Blogging and the Classroom

Since my fantastic meeting with George a couple of days ago, I’ve been thinking more about my plan to fold a group blog into one of my fall classes. George helpfully alerted me to his post on Conversation as Game, which attempts to create a beginning typology of rhetorical moves that take place in public discursive settings, as a preliminary stab at thinking through the thorny question of grading such blog participation.

The class I’m thinking about is, appropriately enough, entitled “The Literary Machine,” and it focuses on the relationship between computers and writing, both as represented in “traditional” print literature (i.e., Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 and John Barth’s Coming Soon!!!) and as enacted in newer electronic-literature technologies. So what I want the class blog to do is both serve as a venue for standard sorts of extra-class discussion — a site where students can direct one another to texts of interest on the web, and where those late-night thoughts about in-class discussion can get an airing — and also function as an experiment in computer-based writing/publishing itself. With any luck, my class (and I) will be able to puzzle through some of the questions I raised here about the new kinds of writing that the blog might help facilitate, and the new directions that the thing we currently think of as “literature” might take in response.

The question: have you had any experiences — positive, negative, mixed — with this kind of blog-experiment that might help focus or guide my fall foray?

8 thoughts on “Blogging and the Classroom

  1. I believe many people are introducing Web logging into their classrooms — this is exciting and reassuring, as I plan to integrate it into my introduction-to-humanities-computing class next spring. I’ve been a student in a course that utilized Web logs, and plan to fully integrate discussion of the Web writing experience into classtime discussion. This is something that my instructor did not do; and it ended up falling by the wayside as people got lazy, and as they didn’t get any feedback at all on their posts.

    I believe that Noah (of hyperfiction.org) may have used Web logs in an electronic writing class he taught, in a similar way to what you’re thinking. Perhaps you might contact him?

  2. Really interesting. It’s gotten me to thinking…

    I have not used blogs in my courses, but have used discussion boards through Blackboard. I’d provide a prompt and students would respond to it, but not usually at all to one another – it was frightening how much it could look like a classroom, with all the conversation filtered through the professor. So while I imagined it as a furthering of class discussion outside of the bounds of the classroom, it didn’t become discussion or conversation so much as it just got stuck in individual responses to a professor’s prompts. Interesting in theory, lousy in practice. I had abandoned it and wasn’t sure how to get back to it until reading this.

    Perhaps the reason it went poorly may have been to the lack of directed rhetorical “rules” for responses, or “moves” if we posit it as a game as George does in the link you’ve provided. These, I thought, were helpful and are especially good for a writing class when we’re teaching students rhetorical strategies. I also think they might provide useful directed strategies for responses for other classes, too, with some adaptations.

    I’m not sure about the “scoring” aspect of it, though. My hesitation might go to goals. What outcomes are we looking for from discussion – Are we looking for the students to generate a particular “type” of discussion? Are we looking for them to participate in and of itself? Are we interested in the content of their responses and evaluating their worth or are we interested in the rhetorical means through which they respond and evaluating them on those terms? Both?

    One issue for me is that I’m always somewhat reticent to grade class participation too heavily. Some people don’t speak too much, some way too much. Some add a lot to the discussion, some very little. Having class discussion be an end in and of itself, it seems to me, leads to students feeling that they have to talk but not necessarily bringing much of value to the conversation. They know their grade depends in part on how much they talk, not necessarily on what they add to the conversation. I’m less interested, usually, in participation than I’m interested in engagement – though they need not be mutually exclusive.

    Indeed, what does academic engagement look like? Does engagement mean that the student speaks in class – or online? Or can students be engaged and learning even if not talking? Again, it takes me back to our outcomes. It would depend on what it is we’re striving for as teachers. Ones that point to oral or written communication, for instance, might suggest that yes, we do want our students to be able to present themselves powerfully in how they speak in class – or through a blog.

