Gathering in Community: Crowdsourcing Across Classrooms

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This semester, my classes  are once again reading James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” a lecture that Baldwin gave in New York City in 1963 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. This year, I wanted to try a different approach to teaching analysis and interpretation. I hoped as well  to create an assignment that would actively demonstration Baldwin’s ideas of an individual’s responsibility to the community. 

With these goals in mind, the students and I collaborated on a crowd-source assignment, which is explained in detail below. Crowdsourcing would give many voices a chance to collaborate toward a common end: to allow students to do close reading and analysis of “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and to work together as a community of first-year writers across classrooms and colleges to better understand Baldwin’s most significant ideas.

The crowdsourcing document is different from annotation because students must write several complete paragraphs that ask for analysis in depth rather than breadth. Students take responsibility for finding their own focus for contributing to the community’s analysis. Individuals receive credit through journal entries, while the community creates the document. In this way, the assignment explores tensions that Baldwin described between individual/community in “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” 

Considered more broadly, students collaborated across my three classrooms (at two different colleges) to enact the work of analysis. This initial assignment was presented as follows:

  1. Choose at least 3 paragraphs from the list below, then respond in writing to both anonymously.   
    1. Summary: What does the paragraph SAY? 
    2. Interpretation: What does the paragraph MEAN?
  2. AFTER your response in the google.doc, write a journal entry on Blackboard explaining your choices. 
  1. Why do these paragraphs stand out to you? (200-500 words)
  2. Read the other entries in the crowdsourcing document. Describe your response to those entries (200-500 words)

Here are the steps that I took to present the assignment in all three first-year writing classes:

  1. Created a google.doc that listed the opening words of Baldwin’s twelve paragraphs.
  2. Invited students to write a brief summary and interpretation for at least 3 of the paragraphs in the text. Students did this anonymously so that there is no judgment of anyone’s interpretations or writing styles. 
  3. Added an end comment and marginal comments once the crowdsourcing document was completed.
  4. Acknowledged individual students’ participation: First, I express my trust in students to do this assignment, and to complete the assignment responsibly, without adding extraneous or inappropriate submissions. Second, in order to receive participation credit for this assignment, students needed to complete a 2-part journal entry. In the first part, students expanded on their interpretations of Baldwin’s lecture. For the second part, students read the crowd-sourced document and added their impressions.
  5. Observed students’ innovations to the original assignment. The most significant of these innovations is changing the font, size, and text color for their own submissions-- making sure that it is different from the submission above theirs.
  6. Asked students to complete anonymous follow-up exit slips with students assessments of the crowdsourcing document.
  7. Offered students the opportunity to cite the crowdsourcing document as part of the first writing project this semester.

The significance of community holds relevance through and beyond classroom collaborations, especially in class discussion of theClimate March in New York City on Friday September 20, 2019. The March took place on a day that I do not teach, and I photographed the above image as people gathered to begin the March at Foley Square in Manhattan. The March offers a wellspring of the inspiration of bearing witness to individuals of all ages and many different backgrounds gathering together in community. The students found deep connections between Baldwin’s Civil Rights era lecture, their own participation in the crowd-sourcing document, and the implications of Baldwin’s lecture for civic participation in the Climate March.  


Crowd shot of the Climate March in New York City, September 20th, 2019. Photo by: Susan Naomi Bernstein.

The students suggested that Baldwin urged individuals to participate in the life of their community. The crowd-sourcing document does this, the students said, by allowing students as individuals to take responsibility for learning and writing together as a community.

Further, the students offered, Baldwin persuades his audience to take a stand on events in the larger world. The Climate March offered individuals an opportunity to draw attention to and participate in a larger community statement. When conditions are as serious as climate change, the students advised, the people need to rise up and take responsibility for the world in which we live. The Climate March is a striking example of taking responsibility, as Baldwin impelled his audience in 1963. Connecting individual action to community responsibility continues to make Baldwin’s lecture relevant for our own time. 

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.