Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O'Donnell

Why this book?

Web Writing reboots how we think about the Internet in higher education, with special attention paid to liberal arts teaching and learning. Our book carves out pedagogically pragmatic responses to contemporary debates that tend to be dominated by two extreme visions of technology. At one end, skeptics dismiss the web as an unwelcome intrusion into the college classroom, most frequently in the form of gadgets and platforms that distract students from the primary lesson or content. This perspective views Internet technology as a shallow substitute for true learning, yet rarely recognizes its potential to enhance what we value most about a liberal arts education: the intensified learning opportunities presented by writing across the curriculum. At the other extreme, proponents of massive online courses praise the benefits of large-scale video lectures and machine-driven assessments with the promise of opening up the college curriculum to all. Their view embraces the web as a tool to expand student enrollments while reducing instructional labor costs, yet rarely considers its consequences for highly-engaged student learning that we expect in small liberal arts colleges.

Prior to writing this book, much of our thinking was dominated by these two extreme positions. On one side, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Minds, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was selected by our liberal arts campus, Trinity College, as the required book for all first-year students in fall 2012.[1] A few months later on the other side, The New York Times declared 2012 to be “The Year of the MOOC,” and its prominent opinion essayist Thomas Friedman announced that “nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive online course.”[2] But neither of these extremes fit with our experiences as liberal arts educators who were experimenting with digital technologies to improve our students’ writing. As a result, we decided to author our own book and invited others to join us in drafting chapters and openly peer reviewing the manuscript on the public web.

Web Writing seeks to bridge philosophical and practical questions that arise from the experiences of liberal arts educators who have stepped into the digital realm. What are the most—and least—compelling reasons for why we should integrate web writing into our curriculum? Which tools and teaching methods deepen—rather than distract from—thoughtful learning? How does student engagement and sense of community evolve when we share our drafts and commentary on the public web? To what extent does writing on the web enable our students to cross over divisive boundaries, and what new challenges does it create? The book’s subtitle signals our desire to blend “why” questions with examples of “how” it can be done, presented in both print and digital formats.

As co-editors of this volume, we steer a middle course that argues for thoughtfully integrating web tools into a liberal arts education. Whether in persuasive essays, scientific reports, or creative expression, all academic disciplines value clear and compelling prose. The act of writing visually demonstrates our thought processes: how we respond to ideas that challenge our own thinking, consider alternative perspectives or counter-evidence, and create entirely new points of view. As college educators, we recognize that our students become more engaged in the writing process when they draft, share, and respond to writing with a community of peer readers who encourage and challenge them to revise muddled first drafts into more polished, thoughtful essays. Moreover, we now realize how a new generation of web-based writing tools—including wikis, Google Documents, WordPress, and others—can transform how our students author, edit, publish, and comment on texts in ways that advance, rather than distract from, our liberal arts mission. But exactly how college educators can make use of these tools in our classrooms is not simple, and requires both time and support from our institutions. Our motivation behind this book is to offer faculty a wide range of web-based writing examples across the liberal arts, to help all of us to rethink our current approaches and inspire us to innovate with our own students.

We did not design Web Writing as a theoretical study of composition, nor did we envision it merely as a high-tech user’s guide. Instead, our book contributes to the scholarship of teaching. It aims to broaden the conversation among liberal arts faculty who actively engage with writing in their classrooms in multiple disciplines but need guidance on ways that web-based tools can contribute to our educational missions. We intentionally wrote the book in an accessible style that favors real classroom examples, avoids jargon, and appeals to our common interests as college educators who care about writing. The need for this book emerged during a faculty workshop series sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Trinity College that encouraged faculty to cross departmental boundaries and reflect on ways of improving our pedagogical practices across the campus. We formed a five-person advisory group to bring together ideas from our specializations in developmental psychology, digital humanities, educational studies, English literature, and rhetoric and composition. As a result, authors from fifteen colleges contributed chapters to the final edition that represent different approaches to web writing in the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences.

