Writing for the Public: Students and Blogging

Very slow start today after a late night of fending off computer viruses and a long afternoon of following Purdue’s too-close-for-comfort victory over Illinois, but I’ve been working on my blogging paper (more info on the conference) for most of the afternoon and wanted to collect a few of my thoughts. I’ve been reading through some of the essays from the terrific Into the Blogosphere collection, and many of the essays seem to have something relevant to my blogging paper.

In “Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom,” Charles Lowe and Terra Williams emphasize the value of weblogs in teaching students to write for the public, arguing that students will become more effective writers if they are writing for public audiences on the Internet. In this context, they quote Catherine Smith, who argues that students “take real-world writing more seriously when it is done on the web, where it might actually be seen and used” (2000, p. 241).* I tend to agree that public writing requires a greater sense of responsibility and that students, once they have completed the blogging “learning curve,” usually take this kind of public writing more seriously than the journals that were submitted directly to me.

They add that public writing also “deemphasizes teacher authority” (Bruffee), again requiring students to take more responsibility for their writing. Again, I think I’ve had a fairly similar experience, although I would add that my experience with teaching blogging last fall seemed to have the effect of creating a shared identity for the entire class, especially after other bloggers began commenting on the class in their weblogs or via email. As my initial comments suggest, I was not expecting that kind of attention in the blogosphere, but the other bloggers’ comments about my class assignment ultimately cemented lessons about audience that few textbooks could reproduce.

Lowe and Williams also compare the use of weblogs to the newly popular group hypertext project at the end of the semester, noting many of the reservations I’ve had about teaching these kinds of projects. Like them, I’ve had great success with group-authored weblogs at the end of the semester, especially if students have been writing in their personal blogs all semester. Group “hypertext projects” also tend to “require specialized software,” such as Dreamweaver, thus requiring students to work on a central computer. As they note, students also have to learn how to use these tools, while most blogging software is fairly easy to use. Often one student will become the default tech support person for that group, taking on a disproportionate amount of work. In addition, Lowe and Williams note that these projects also encourage the overuse of “eye-candy,” such as Macromedia Flash, instead of concentrating on writing. I do have some mixed feelings here in that Lowe and Williams seem to privilege the word (“content”) over the image (“eye candy”), but their basic argument is one that guides my own decision to use gorup-authored weblogs instead of the hypertext project.

The major objection I’ve encountered to this use of public writing is that it opens up the student to the “unknown outside,” an openness that may be somewhat intimidating. As Nick carbone notes in the comments to their essay, writing for the public “needs to be a student’s choice.” Nick adds later that he wants students to feel “free to say dumb and embarrassing things” without worrying about those things appearing on the web. It’s a legitimate concern, and I’ve addressed it in part by allowing students to publish under a pseudonym known to the rest of the class. I’d also note that I’ve tried to structure my blogging assignments so that students don’t feel required to complete any single assignment that makes them feel uncomfortable. In my current election course, Rhetoric and Democracy, I’ve given my students free reign to blog about any article they wish as long as it pertains to the election. That may not completely liberate students from their discomfort in writing for the public, but it does allow students to avoid the discomfort of writing about their personal lives on the web (note: Terra Williams, in her comments, mentions taking a similar approach).

I hadn’t planned to write so much about this topic here. It’s one of the major arguments of my paper, though, and Lowe and Williams provide a nice framework for asking many of the right questions. By the way, if you’ve read this far, I’d appreciate it if you dropped by and read some of my students’ blog entries (linked in the sidebar of my course blog), just so they know there’s an audience out there taking their writing seriously.

* Smith, Catherine. (2000). Nobody, which means anybody: Audience on the world wide web. In Sibylle Gruber (Ed.), Weaving a virtual web: Practical approaches to new information technologies (pp. 239-249). Urbana: NCTE.


  1. Dylan Said,

    September 26, 2004 @ 12:39 am

    Interesting thoughts. In my case, from a non-academic standpoint, I’ve found similar ideas. I have written in many formats and for different purposes in the past, including in online journals. What helped my blog find it’s “identity” was when I began to realize that I didn’t want to, necesarily, right about myself, my life, what I did today and how it made me feel, but rather I wanted to use it to comment on the things that interested me. This was aided my emerging mentality that I was writing this for consumption, and not just for my own personal reflection.

    So, writing for and audience is one important part. Also, for me, the sense of community that begins to build around your blog, if you are lucky. It makes me want to write more for THOSE people who have then become my friends.

    Interesting writing you are doing.

  2. Dylan Said,

    September 26, 2004 @ 12:43 am

    By the way, when I started my comment out by saying “Interesting thoughts,” I meant your thoughts in that particular post were interesting, and was not implying that the thoughts I was about to write were going to be interesting.

    Just don’t want you think I’m narcissistic, (although writing an entire seperate comment to prove you aren’t narcissistic only makes it clear how much one thinks about one’s self).

  3. chuck Said,

    September 26, 2004 @ 10:53 am

    Thanks, Dylan. I didn’t read your comment (or the follow-up) as narcissistic at all. I think that I have been so enthusiastic about using blogs in the classroom for similar reasons: blogging has taught me a lot about writing for wider audiences.

    Now, when I write certain entries, I’ll sometimes have specific readers (or groups of readers–academics, fellow Atlantans) in mind when I’m writing, and when they add to the conversation, that makes writing much more enjoyable.

