us what?”) and genuine outrage (“WAIT HE ASSIGNED US WHAT?”). Ten days later, when I collected their assignments, they reflected positively upon the process of collaborative writing, and many believed that the products were stronger than their previous individual essays.

Senior Seminar is a yearlong course, designed as a capstone for students who have shown not only an aptitude for writing and literary analysis, but also a passion for it. Students have to want to be in this course, as demonstrated by the formidable summer reading: Tolstoy’s 817-page masterpiece, Anna Karenina. This text was used to examine and apply critical literary theory. How would a Marxist examine Levin’s relationship to the muzhiks (peasants)? How can we examine the Moscow/St. Petersburg dynamic through a historical lens? What would Post-Structuralism suggest about the trope of a woman who sacrifices her social status to her passion?

While the text is complicated as is, the critical theory work provides another challenge to the students. This is 300-level college stuff, even graduate school work. I find it important to expose them to this material, but equally important to never expect them to master it. After all, that’s what college (and the aforementioned grad school) is for.

This is where the group element enters. The fact is, every student in this class has previously demonstrated an ability to write a very-good-to-great English paper (here, it is critical to consider that Fieldston’s idea of “progressive” is often boiled down to three simple words: process over product). By design, this assignment requires the students to simultaneously work as writers and editors — analyzing, constructing, critiquing, listening, and communicating. It seeks to challenge their process while giving them the requisite support — each other — to ensure that the final products will be excellent.

And they are excellent. One group employed a feminist lens to conclude “what ultimately informs Anna’s engagement with motherhood is her need for an intimate relationship, not her desire to be an independent woman” (Aronson and Lennon, “Anna Karenina: Character Analysis on the Intersection of Feminism and Selfishness”). Another group, through a Marxist view, argued that “Marx and Levin agree that in order for education to be economically beneficial to everyone, economic opportunity needs to be equalized through the reorganization of land ownership” (Frei and Sheldon-Collins, “Dismantle Patriarchy... (and The Instated Economic System)”). Yet another comes to a different conclusion, suggesting “Tolstoy ultimately shies away from the central question of class conflict” since he “neglects the role of the working class in much of his discussion of economic theory” (Shannon and Zhang, “A Changing Russian Economy, Society, and a Failed Marxist Perspective in Anna Karenina”). And still another group took up a psychoanalytic approach, arguing that “[Anna Karenina and Dolly Oblonsky] are linked by a common dance between infatuation with and bitterness toward their children” and “whether by conscious recognition or subconscious discontent, Anna and Dolly both feel the dilemma occasioned by childrearing” (Moore and Reichler, “Family ends in ILY but Childrun end in RUN”). These arguments showcase the intellectual reach of the class and pay tribute to the added benefit of the group dynamic. To reframe the assignment in the terms of the process/product dynamic, these students worked through the challenges of the former in order to excel in the latter.

I’m not sure if I’ll assign another group essay this year, but I can at least claim some success with this attempt. It’s certainly not the only writing that will be produced through a group effort. After all, by the time this essay is published, it will have been read – and edited – by multiple people, both in the administration and communications department. But the real editorial credit? That belongs to my D-Band Senior Seminar class, to whom I gave the rough draft of this essay so they could finish it.

*Edited by Tess A. ’19, Sam F. ’19, Sasha G. ’19, Laura H. ’19, Alexandra J. ’19, Eva K. ’19, Jeremy K. ’19, Davi L. ’19, Cary M. ’19, Haley P. ’19, Ariana R. ’19, Emma S. ’19, Andrew S. ’19, Sundari S. ’19, and Sean Z. ’19.*