This book would not have been possible without the many scholars who previously created the field of digital writing and shaped our thinking about its possibilities. We drew inspiration from the expanding literature in rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy, including established journals such as Kairos and Computers and Composition, newer publications such as the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Hybrid Pedagogy, and Writing Spaces. We also benefitted from recent edited volumes such as Hacking the Academy and Debates in the Digital Humanities, organizations such as THATCamp and the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse, and the ProfHacker blog, co-founded by one of our advisory group members, Jason B. Jones.[3] During this process, we noticed that higher education lacks a comprehensive cross-disciplinary book on teaching digital writing that is comparable to titles authored for the K-12 sector by Troy Hicks and the National Writing Project.[4] In response, we chose to work with a leading scholarly open-access publisher to distribute our peer-reviewed book in two formats—print (for sale) and online (for free)—to maximize readership by college-level educators, their students, and anyone who wishes to learn about writing on the web.

Why create this book on the web?

Since we could not find a book about web writing that met our needs as liberal arts educators, we decided to create one.  We invited authors and readers to build it with us—in public—on the web. Our process began in spring 2013 with an open call for prospective contributors, who posted over forty one-paragraph chapter ideas for online discussion. Next, twenty-five authors submitted full drafts and agreed to our editorial and intellectual property policy, which preserved their copyright while publicly sharing the work under a Creative Commons license, and made clear that their contributions may not advance to the final volume. During the open peer review in fall 2013, seventy readers (including four expert reviewers commissioned by the publisher) generated over one thousand comments on our website, most of them quite substantive. We required all commenters to use their full names, but, to avoid deferential treatment, we did not identify which ones were the commissioned expert reviewers. Based on the editorial advisory group’s judgment of reader feedback, we invited selected essays to be revised and resubmitted for the final manuscript. We collaborated with the University of Michigan Press and its umbrella organization, Michigan Publishing, on a contract that makes the final book available in print-on-demand (for sale) and open-access online (for free), with long-term electronic preservation through the HathiTrust Digital Library. Learn more about the process in the Tutorials section of the Trinity edition.[5]

As educators, our compelling reason for constructing this book online is because that’s exactly what we ask our students to do when we assign them to share their writing with us and other readers. Every educator who requires students to post their words on a course learning management system (such as Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) or the open web should try the same experience by uploading their own writing for feedback from peers and the public. For many of us, our first experiences in publicly circulating drafts was equally terrifying and exhilarating. The process opened our eyes to how our writing changes when engaging with a broader audience, particularly one that talks back through comments that suggest new connections and sharpen our thinking. We hope that Web Writing will encourage more faculty to author and comment online, and that these experiences will transfer into richer forms of teaching and learning in their classrooms.

As scholars, we were driven by the idea of creating a book on the open web in order to improve the quality of our work through reader feedback and to expand the breadth of our audience with free access. We publicly shared each stage of Web Writing and welcomed input to guide editorial selections and contributors’ revisions prior to its final publication. This “publish-then-filter” approach, as Clay Shirky and Kathleen Fitzpatrick have described it, is not without risks, particularly for authors whose work may receive negative comments, or not advance to the final volume. But the rewards are numerous: greater opportunities for developmental editing by experts and general readers, reduced social isolation of the solo academic writing process, and speedier time from concept to publication.[6] This “new” model of constructing an edited volume certainly beats the “old” way, where contributors typically submitted chapters solely to the editor, and rarely saw drafts by other authors until the book was finished, thereby missing the opportunity for valuable feedback to enhance their individual drafts and the volume as a whole. In particular, for those of us writing about digital influences on higher education, where rapid transformations outpace old-fashioned publication schedules (typically at least one or two years), sharing our texts online has the added benefit of timeliness.

Scholarly authors also benefit by publishing open-access, rather than locking our ideas behind a password or a pay-wall, because we expand the range of our audience, and with it, our academic reputations. While open-access means free to readers, it requires a rethinking of traditional financial arrangements.[7] Faculty can assign syllabus readings without increasing student textbook costs. Libraries can link publications to their online catalogues without paying intermediaries. Readers outside the gates of higher education can discover and instantly access our book through their web browsers without tuition bills. As part of this exchange, under our open-access book contract we do not expect print book sales to generate royalties for authors, but academics rarely made money from edited volumes in the past. The most significant change is institutional support. Trinity College supported this book by directly funding approximately $5,000 in pre-publication costs, and indirectly supporting additional technology learning and technical infrastructure costs. First, the Center for Teaching and Learning provided a $2,000 fellowship to the lead editor to conceptualize and draft initial essays for the book during a 2012-13 faculty seminar series. Second, the Center provided five $300 subventions to support outstanding essay proposals by non-tenure-track authors during the open call, plus $500 to Michigan Publishing to cover half the cost of commissioning four expert reviewers at $250 each during the open peer review. Third, the Trinity Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies awarded the editorial team a manuscript fellowship to sponsor a half-day seminar discussion with four guest readers from our campus and another from a nearby institution in fall 2013. To be sure, additional costs could be attributed to faculty and staff labor and web technology infrastructure that supported this book at Trinity, but these were already in place and would have been spent regardless of this particular book project. All  of these pre-publication expenses enhanced the quality of the product yet were not linked to any promise of post-production sales revenue. Instead, the benefits that our institution reaps from its branding as a digital innovator in liberal arts pedagogy and scholarly publication is worth the relatively small dollar investment on this project.

