Designing for Connection and Belonging: Writing as a Social Practice — Oliver Baez Bendorf

This is the first of a three-part series

Writing as a Social Practice

I was fascinated with the earliest poems I read and heard that gave insight into all the secret territories of the human spirit, our relationships with one another. Somehow those glimpses felt comforting, like looking through the lit windows of other people’s homes at dusk, before they closed the curtains. How did other people live their lives? Just a sense of so many other worlds out there, beginning with the next house on my own street, gave me a great energy. How could anyone ever feel lonely?

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Lights in the Window”

When you picture a writer, what comes to mind? Likely some version of a writer toiling away in isolation, an iconic image of a solitary genius. Yet for most of us, writing happens in context and community, in response and reference to others— like the way I felt compelled to bring the above Nye passage into this post for you, reader. I often refer to writing as “this solitary thing we do together.” Even Emily Dickinson, often imagined as a lonely spinster in an attic, circulated her poems among family and friends and wrote copious letters.[1] Louise Rosenblatt (1978) describes texts as being made up of not only the words on the page, but of a mutual interaction between the writer’s words and the reader, with the response of the reader actively co-creating the meaning. This interdependence between writer and reader underpins a writing workshop. I have been thinking a lot about how to design for connection and belonging in a virtual setting.

One of my immediate goals, then, in the emergency spring pivot to online, was to set up a virtual platform that offered a strong sense of being together, or what some in online learning call “co-presence.” And to do that really quickly. Gunawardena & Zittle (1997) found a sense of social presence to be a predictor of student satisfaction. Biocca, Harms, and Gregg (2001) define co-presence as “the degree to which the observer believes he/she is not alone and secluded.” In an online learning context, it’s about interaction and how real people feel on the other side. For our discussion forums and small group workshops, I chose a collaboration hub called Slack. Having previously used Slack in a remote working context, I felt comfortable with how to navigate its features on such short notice. My students reported stress-free adoption and seamless mobile access, and appreciated its intuitive, connected user experience. The platform is just a platform, though; there is still the question of how to build interaction. Here are some reflections from my students that I believe describes a sense of co-presence:

Poetry is a class that I feel like you can’t just slack off for. Being engaged with one another and your own work is really crucial to understanding the content and really engaging with the course as a whole. The way this course was established using Slack helped to create an environment where you were held accountable without being judged. Seeing one another’s comments every single week helped encourage you to read more in depth, read again, write in a different way, and challenge yourself. The opportunity to reply to the poems of my classmates made my own poetry stronger because I could take an objective view some days. I really loved this class

(Intermediate Poetry Workshop)

Even though this class has been under less than normal circumstances since we are online, I feel like this class maintained workshop atmosphere to the best of its abilities. It’s hard to connect with people when you don’t see them every week, but Slack helped a lot with connecting to one another’s poetry and reading discussions. We saw a wide variety of different kinds of poetry and prompts and in working in smaller groups, we also saw how individuals interpret all of them differently.

(Intermediate Poetry Workshop)

In the “before” times, my workshops at K had an entire sensorium grounded in social and physical proximity. Chair legs rattling against carpet. Shuffling and swapping of papers as group members huddled up around annotated drafts. Caramel syrup in someone’s coffee. Black-capped chickadees darting around in the evergreens outside the classroom windows. That buzz of conversation. In some ways, the conditions of pandemic are antagonistic to co-presence. Yet it is possible to design for a feeling of being together in a virtual setting.

Continue to part 2: Small Group Workshops


Biocca, F., Harms, C., & Gregg, J. “The networked minds measure of social presence: Pilot test of the factor structure and concurrent validity.” Paper presented at the 4th International Workshop on Presence, Philadelphia, PA. May 2001.

Boler, Megan. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Gunawardena, C.N., & Zittle, F.J. “Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer-mediated conferencing environment.” The American Journal of Distance Education, 11(3), 1997. 8-26.

Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. 1-2. 

Lerman, Liz, and John Borstel. Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process: A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make, from Dance to Dessert. Takoma Park, MD: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, 2003. Print.

Menon, Tanya, and Phillips, Katherine W. “Getting Even or Being at Odds? Cohesion in Even- and Odd-Sized Small Groups.” Organization Science, Volume 22, Issue 3, May-June 2011.

Neruda, Pablo, and Stephen Mitchell. Full Woman, Fleshy Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1997. Print.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Lights in the Window.” Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press. 2005.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Print.

[1] If you’re looking for a good movie to stream online at home, try Wild Nights with Emily.

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