  4. Rachael Said,

    October 5, 2004 @ 10:20 am

    I look forward to reading your article someday, Chuck–sounds like interesting work. I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, because I’m having my First Year Writing class keep a group blog (english50.blogspot.com) and most of the entries are *very* personal. I haven’t given the students much direction about what to write, although in my syllabus it suggests that students should write about “anything related to our course theme–America as we imagine it and as the rest of the world imagines us.” As you can guess, that “anything” is being broadly conceived of as the personal as well as the political. I’m so pleased with how the blog is going so far, even if it’s not what I expected it to be.

    I’m just now (several weeks into the semester) struggling with how to help students make the transition from personal entries to entries that are more explicitly written for readers outside of our class. My main concern is to avoid squelching their freedom and changing the fact that the blog is functioning very much like a community resource. Dylan’s point in the comments is helpful–that once a blogger gets a sense of that outside community, he/she may start to write *for* those people, rather than just for one’s self. Strangely, in my own blog writing experience, I’ve had the opposite pull–as time goes on, I find I write on my blog more for myself than for my readers. I wonder what to make of that (no theoretical insights this morning, at least).

    BTW, I like the idea of the class-insider pseudonym a lot…perhaps next time I try the blog thing in my class, I’ll suggest something similar to promote safety, though that seems not to be a major concern this time around. I’ve simply suggested that they use first names only, though that’s imperfect for sure.

  5. chuck Said,

    October 5, 2004 @ 1:53 pm

    Thanks, Rachael. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing my article finished. I think I have a tendency to direct blog entries a little too much, making blogging feel like an exercise, rather than something more expressive and personal (not that the political is opposed to these terms).

    I’d also agree with you about Dylan’s comment. One possibility for producing that sense of audience might be to orchestrate a collection of courses using blogs and to require/request that students read blogs from other universities just to establish a better sense of a community of readers.

    I think the pseudonym has helped some, but first-name-only has a similar effect. One of the reasons I’ve let students use pseudonyms is that class rosters are not supposed to be published publicly (I forget the precise reasons for this).

  6. Jen Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 1:56 pm

    Hah! Chuck, have you been blogging about lingerie again?

  7. Dylan Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 2:17 pm

    That was scary, because I was reading your blog, specifically this post, and was just THINKING about sexy lingerie, and then this comment shows up, so it is very possible that that was my fault.

  8. chuck Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 2:20 pm

    Jen, I’m going to delete the lingerie comment in a minute. No sense giving them page rank, but I find the false folksiness of the comments themselves pretty amusing….

  9. chuck Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 2:21 pm

    Dyaln, missed your comment before. I won’t hold it against you this time, but please stop thinking about those things when you read my blog!!

  10. chuck Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 2:23 pm

    By the way, is it just me or have the blog spammers been espeically busy lately? I’ve actually been thinking about shutting down comments around here again, especially on entries more than a few weeks old.

  11. Dylan Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 3:40 pm

    I’ve noticed that they’ve hit your site pretty hard lately… my blog must not be well known enough for the spammers to even bother… So, maybe it is a blog status symbol.

  12. chuck Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 4:51 pm

    It may also have something to do with the way that Typepad and Moveable Type create links using comments, but I’m not sure.

    I don’t think that my blog is *that* well-known….

  13. Jen Said,

    October 11, 2004 @ 4:58 pm

    I haven’t been receiving any spam lately, but I know Atlanta Desk still receives a lot of spam on older posts, since I haven’t posted there in decades.. so it may be an MT thing. And BfD has been hit hard lately.

  14. lynn Said,

    October 25, 2004 @ 5:47 am

    re: Rachel’s concern about trying to re-shape / re-direct the way in which her class write:

    “I’m just now (several weeks into the semester) struggling with how to help students make the transition from personal entries to entries that are more explicitly written for readers outside of our class. My main concern is to avoid squelching their freedom and changing the fact that the blog is functioning very much like a community resource.”

    The good thing about Blogger is that once you’ve got an account, you can create many more blogs – I’ve got about 8, sad, I know – and each blog can do a different thing. So people in Rachel’s class could have the class blog, then small group blogs, or personal blogs, or blogs arranged by theme for writing which is for outsiders / general viewing public. And using different writing styles in each blog – even try to write stuff that will get noticed, and get commented on (not spammed) by outsiders.

    I started blogging because of an article in the Guardian online which featured Rebecca Blood and Jason Kottke, and for me, having a model, something to aspire to was very helpful. And my blogging has gone through several metamorphoses eg designing my own page and updating via ftp, using blogger to update a page on a server I was paying for, then when blogger offered the comments for free tranferred everything onto their space.

    Maybe blogging carries with it the stigma of self-publishing, that is, how can you put up your work without having an editor look at it first? or without someone asking you to do it. But for me it’s like playing in a garage band, people do it because they like it, and they’ll play at parties, and try and get gigs supporting other bands at pubs, and they’re not making any money out of it, they’re just doing what they do. So, writing online is for me doing what a writer does.

  15. chuck Said,

    October 25, 2004 @ 10:09 am

    I’d agree with a lot of these observations. When I first started getting students to blog last fall, I required that they read a lot of blogs and even required that they write a paper analyzing a blog. As a result, my students understood the genre pretty well. This time around, I’ve simply set them up and running with the requirement that they write about political themes, and I think the topical focus helps.

    But I do know that some of my students keep perosnal blogs or create other blogs after they leave my class. The garage band comparison is pretty apt. When I first started on Blogger, that’s about how I imagined my blog. Now, between Moveable Type and Blogger, I have about 3-4 active blogs at any one time.

  16. Helen Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 3:15 am

    I would like to say some words on your blog. I’m left with a feeling that you put students in opposition to the rest of the world. I mean why should one differentiate if it’s a student or not while telling about usefulness of being a blog writer? I agree that I might have got something wrong here.

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