What’s inside this book?

All of the chapters in Web Writing are essentially local stories about what worked (or could have worked better) in one instructor’s classroom, or as a team of instructors at one campus or between two campuses. People who shared their stories of web writing responded to particular institutional missions, student needs, and from their own area of expertise. Web Writing does not attempt to convert the uninitiated to teaching online or prescribe a list of digital writing reforms. Instead, authors simply describe how and why they integrated web writing in their courses and allow readers to choose among various pedagogical ideas and learning experiences. None of the articles offer large-scale or programmatic writing initiatives with MOOC-sized student enrollments. Primarily, our book shines a bright light on individual innovations that stand in the long shadow of ideological debates.

Our contributors do not identify themselves solely as experts in the field of computers and composition, nor as theorists or technologists. We are everyday liberal arts educators who are trying their hand at digital innovations in order to help students write to learn and learn to write. They are committed to the concept that web writing offers a different experience of writing; even if the resulting content isn’t remarkably different, instructors recognize the value of expanding the audience of readers (in and out of the classroom) during the writing and learning process. Most authors are at the early stages of trying out their ideas.  As they sort out the process, they want to share what they have learned because it is fresh for them. The richness of the book is that it represents authors from 15 colleges across the liberal arts curriculum who demonstrate how they use writing in disciplines like biology, history and sociology and across platforms to improve student motivation and learning.


Why should we teach our students to write on the web? Several contributors identified “communities” as a key theme, referring both to creating richer collaborations among students in the course, and to exchanging views with others beyond the classroom walls. In their co-authored essay, “Sister Classrooms: Blogging Across Disciplines and Campuses,” Amanda Hagood and Carmel Price explain how student writing changed when they linked their two classes at different colleges through online writing about the environment. In “Indigenizing Wikipedia,” Siobhan Senier describes what her students learned by attempting to write the stories of contemporary Native American authors into the popular encyclopedia, and the barriers they encountered by online editors. Michael O’Donnell evaluates his biology students’ collective experience with an innovative approach to lab reports in “Science Writing, Wikis, and Collaborative Learning.” Jim Trostle reflects on a class assignment and shares video excerpts of his students as they engaged  in “Cooperative In-Class Writing with Google Docs.” Finally, Jack Dougherty offers lessons he learned about community building in “Co-Writing, Peer Editing, and Publishing in the Cloud.”


Several contributors advocate web writing because it increased student engagement, both with scholarship and civic life. Celeste Sharpe, Nate Sleeter, and Kelly Schrum explain “How We Learned to Drop the Quiz” with their innovative approach to teaching historical writing in online asynchronous courses. Leigh Wright tells her students to “Tweet Me A Story” and explains how incorporating social media into writing assignments taught them about journalism and screenwriting. In “Civic Engagement,” Susan Grogan describes how her students created a Super PAC devoted to bringing political comedian Stephen Colbert to their campus, and began writing on the web about their roles in electoral politics. Jack Dougherty seeks to balance the competing values of “Public Writing and Student Privacy” and offers suggestions for college educators facing similar dilemmas. Jen Rajchel asks student web-authors to “Consider the Audience” when sharing their work online, especially as they navigate both public and private spheres. In “Creating the Reader-Viewer,” Anita DeRouen reflects on the pedagogical and rhetorical challenges of engaging students to read, create, and assess multimodal web texts. Finally, Shawn Graham reveals how his students began writing history through video games in his essay, “Pulling Back the Curtain.”

