Successful Community-Building Assignment: Academic Profile
In the Fall 2020 semester, I debuted a new assignment meant to build community in my “blended” English 1102 class. In the “blended” format, students came to class in small cohorts that rotated attendance, so that social distancing could be maintained. English 1102 is the second semester of the year-long composition sequence required by the state. In addition to intentional community building, I also wanted to take advantage of CETLOE-funded research I’d been doing on retention at Perimeter. One of the most important concepts in this research was the idea of the “academic self,” roughly defined as the self we bring to school. The assignment worked well in my “blended” Fall 1102 classes and also the next semester (Spring 2021), with my online English 1102 classes. This is a brief recap of the development of the assignment, what I learned, and what I’ll do differently next time.
The “Academic Profile” assignment asks students to interview each other and then write a “profile” of their partner and post it on our class blog and then engage with other profiles. I introduced the assignment after we’d spent time as a class talking and writing about the concept of the academic self and getting to know each other a little. I briefly defined the concept and asked them to discuss it and experiment with applying the concept to themselves. In one of their small weekly writings, they chose three words that defined their academic self. At the same time, we read articles written by and for college students and apply the concept in those readings.
In the GSU “blended class” format, students were split into four groups that met with me once every two weeks. The bulk of instruction and communication therefore had to be online, as were the discussions. One of my first goals in any new class is to build community, and without the usual structure of a face-to-face class to rely on, I had to get creative and force students to talk to each other. I paired them at random after introducing the assignment sheet (link below) and told them to spend some time getting to know each other.
I chose the blog for project submission because of its potential for building community between students in an online space. I’ve used class blogs for a while now, but haven’t really used the capacity they have for community cohesion until later in the semester (I’ve mostly used them as more of an end-of semester project space). This semester, we all used it at the beginning, and I emphasized how important it would be to building our sense of community.
Overall, this was a very successful assignment: most students did it enthusiastically, and most did solid work. It forced people who might not have had the incidental physicality of seating to rely on to get to know someone—to be intentional and thoughtful, and some lasting friendships took root. The week after the project, students had to complete a follow-up assignment of reading and responding to blog posts about two other people in my 1102 sections, reinforcing the community aspect of the class and the assignment. Academically, this was promising, as it meant that students built genuine relationships with at least one classmate, increasing their odds of success in the class. I’m also pleased with how the assignment reinforced a major writing practice of small-stakes writing leading to bigger writing, and the importance of revision and peer feedback. I anticipate using this assignment the next time I teach 1102 in person (since all online Engl 1102 classes are now required to use a standardized template, I’ll only be able to use this in a face-to-face setting in the future). I’ll just do a couple of things differently in that situation: provide in-class time for students to interview each other, and doing a few real-time warm-up role playing of interviewing, adding to the community- and confidence- building benefits of the original idea of the assignment.
Here is a link to the assignment sheet: Academic Profile Assignment