    By the way, Kathleen, I’d say that your own blog has really kicked in recently. I like the way you’ve been using it as a tool to think your way into and about issues – I believe you said in one post that this was a goal of yours, to see if and how you could do so. From my perspective, it’s going well and thought I should tell you so. For me, this was like one of those few and far between valuable mentor group meetings back at that private institution to the East!

  3. I’m planning on introducing blogs to my freshman composition courses this fall. I’ve done discussion groups using Web Crossing, and I found that the best way to require students to communicate with each other was to require it. I often used the vague carrot (“responding to other students will be rewarded”), and quite often it worked well enough. I think it did help that studnets at Georgia Tech are usually adept at computers and often have a collective/collaborative spirit based on the difficulty and heavy work load of most of their courses.

    I’m still thinking about how to incorporate the blog into a composition course. I think I want to leave evaluation somewhat open to allow students alternative ways of constructing their online identities via blogging.

    I know that Jill Walker (on/in my blogroll) has had some success with using blogs in her classes, so that’s another useful source.

  4. Steve — thanks for the comments; as back in the day, your paths through these pedagogical thickets are always helpful. You’re absolutely right that the key variable in terms of evaluation — both of student engagement and of the class’s/the blog’s overall success — is goals. And that’s often the most elusive part of what administrators are these days referring to as “assessment”: being able to state clearly enough what it is we’re hoping for as an outcome such that we can evaluate whether or not we’ve gotten there. Assessment is the kind of thing that usually gives the Small Liberal Arts College (and especially the Humanist in the SLAC) hives; it smacks so much of the funding-driven, student-as-consumer, quantitative-standards approach to education that we (read: I) often stop listening as soon as the concept is raised. And yet it’s an enormous (if agonizing) part of what we do. Your questions about purpose and engagement get right to the heart of that conundrum: if we can be clear about the purpose, we ought to be able to clarify the evaluation. Right? (And oy. Those mentor meetings. Good to know this has been one of the valuable ones!)

    Chuck — thanks for your thoughts, too. I’ve used Web Crossings in previous semesters, to rousing complaints by my students, who despised the technology (which was, in the install we were working from, painfully slow and impossibly ugly) and felt it was an artificial overlay on the class structure. Fortunately, my IT folks have abandoned Web Crossings and are supporting MovableType use on campus, so the tech end of things should be much improved. I think the key is going to be making sure that the blog is well-integrated pedagogically, not simply into the class’s structure (my students will do what I require, but they’ll grouse about it nonstop) but also into its issues. Anyhow, I’ll hope to chat some with Jill about her experiences soon…

  5. I wasn’t teaching at the time that blogging was widespread enough to even consider using in a course (and of course St. John’s was not exactly a beehive of early-adopters of any technology, except perhaps for cell phones and so-overpowered-they-were-probably-liquid-nitrogen-cooled booming car stereo systems.

    However, as you’re thinking about how to implement — no so much technologically as structurally — I point out that the MeFi Guidelines — although perhaps most honored in the breach — are succinct and flexible. They imply some basic ideas about “why one posts” in their attempt to answer the question “how one posts.”

    Moreover, thinking about this pointed me to the structural simplicity of MeFi, which has resisted countless attempts to impose Slashdottish “karma” or other numeric rating systems upon conversation, in favor of self-policing through discussion itself,(supplemented by the oddly Expos-like concept of MetaTalk. but that double-layered model might be a poor one for a course-oriented blog).

    Anyway, my point is that there is something elegant in MeFi’s model, in which each thread must ideally justify itself in that it is about something (text or image) that lives elsewhere and can be directly pointed to; it invites discussion but doesn’t necessarily stage a bipolar argument (well, not *necessarily*); and it’s equally possible to enjoy the FPPs without getting lost in the thickets of thread-controversy, or to wander within those threads happily off the subject into interesting digression.

    And Matt’s strategy of calling out really interesting moments from recent discussions in the right-hand navigation strikes me as quite a good model for the presence of the instructor as (in the memorable rhyme of my 12-grade English teacher, Mrs. Gifford) the “Guide on the Side” as opposed to the “Sage on the Stage.”

    But you probably already thought of that.

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