Wolfe: "Gesture and Collaborative Planning: A Case Study of a Student Writing Group"

Wolfe, J. (2005). Gesture and Collaborative Planning: A Case Study of a Student Writing Group. Written Communication, 22(3), 298-332. doi:10.1177/0741088305278108




"The physical proximity of gesture to writing suggests that gestures— particularly those gestures that involve writing tools such as pens and papers—may provide rich data for investigating collaborative writing groups" (299).


Questions relationship of gender and non-verbal communication (gesture). "Perhaps gender differences in gesture production might contribute to such dynamics? A meta-analysis of research on gender and nonverbal communication suggests that men make a larger number of expansive movements and more manipulations of objects than do women (Hall, 1984). The current study hopes to build on this research by hypothesizing about the ways different types of gestures made by men and women might interact with other gendered dynamics in writing groups" (300).


Wants to know:


  • how do members of collaborative writing group use gestures-- when planning? what sorts of work do gestures do in this situation? do they contribute or detract from attempts to create shared sense of document?
  • how might gestures and manipulations of writing tools and artifacts contribute to percieved involvement and control of the collaborative environment? (301-302)


Background and Methods


Participants: 3 bio majors, age 26-30. Keith, Mark, Natalie


The Class and Assignment: 300-level intro sci/tech writing in comp class. Instructor female grad student in early 30s... Semester long collab proposal requiring 5 page review of research, survey of proposal audience, 5-7 pp written proposal including tech grafx, and final oral presentation. Students chose own groups and topx.


Data Sources: 16 m, 40 s convo, research asst or Wolfe observed/recorded all mtgs of group, rec''d copires of all emails exchanged, collected copies of all paper drafts, collected biweekly process diaries, and conducted private i-views w/team members @ end of sem (302-303). I-viewed instructor. Similar data collected by 5 other teams.


The Conversation


Analysis focuses on a specific convo videotaped early in project. 3rd group mtg. Notes who taking notes, K''s request to M for emaild copy of survey notes (didn''t happen) tho Natalie did email group after completing survey.


Data Analysis


Followed Strauss and Corbin''s grounded theory techniques (emergent).


Categories emerged in initial coding included writing in the air, embodying sections or parts of docs, creating barrier w/notepad or body part, etc. Properties included physical materials and body parts, amount of space taken up by gesture, whether gesture made noise, etc. Categories further dimensionalized by amount of semantic info communicated (resting chin in one''s palm indicates low semantic, while using pen to "draw" line in air contains high semantic info) (304-305).


Microanalyzed using qual/quant tech combo.Goes into very precise detail as to methods of coding/categorizing. Uses independent rater to encode 30% of gestures (uses Cohen''s simple kappa).


Notes idiosyncrasies due to setting-- for example, single camera to videotape, participants occasionally out of frame or backs turned.


"Thus, although quantitative analyses are reported, these numbers should be viewed as representative of general trends, and not an absolute account of all movements in this conversation" (306).




Three parts: overview; categories to demonstrate group interaction space treated as tangible document; analysis of how gestures, adaptors, and writing events facilitate i"ndi speakers in controlling the group interaction space" (309).


Overview : more than 60% of conversational gestures deictic (pointing) or iconic (metaphorical). Approx 3/4 of that 60% made by K. Adaptor movements (fidgeting with pen, manipulating food or drink) also significant; higher overall than number of gestures.


The Conversational Interaction Space as a Group Document:


Writing on the group interaction space: writers mimed action of writing or embodied text through gestures. Also gestured to mime act of delivering final presentation;


Embodying the group document: used hands, for example, to represent diff sections of doc or diff items on page. Notes "When speakers write in the air, they appear to be actively involved in composing the text. Whenspeakers embody the document itself, they seem to bridge both character and observer viewpoints, presenting the text both as something to be composed and as an object to be read. In this sense, gestures embodying the document seem to represent a more finished state of the text than those that mime the physical act of writing" (313).


Pointing to integrate texts within the group conversation space: pointing most common conversational gesture type (some interesting theories/claims as to why). "group members used pointing to negotiate and integrate the as-yet-to-be-composed sections of the proposal into an understanding of the final document. The group dealt with the conceptual difficulty of discussing nontangible future texts by allowing individuals to stand in for the texts that they would write. This use of deixis helped reduce the cognitive burden involved in representing all of these texts mentally and showed the relationship of the individual sections of texts to the final, integrated document" (314).


Pointing to maintain one’s place within the group interaction space: point to conversational space to signal engagement in text (315).


Relationship of interaction space to final document: K''s gestures suggest that "task of writing the group document is a simple matter of transferring information from the conversational space into written prose" (316).


Analysis Part II: Control of the Conversational Space


Space: "group interaction space as primary means for conceptualizing their group document" (319). K clearly exerted more control. More gestures and adaptor movements, more expansive. Reading body language (kinesics).


Writing and conversational floor: Most writing took place while K maintained sole control over floor. N''s writing appeared to take her out of convo, "giving impression that she is taking dictation" (321). M found way to signal engagement tho using computer.


Gesturing with pens: heightened sense that speaker actively writing on group convo space. N only made one gesture. Notes ideas about authority, that N does not seem comfortable asserting it. Perception that N seems to be writing less than others, tho spends almost 2x writing as both teammates combined.


Noise with pens: clicking, tapping, removing and replacing caps. K made approx 10x more clicking noise-- theorizes purpose to draw attention. Other situations for attention, punctuation, nervousness, assertiveness. Sometimes occurred while others speaking. Can draw attention away from speaker.




Interesting assumption-- may lead writers to think closer to final product than they are (326). May minimize work of composing. May have neg effect-- text of conversational space primary to the secondary written text. Perceptions (Natalie perceived as least skilled, Keith as highly, though inverse contributions). "Further research is needed to test the hypothesis that gestures made during discussions of collaborative documents might affect perceptions of writing abilities and written contributions" (327).


Conversational Floor and Control


Adaptor movements prevalance. "Further research might test the hypothesis that people who make large numbers of adaptor movements have an advantage in gaining the conversational floor by attempting to correlate successful gains of the conversational floor with the number of adaptor movements made by speakers" (327).


Implications for Gender Research, Collaborative Writing Technologies


Tho small sample, consistent with other research that men fidget more, more expansive body movements, etc. than women. "Finally, this analysis may have implications for the design of computer
technologies to support collaboration...One challenge for technology designers may be how to design
collaboration tools that can support functions that can support those gestures that are crucial to planning a document (such as pointing or embodying sections of the text) while minimizing those movements that might lead to inequitable conversational floor spaces." (329).



Authors'' Abstract:


When writers plan a document together, they rely on gestures as well as speech and writing in constructing a common representation of their group document. This case study of a student technical writing group explores how group members used gestures to create a conversational interaction space that they then treated like a physical text that they manipulated, wrote on, and pointed at. These gestures suggested a group pretext that helped group members translate abstract goals into concrete plans. However, the close proximity of gesture to the physical act of writing may mislead students into thinking that the tricky work of translating abstract ideas into final written form had already been completed. Gestures and adaptor movements (such as fidgeting with a pen) also seemed to conspire to help individuals control the conversational space and call attention to themselves as writers. Implications for future research on gesture and collaborative writing, gender, and writing technologies are discussed.