by Jesse Cordes Selbin, English

Recipient of the Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning, 2014

Related Teaching Effectiveness Award essay: Empowered Learning: History, Collaboratively

When I designed a collaborative project for my Reading and Composition course last year, my primary goal was to increase participation. Having observed that students learn best by engaging actively in their own education, I designed an ongoing assignment wherein students used online software to contribute entries to a historical timeline of nineteenth-century Britain, the course’s period of focus. The project got off to a rough start: many students initially found it difficult to remember the weekly assignment, and when posts were filed, they were dutiful — dry and unsurprising. This began to change, however, when I used class time to describe how the historical events the students had unearthed related to the works we were reading. My students became appreciably more enthusiastic, exceeding the assignment’s basic requirements by adding photos and video clips to entries that required only dates and names. Their selection and narration of historical events also grew more nuanced and diverse: while some approached their work with studied detachment, others sought a kind of “secret history” or traced the histories of personal interests, exploring Victorian sports, science, or fashion. The collaborative nature of this shared work enabled me to reconceive my own role in the classroom, shifting from what Jean Lave has described as the sole “transmitter” of knowledge to a “witness” of learning (Lave 2011).

As I began to explore the literature on student learning, I realized that the project had succeeded in ways that exceeded my initial intentions — by engaging not just the concept of collaborative learning, but also what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger term “legitimate peripheral participation” (Lave and Wenger 1991). In her “Remarks on Legitimate Peripheral Participation,” Rosemary Joyce expands upon their theory that assignments should be designed with the goal of “legitimacy” at the forefront. A “legitimate” project is one that gives students a relatively accessible task that also accurately represents real-world work undertaken by scholars in that discipline. In my field of literature and literary criticism, one common methodological approach begins with situating texts in their historical contexts, collating information about events from a variety of intersecting realms — the social, political, economic, environmental, etc. — in order to understand the literary object as both a product of a broader cultural moment and a participant in shaping it. Though the approach requires an abstracted perspective and a dedication to patiently reconstructing historical practices, it is nonetheless achievable in one semester: while narrating a longer, diachronic unfolding of historical events may be a practice best left to dedicated historians, exploring the synchronic particularity of a bounded historical period is a more accessible tack for undergraduates to take. (Moreover, the “legitimacy” of this approach is not just disciplinarily pervasive; it is also institutionally specific: as I stress to my students, this approach draws heavily upon the New Historicist movement that began in the Berkeley English Department in the 1980s with the work of Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt). Instructors throughout the humanities may find relevance in integrating a sense of history into their courses. My project aims to facilitate this goal while allowing students to build upon and further develop research practices they already use.

My project’s efficacy was ultimately demonstrated not just by the care and enthusiasm with which students selected events and engaged in disciplinarily “legitimate” practices, but by its ability to reach “peripheral” learners — or those less immediately inclined to invest in the course’s topic and goals. As it developed, the timeline became an entry-point for students who found it difficult to participate in more traditional ways. For instance, one student who rarely spoke and whose written performance was among the lowest in the class became a vibrant contributor in the historical timeline. This formerly passive student adopted a favored theme early in the semester that guided his timeline selections, and he traced the theme with simultaneous consistency and creative variety each week. The thoughtful timeline contributions of reticent or struggling students demonstrated that engagement in a course can take a variety of forms, and that getting resistant students to tackle primary tasks is a smoother process when other modes of learning are activated first.

Although working collectively was the pedagogical goal of my project from the outset, this dimension could be strengthened further by encouraging students themselves to reflect upon what Kathleen Metz calls “collaborative engagement”: collective responsibility for, and discovery about, a shared project (Metz 2011). (Similarly, Professor Joyce defines Lave and Wenger’s concept, “situated learning,” as a strategy for thinking about how to create a “community of learning, which begins with the acknowledgment that learning happens as a social activity” [Joyce 2011].) Although the timeline was an intrinsically shared project, I nonetheless found that my students only rarely made unprompted references to the entries they or others had contributed. In future incarnations of this project, I therefore plan to dedicate more class-time to discussing the timeline as a group, cultivating a communal reflection upon the challenges, demands, and surprises of crafting a historical narrative. Another way to more clearly link the aims of a composition course with my timeline project would be to assign an essay topic in which students would be asked to connect one or more of the historical events they researched to one of the texts we read — as one of my students did of her own accord when she curated a series of linked events in women’s history to accompany our reading of Jane Eyre. In a writing class, this would help students build upon their earlier narration of a historical event by rewriting it into a literary-critical argumentative claim. In addition, since rewriting is a staple feature of the R&C courses, implementing this assignment as an expansion and revision of an earlier paper would show students a meaningful mode of rewriting that transcends merely fixing commas or consulting a thesaurus.

The initiation of an ongoing discussion would also enable an assessment of the project’s impact, for both the instructor and the students, while it is still in process. As students experiment with new ways to locate, research, and convey information, they can teach one another what they learn, reinforce knowledge by rearticulating it, and come to appreciate the communal aspects of the learning process. By appraising and interrogating their learning strategies, students are better equipped to become active co-producers of their own education.


Joyce, Rosemary. 2011. “Remarks on Legitimate Peripheral Participation.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center video, 23:02. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2011.

Lave, Jean. 2011. “Learning as a Socially Situated Activity.”GSI Teaching & Resource Center video, 25:00. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2011.

Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Metz, Kathleen. 2011. “The Interplay of Conceptual Understanding and Engagement in Disciplinary Practices.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center, 25:00. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, April 19, 2011.