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Writing and Autism: More Group Work Thoughts

I want to thank several autistic self-advocates for asking me to address the topic of collaboration and "peer work" more often and more forcefully. To challenge dominant pedagogies is no small risk in academia. I'm not rejecting group work, because we do need to foster interpersonal skills, but I am arguing the social skills must never dominate how we grade another academic discipline. If you teach science, grade science. If you teach writing, grade writing. Don't make "plays well with others" the major source of a grade.

My students do group projects and work in teams (pairs). But, I do not make that collaborative effort part of the grade. I value teaching students to work well with others, yes, but grading social skills? I am the least qualified person imaginable to evaluate social skills. I facilitate collaboration, but I am not going to try to grade it on a "A-F" or point scale.

Outside of teaching, I am a freelance writer and editor. I also do a fair amount of freelance computer work. I work from home, alone. I email my projects to clients — some of whom I have never met. There are some clients to whom I've never spoken. All I know of the client is an email address.

My academic colleagues argue that writing is collaborative. I should know that, as a freelance writer.

Uh, no, I don't have the experience as a writer that my colleagues imagine.

What I know is that I write alone, edit alone, and very, very seldom interact with anyone else employed by the publishers of what I write. Rarely, I receive a request from an editor to remove words or add words to a column. It is even rarer to receive a file back with a request for a rewrite. For magazines, I write a column, email it to the editor, and whatever happens after that isn't my concern. The column appears in print a few weeks later and I get a paycheck.

When I program, I code at home in my basement office. (It is a nice office, really.) Nobody "collaborates" with the coding stage. The collaboration occurs before, when I ask what a client wants, and after I develop a prototype. The vast majority of the time coding is alone. And I like it that way!

Yes, I assign group and team projects, but I explain to students that groups can operate in different ways. For some groups, meeting around a table is productive. For other groups, email and online exchanges are more productive.

There is no single "right" way or "best" way to collaborate. Some workplaces find that telecommuters are more productive. Other workplaces worry that isolation doesn't allow for random new ideas. I don't want to share an open space with others — I could never focus on my tasks. But, maybe shared common areas would be tolerable, such as a common cafeteria.

If we, teachers, only allow or encourage one form of collaboration, then we might be overlooking other collaborative styles that work better for some people and teams. How I work best with others might not be how another writer or programmer works best.

We shouldn't embrace "group work" simply because it feels good (to some people). The notion that classroom groups expand students' appreciation for other people somehow assumes that the students don't interact and collaborate outside the classroom.

My theory is that students learn plenty about teamwork outside the classroom. I need to focus on the academic subjects I teach. If that subject includes group work by necessity or norm, that's important to recognize, too. But, we shouldn't try to make too many assignments group-based. We certainly should not be grading science or math or any other topic based on social skills.

For more read this great essay:


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