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Agile Writing Project

December 20, 2017

Jason Tham, Joe Moses and Kendra Wiswell pose for a picture outside of Nolte Center

Jason Tham, Joe Moses and Kendra Wiswell pose for a picture outside of Nolte Center
Jason Tham, Joe Moses, and Kendra Wiswell (pictured left to right). Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

Isaac Asimov said, “Writing is a lonely job.” Other writers like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings say that writing is “agony.” Jason Tham, a graduate instructor and PhD candidate in rhetoric and scientific and technical communication, and Joe Moses, a senior lecturer in the Department of Writing Studies are looking at ways to make team-based writing faster, more efficient, and, well, “Agile.” In this interview, learn how they are working to develop the Agile Writing Project.

What is the Agile Writing model?

Joe Moses: “Agile Writing is a team-based writing-to-learn process that has two distinctive features.  One is that teammates meet frequently to discuss high-priority writing tasks and how much time they estimate tasks will take. The second is that teammates discuss multiple project requirements at once—that is, in parallel—instead of working on isolated writing-process steps in series. Figure1 (below) illustrates the difference between an individual process step approach (left side of the figure) and a team-based parallel project requirements approach (right side of the figure) in a writing course.”

This is a model explaining the agile system
Fig. 1. ​​Frequent review of small increments of writing distinguishes Agile Writing from process models in which peer review occurs only after students write complete drafts.

What is this project and what is your aim/end goal for it?

Jason Tham: This is a collaborative project between Dr. Joe Moses and I that has been going on for more than two years. Our aim is to create a viable pedagogical and training framework that can help writers work faster and better in cross-functional teams. We also want to help teachers and trainers adopt this framework for educational purposes.

Joe Moses: We're exploring the advantages and limitations of team-based writing-to-learn for applications across the curriculum. The goal of the Agile Writing Project is to take greater advantage of the learning that takes place among students who are working together toward a common goal while preparing them for the collaborative, learning-intensive workplaces they will join upon graduation.

What inspired you to start this project?

JT: Dr. Joe Moses is the mastermind behind this project. He started this work and I joined later having listened to one of his presentations and reading some of the work on this project. I feel that this project has a lot of mileage and can have great impact on writing instruction.

JM: While teaching a project management course and a writing course in the same semester, I wondered how a project management orientation to writing—with a focus on tasks and time—might support the learning objectives of a writing course. Jason has helped the project move beyond project management to include design thinking and prototyping.

What are some notable findings you have discovered when researching or interviewing participants for this project?

JT: The work that came out of that teaching framework has been incredible so far. The quality of research seems to be greater when students collaborate through Agile teams versus individual products.

JM: Students associate positive team writing experiences with clear individual and team goals, and with timely communication among teammates. Students find that holding frequent team meetings to discuss tasks and time makes a significant difference in their productivity and in individual accountability.  Students associate negative team writing experience with unequal contributions among teammates. By breaking projects down into specific tasks and practicing simple time-keeping, we have been able to establish teammate accountability and more realistic expectations about how much effort writing tasks can take. While our project approach doesn’t magically ensure that all teammates meet their commitments, it does make clear what those commitments are so teams and instructors can fairly evaluate individual performance.

How has this research been able to help you?

JT: This research has been a constant reminder for me as an instructor to think like a learner. It is easy to fall into a teaching routine that overlooks how students feel and how they are doing in the course.

JM: It has reinvigorated my teaching by opening up new ideas for instructional design. It has inspired me to explore further whether writing-to-learn initiatives should be aimed at teams rather than at individual students.

What kind of resources from CLA have you used to help you conduct the research and planning that went into this project?

JT: The Center for Writing and Writing Enriched Curriculum personnel have been instrumental to our work. We also appreciate the support given by Liberal Arts Technology Innovation Services (LATIS) and the Center for Educational Innovation. We are qualitative researchers, and getting quantitative research advice from these experts has proven to be important for us.

JM: Most recently we received a grant from the Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing (ISW) Program, which enabled us to hire undergraduate research assistant Kendra Wiswell who is now helping us analyze student learning outcomes and data about student attitudes toward team-based writing.

Members of the Wearables Research Collaboratory (WRC) have supported this project, including Ann Hill Duin, whose Joan Aldous Diversity Grant funded a first round of independent rater assessments, conducted by Azana Adefris, Alexander Westgaard, Nathan Ernst. Megan McGrath and the entire WRC team have made valuable contributions throughout the research process.

We have consulted with the UMN Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) and LATIS on research design: J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler at CEI; Thomas Lindsay, Andrew Sell, and Michael Beckstrand at LATIS.

The Department of Writing Studies has supported our project with a variety of accommodations to help us maintain momentum and share our work beyond the University of Minnesota.

Who or what continues to inspire you to do your work?

JT: My collaborators are often my source of motivation in doing my research. I am fortunate to work at a university where collaboration is fostered and encouraged. I feed on the energy from other researchers (and their knowledge as well, of course).

JM: Findings of the Writing Enriched Curriculum (WEC) Project are a constant source of inspiration. I'm inspired by the many faculty and graduate students in the Writing Studies Department who look for new ways to use writing as a learning strategy and by faculty and staff who participate in the Teaching with Writing Series and infuse writing in their non-writing studies courses.

What do you hope to gain out of the research you’ve conducted?

JT: Publications! Just kidding. Yes, it is important to publish our work through scholarly channels, but we are more interested in making the Agile Writing viable to the academic and professional communities, especially those producing professional writers.

JM: We hope to support student learning through team-based writing by making team writing projects more productive for students and easier to manage for instructors. I avoided assigning collaborative writing activities for years because I wasn’t confident that I could accurately assess individuals’ contributions and grade their work fairly.