Thursday, October 23, 2008

Welcome, and some initial comments on blogs as a teaching tool

Greetings to my Comp II students who may have found their way here. If you have some time, I encourage you to poke around to see some of the things I'm interested in--a good place to begin is with "Assemblages," over in the right-hand gutter.

And to regular visitors: I'm still officially on sabbatical, but I'll be teaching a class during this second half of the semester to earn a little extra money and to test drive a couple of things I'm interested in incorporating in my classes in the spring.

The big experiment is that I'm requiring these students to set up and maintain blogs connected in some way to the subjects they choose for their research projects. Writing teachers can yammer about the importance of accounting for audience in their writing all they want, but so long as that writing remains caught within the vacuum of the classroom, their sole "audience" someone who because of his job requirements has to read and comment on their work (that includes peer review, too, by the way), audience remains more an abstraction than something actively to be contended with as they write. So, I thought that their setting up blogs to write about the research they've done and what they think about it might be a way to get them to think about audience from the get-go. Also, since I'm requiring students to post links to pertinent sites and to list their blogs with a couple of directories, I hope that people who share their interests will find their blogs and leave comments. Indeed, as they get them set up, I'll be posting links to their blogs here so that, if you wish, you can go visit them.

[Aside: One thing that occurs to me as I sit here is that I'm not (yet) sure whether the essential blankness of a blog's audience--what I mean by that is that a blog's writer has no prior knowledge of the persons who visit his/her blog; that can only occur over time and if/when/as they comment on posts--is a good or a bad thing. It's my hope that, due to my requiring them to list their blogs in directories, most people who visit them will have some interest in their subjects; but beyond that, they can't presume too much. This, of course, is where discussions of "audience" in the abstract will come in handy.]

We'll see how it goes. I sensed a fair amount of trepidation (usual symptom: near-complete silence) as I have talked about this in class, but I think that it'll work as I want it to . . . most of that "work," of course, occurring beneath the surface as those difficult-to-measure things that nevertheless add up to the je ne sais quoi of Good Writing. While we wait to see what will come of all this, I have some questions for those of you who teach or, in Randall's case, cohabit with one or, in Pam's case, guide research: Do you have students use blogs as a pedagogical tool? Do you have colleagues who do? If so, how? What sort of luck (good or bad--I need to know pitfalls as well as views from the mountantops) have you/they had them? If you're interested in what I'm requiring of them, e-mail me and I'll send you what appears in the syllabus.

UPDATE: For some reason this morning, Blogger is not letting me post comments on my own blog. Here, then, is my response to Pam's comment:

If you're worried about rambling on my blog, you've not been reading with nearly enough attention.

There's a big debate going on in the humanities as well about the place of blogs relative to traditional notions of academic work. I personally (still) err on the side of tradition myself. As you know, I have an "academic" blog where I write about more scholarly preoccupations. In the book project, I'll mention it in the acknowledgments as a place out of which some ideas and content emerged in the book proper, but to jump from that to claiming that that it's a resource on a par with, even, an article in a refereed journal strikes me as, well, presumptuous.

I think of the blog as an electronic version of thinking out loud: a space for speculation, for trying out ideas, and for those who find it and are interested to weigh in, but by no means a finished product.

It's in that sense that I'm pointing my students with regard to their blogs. They still are required to turn in finished, formal papers. I confess that it's also a ploy to make sure that they are doing some initial engaging with sources, as well as with a potential audience, as they write, and not just dumping everything into a paper the night or two before it's due. That's the stick; the carrot, for me if not for them, is that I'm hoping that it will result in better writing--which is to say, a better quality of thinking as reflected in their writing.

Writing in the sciences, I imagine, is more about reporting on the results of having tested hypotheses than on the generating of those hypotheses; yet (as I've seen in your blog), surely the generating of those ideas is crucial to science as well. Perhaps that's an appropriate space for blogs for researchers in the sciences?


R. Sherman said...

I've thought that that blogs would be the perfect substitute for the ubiquitous "Composition Journal" most comp students have to maintain.

John B. said...

Me, too, Randall. Has the EMBLOS used them or thought about using them?

