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.