Designing for Connection and Belonging: Small Group Workshops — Oliver Baez Bendorf

This is the second of a three-part series

Small Group Workshops

The exchange of feedback is at the core of a writing workshop, yet there is never any guarantee that conventional frameworks for group critique will transform into conversation. The typical MFA workshop method (which has also trickled down into undergraduate settings) mandates that the writer stays silent while the full class offers oral critique. Yet simply being in physical proximity to one another does not alone create the conditions for connection, belonging, or learning. In her essay “Unsilencing the Writing Workshop,” Nguyen (2019) discusses some ways the above method has failed writers, particularly writers of color and other marginalized experience, and offers an alternate model for the creative writing workshop as a conversation, one which includes the writer. Lerman (2003) outlines a multi-step group process for constructive dialogues about works-in-progress, in her book Critical Response Process.

I needed to figure out how to facilitate this conversational workshop model not only over the internet, but also basically asynchronous. In one approach, I decided to invite students to add a note/message to their drafts when they uploaded them to their small group workshops; they could pose a specific question to their readers, or otherwise communicate what kinds of feedback they were most after. (My one caveat is they can never use this note to apologize for their work.) Students almost always chose to add such a note, and often the note was about their draft, but just as often it included other pleasantries, updates, or greetings to each other. In this simple act of writers uploading a file to their small groups, and being encouraged to add a note to the file, the interaction between reader and writer became a tangible and social one that helped them relate to and reference one another, even in our virtual environment.

Menon and Phillips (2011) found that small groups of even-numbered size (for example, 6 or 8) experience lower group cohesion than groups of odd-numbered size. Of course, group sizes are determined by overall enrollment combined with attendance on any given day. “Workshop math,” or trying to determine a workshop rotation schedule, is notorious among creative writing instructors for being a fraught task full of unknowns, broken printers, and, well, math. Yet it can be an opportunity to design for connection and belonging. Typically, I have found the ideal small group workshop size to be five. As we pivoted to suddenly-virtual instruction, I pondered even more factors. I wanted groups that could carry on even if several members faced simultaneous challenges to participation, yet small enough to make in-depth conversation possible.

In the end, I split my intermediate poetry workshop into two groups of 7 for workshop, and advanced poetry workshop into two groups of 9. If that sounds big for any given week, read on. I also wanted to figure out how to design some flexibility so that the inevitable unknowns wouldn’t torpedo an entire workshop rotation. So I asked students to turn in a poem draft in at least 6 weeks of the term in order to receive credit for that portion of the course. That gave them the flexibility to step back back some weeks for any reason. In addition, I asked them to provide feedback to 2 group members’ poems for at least each week that they themselves posted a draft, draft, and to help me ensure that each draft received feedback from at least 2 group members. I had no idea in advance how this “workshop math” was going to work out, but for the most part, it really did. They were attentive to each other’s drafts, and each group stayed in motion. One intriguing result of this structure was that the small group workshops on any given week took on a “fishbowl conversation” quality, where members in each group took turns participating or observing the conversation. I learned even more about this accidental fishbowl from Teaching Tolerance, a project from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Fishbowl can be used to explore the ideas of membership, identity, belonging and shared experiences. The structure lends itself well to discussions of complex texts and to challenging topics of cross-cultural significance. By providing all students both a speaking and listening role and a stake in the discussion, fishbowl can help build an inclusive and supportive learning environment. The observation aspect of the activity allows students to identify appropriate ways to participate in discussions. If used on a consistent basis, fishbowl discussions can establish boundaries and norms critical to anti-bias communication.

While the fishbowl effect was unintentional in my Spring 2020 poetry workshops, I will now approach it on purpose, as part of designing for connection and belonging.

Continue to part 3: Productive Discomfort

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