Crossing Boundaries

For some educators, writing on the web raises the possibility of crossing boundaries, not only of race and culture, but also time and personal space. In their co-authored essay, Rochelle Rodrigo and Jennifer Kidd explain the process of “Getting Uncomfortable” with identity exploration in a multi-class blog, and their evaluation of its influence on student learning outcomes. Another digital pedagogy duo, Pete Coco and M. Gabriela Torres, outline their strategy for teaching “Curation in Writing,” with building-and-breaking metaphors for student blogging on cultural anthropology. Alisea Williams McLeod reflects on the problems and possibilities of “Student Digital Research and Writing on Slavery,” focusing on the experiences of students at a historically black college as they transcribed historical records of former slaves and their white masters during the Civil War era. Finally, Holly Oberle explores whether classroom technology affects international students differently than domestic ones in her essay, “Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue.”

Citation and Annotation

When students author on the web, they invariably encounter other writers, which raises questions about the ways we learn to acknowledge and attribute other people’s ideas. Christopher Hager recounts in “The Secondary Source Sitting Next to You” how students responded to a web assignment that required them to cite work by their peers. In “Web Writing and Citation: The Authority of Communities,” Elizabeth Switaj explains how educators can draw on the logic of social referencing in online communities to help students recognize citation as a community practice. Laura Lisabeth explores how her students critiqued The Elements of Style writing guide in her essay, “Empowering Education with Social Annotation and Wikis.” Despite everything the software industry has led us to believe, Jason B. Jones argues that “There Are No New Directions in Annotations,” which explains why new tools of the trade should feel “radically familiar” in the liberal arts.


This extra section features how-to guides for several web-based writing tools mentioned in the text. It appears only in the open-access Trinity College ePress edition of the book, which allows us to include more images and videos than the print edition, and to update them when desired.[8]

What is not in this book? During the open call phase of this book, we expressed interest in several ideas that did not result in fully developed chapters, which we identify here to encourage others to take up in future works.

No one defined the machine as the writing teacher. In other words, while many of our contributors used the web to connect authors and readers, none of them described using digital tools to directly instruct students or to evaluate their essays. This should not surprise us, given our skepticism about massive online learning in liberal arts education, but the absence of discussion about web-based writing tools deserves more attention. At a basic level, we wonder how college educators and their students make use of basic software tools designed to improve our prose, such as the ubiquitous spelling and grammar checkers. What have educators learned about implicitly assuming or explicitly teaching students how to use these in the writing process? Taking one step further, we are curious about what students learn about writing from web-based instructional resources, both inside and outside of the formal curriculum. A quick search of the popular YouTube site can point learners to videos of writing instructors who sketch out different approaches to crafting introductions on a whiteboard, or a screencast of using a word-processor to create a “reverse outline” that reveals an essay’s underlying structure.[9] Can these web resources effectively supplement our face-to-face writing instruction? Or at a more controversial level, can and will they replace us? Machine-scored essay evaluation is very contentious—and poorly understood—area of debate, which would benefit from the perspectives of liberal arts educators who can explain the artificial intelligence or who have first-hand experiences with these tools.[10]

On a related note, few contributors wrote directly about evidence. How do we really know if web-writing strategies will enhance our students’ prose and identity as a community of authors? While this volume favors local stories of individual educators, we can see the value in moving our discussion beyond impressionistic accounts to social science experiments on the writing process. As we conceptualized this volume, an intriguing study by Ina Blau and Avmer Caspi caught our attention.[11] They compared collaborative student work on Google Documents across different conditions and found that suggesting revisions by inserting marginal comments (rather than directly editing a peer’s text) positively influenced students’ sense of ownership, responsibility, and perceived quality of writing outcomes. With further research, we might better understand how different forms of online collaboration might help or hinder different types of students (such as novice versus seasoned writers) or different aspects of writing (such as organization versus argumentation). But the key point is to demonstrate more systematic ways of evaluating pedagogical approaches on student outcomes. Even if we lack the time or training to conduct scientific studies, new digital tools allow us to more easily collect samples of student writing and to analyze contributions to multi-authored works.[12]

On a more personal level, no one explicitly wrote about sharing their “writing workflows” with students. Authors did not describe their steps from research and reflection to a fully written essay. No details were offered about the stages of brainstorming, note-taking, outlining, drafting, citing, editing, and revising process that take place on paper or a screen. The tools chosen for particular stages of work were not emphasized or discussed. Many of these invisible decisions could depend upon whether the writing is a solitary or collaborative act. When we consider that many of us have considered or adopted new tools in recent years, might our students (and colleagues) benefit from a more public discussion of different approaches to the writing process in the digital age? Or perhaps we should flip the question (and its assumption about who’s teaching whom) to ask: how do students devise their own writing workflows, what sources influence them, and what does this tell us about teaching and learning with the web?[13]