I've been playing around with how to use blogs for Comp I. I lean toward thinking that in order to be more effective they need some strictures on content; our Comp I classes, though, are more focused on the teaching of the rhetorical modes than on a particular content per se. The easy solution would be to insist that students choose a subject area to make as the focus of their writing, and their blogs would then be an extension of that. But something like this issue came up in class yesterday, and I told the student that, so long as her blog had at least the minimum number of required posts (as defined by content), she could post whatever else she wanted. Something like that might serve as a solution for Comp I as well.

We're just dipping our toes in over here; we'll have to wait and see just how fine the water is.

R. Sherman said...

The EMBLOS has taught primarily developmental reading and writing courses the last several years. The writing courses have been basically paragraph development leading to the famous five paragraph essay at the end of the semester. Blogging doesn't fit well with that, as you're looking for more focused and developed essays, I would think.

This year, she's taken over the German courses, as well. There's only so many "my name is" blog posts which would be interesting.

BTW, I think your audience point is spot-on. Writing in a journal is tedious, simply because, if the entries are read, they are done so by someone who has to do so. With a blog, one's inner narcissist worries that people won't give a poop about what one has to say, and therefore, one adjusts and edits one's writing accordingly. In a sense, much like medieval carnival, the hits and comments one receives constitute the farthings tossed into the hat after the performance.

Darn it. It feels good when somebody reads and comments, even if s/he cries "BS!" to what you're writing.


Doc said...

As one who ABD'd university, I find the idea delightful - part of the reason I withdrew was because of sheer ossification.

I look forward to the links.

; ' )

p.s. - welcome (sorta) back

John B. said...

Randall and Doc,
Thanks for the votes of confidence. Re "ossification": I like my job very much, but I do feel the need to throw myself, as well as my students, the occasional change-up. We all benefit as a result.

As I say, we'll see how this goes, and I'll let y'all know.

Pam said...

I think that most of my colleagues are completely oblivious to blogs. I've made my students aware of them (they know that I have one - I don't think they visit often, in a sense they respect that my blog space is, if anything, a break from my intense, daily interactions with them) - I've introduced them to ScienceBlogs, etc that might be relevant to their work. As to really using them, we are entrenched in peer-reviewed publications as citations - and very rarely, if ever, cite a website as a source of information. I think that this will slowly, perhaps, change in science - I know that the ScienceBlog folks now have an emblem or icon (I'm forgetting the word) that designates that a post is being written about a peer-reviewed published work. I think that the person who came up with this had a great idea - if this kind of thing catches up more broadly, then perhaps science blogs will become useful guides to students/researchers.

I've rambled on here!

John B. said...


Pam said...

I agree with the electronic version of 'thinking out loud'.

I guess what worries me - and it's changed what words I use - is the 'google-ability' of scientific language, and I've once had a scientist colleague land on my site, and it has kept me from talking about science in anything but generalities (aka vaguely). I wish I felt freer to 'talk my science' outloud, but I don't. We all need to think outloud - it's an important part of any creative process.

I don't know a single student who doesn't benefit from writing more.

John B. said...


Thanks for commenting.

I understand what you're saying re the Google-ability factor, especially if privacy is an issue. That will obviously inhibit the thinking out loud that goes on in this medium.

I don't know any way around that, especially in the small world of academe. We have to decide what we're comfortable with saying about ourselves and our work and take it from there.

Re your last sentence, that's what I tell my students. There's no other way to improve as writers except by writing. I really emphasize that in my classes: the goal is not to pass; the goal is to improve as writers. They know that, of course . . . they have to decide that they want that for themselves.

dejavaboom said...

JB: I have always required students to journal, making a big production of the many values, uses, etc. In recent years I broadened the scope to encompass any manner of online "blogging" in LiveJournal, FaceBook, MySpace, Xanga...some of these tools allowed for private or restricted readerships, which was great in Comp 1, in particular.

I am very interested in how your experiment is working out. I intended to have students build a wiki, but the wiki tool in our LMS was no good, so I'm still shopping for a good freebie. PLEASE let me know how the blogging thing works out. Hit me w/that assignment, too, if you can--and what directories are suggested/required.