There is a humorous saying in the software industry: “Eat your own dog food.”  It means that companies should use the same products that they sell to their customers. Building this book through the same tools and processes that our students might compose in has taught us valuable lessons that we are eager to explore with others. As we continue to weigh and measure the affordances that new technologies present to our pedagogical approaches in the liberal arts, we hope that readers of Web Writing feel a stronger sense of the exciting opportunities ahead.

On behalf of the Web Writing advisory group at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

  • Jack Dougherty, Associate Professor of Educational Studies
  • Tennyson O’Donnell, Director of the Allan K. Smith Center for Writing and Rhetoric and Allan K. Smith Lecturer in English Composition
  • Dina Anselmi, Associate Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Christopher Hager, Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Jason B. Jones, Director of Educational Technology

How to cite:

Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell, eds., “Introduction,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014),

  1. Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010); “Author Nicholas Carr Discusses the Benefits, Liabilities of the Internet,” Trinity College News & Events, August 31, 2012,
  2. Laura Pappano, “The Year of the MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses Are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace,” The New York Times, November 2, 2012, sec. Education Life,; Thomas Friedman’s “Revolution Hits the Universities,” The New York Times, January 26, 2013, sec. Opinion / Sunday Review, For a definitively non-New York Times review of this trend, see Audrey Watters, “The Year of the MOOC,” Hack Education, December 3, 2012,
  3. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy,; Computers and Composition Online,; Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy,; Hybrid Pedagogy,; Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing series,; ProfHacker blog in the Chronicle of Higher Education,; Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, eds., Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013),; Matthew K. Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2012),; The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp), a series of unconferences coordinated by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media,; Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse, Colorado State University,
  4. Troy Hicks, The Digital Writing Workshop (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009),; Dànielle Nicole DeVoss et al., Because Digital Writing Matters : Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010),; Troy Hicks, Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2013),
  5. See the open call, open peer review, and book contract in the "How this book evolved" section of Web Writing, Trinity College 2013 web edition, Michigan Publishing, which is based and funded through the University of Michigan Library, “seeks to create innovative, sustainable structures for the broad dissemination and enduring preservation of the scholarly conversation. . . to ensure that the benefits of scholarship accrue to everyone.” See "About Michigan Publishing," University of Michigan Library, 2013, See HathiTrust Digital Library at See the Tutorials section in the Trinity College ePress edition of this book at
  6. For a richer exposition of the "publish-then-filter" argument, see Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin Press, 2008); Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011), with open peer review draft (2009) at; Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, "Introduction," Writing History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013),
  7. On the history and economics of different open-access publishing models, see Peter Suber, Open Access (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012),
  8. See Tutorials at
  9. See an expanded version of this paragraph in Jack Dougherty, “What Do Students Learn about Writing from YouTube?,” MediaCommons, May 23, 2013,
  10. As we prepared the public call for this book, nearly one thousand comments were posted in response to a news story on the edX MOOC by John Markoff, “New Test for Computers: Grading Essays at College Level,” The New York Times, April 4, 2013,, which suggested that artificial intelligence tools can reliably evaluate student essays. Critics calling themselves Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment have responded with a research-based petition drive, Some computer scientists have attempted to reframe the debate by clarifying how computers can “describe” and “tabulate” texts, but not “read” them, such as Elijah Mayfield, “Six Ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong,” E-Literate, April 8, 2013, For a predecessor of this current debate, see Patricia Freitag Ericsson and Rich Haswell, eds., Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006),
  11. Ina Blau and Avner Caspi, “Sharing and Collaborating with Google Docs: The Influence of Psychological Ownership, Responsibility, and Student’s Attitudes on Outcome Quality,” in Proceedings of the E-Learn 2009 World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education, Vancouver, Canada (Chesapeake, VA: AACE, 2009), 3329–3335,
  12. An earlier version of this paragraph appeared in Dina Anselmi, “Peer Review on the Web: Show Me the Evidence,” MediaCommons, May 22, 2013,
  13. See more at idea 23, Web Writing call for essay ideas, Spring 2013,