Digital Writing Month: Blogging Basics and Beyond

Digital writing and composition can take so many forms and happen in so many different spaces. There are micro-spaces such as text messages and Twitter, where every character is meted out on a strict limit, and sometimes emojis and icon suffice for expression. At the other extreme there are platforms for book-length projects, such as PressBooks (about which more in an upcoming post). The full scope of “writing” and “texts” now embraces composition with media that includes images, audio, video, and other digitized materials. Digital writing can remain the province of the local individual, working within word processors and text editors, or it can be networked–composed, circulated, read, and replied to in digitally connected systems. The digital environment expands upon the already variegated profusion of literary genres and styles of discourse and rhetoric, creating new forms of writing, expression, and communication. Indeed, we struggle to keep up with everything that falls under the term “digital writing.”

But perhaps one modality of digital writing continues to be most definitive of the term, and that is blogging. Blogging may be the Swiss army knife of digital writing; the tools and practices of a blog allow for almost endless permutations of composition and voice. Do you want to write just for yourself, for a small group or class only, or for the whole world?  Do you want to write a couple of hundred words, or a journal-length essay? Do you want to invite comments, annotations, and other forms of audience response? Do you want to compose with words only, or incorporate multimedia, animations, graphs and maps, gifs, and the like? Do you want to write every day, or once a month? It’s all up to you…a blog can be what you want it to be, for personal and professional purposes and as part of your pedagogy.

We visited the realm of blogging in a couple of posts and workshops from last fall–“Got Blog? Getting Started With WordPress,” and “Incorporating Student Blogging into Your Course.” Now for Digital Writing Month, it seems a good time to revisit the topic, provide some updates, and continue conversation and demonstration about academic blogging for professional and pedagogical purposes. Our sessions this week will be as usual, on Tuesday at 4:30 and Friday at 1:30, in Abell 102. We hope you can join us at one of those times or participate via comments on this post. Depending upon who gathers for these sessions, we’ll move in whatever direction seems most helpful, whether that’s getting started with a WordPress site, looking at other blogging platforms like Medium, considering questions of site design, using blogging in your courses, or discussing how to improve your posts and build an audience.

Writing is first and foremost about claiming your voice. As I provide tutorials and support to faculty and students to set up their blogs, I usually mention that the most difficult part of blogging isn’t the technology. Getting comfortable with the dashboard and the widgets and all that comes fairly easily. No, the true challenge of blogging, as with any writing, is having something substantive and interesting to say, on a regular and consistent basis. A blog is the idea platform for finding your voice. And perhaps more often than not, you write not only to express your thoughts and ideas, but to discover them. And if others hear that voice and respond in kind, then genuine dialogue and conversation leads to yet further discoveries.

Thus, while a blog is the idea platform to find your voice, it may just be that the most powerful element of blogging is the chance to build a community of interest, readership, and conversation around the subjects that you care deeply about. So in our sessions this week we’d also like to showcase some blogs of Austin College faculty, staff, and students (at least those that I am aware of). At root, a college is a community that reads together, and that should certainly include reading (and therefore writing) for others in our community. Here’s are some examples of faculty, student, and organization blogs at Austin College that you might want to explore and follow:

 

Incorporating Student Blogging in Your Course

This week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Incorporating Student Blogging in Your Course,” will occur Tuesday, September 29, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, September 30 from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).

Is blogging really “key to the future of higher ed?” Even if you’re not prepared to go quite that far, you might see some value in helping students to write and work in a space on the web that facilitates peer interaction and the possibility of a broader and more authentic audience. The rationale for faculty blogging discussed in the previous post applies just as well to students…maybe even more so. As the college explores strategies to enhance student writing and digital communication skills, the encouragement of student blogging at Austin College could help create a wider and more visible culture of writing in our academic community.

I am aware of at least two AC faculty members who currently  include student blogging among course activities. Brett Boessen (media studies) has done so for a number of years; for example, see this description of blog assignments in his recent course, “Elements of Media Making.” And in “Student Blogging in PSYCH 101,” Ian MacFarlane reflects on his adoption of student blogging in that course:

Students are required to make an introductory post, which provides some background about themselves and their interests regarding the class, and to post a comment on a classmate’s blog. Over the remainder of the semester, students are responsible for posting seven more times on their own blog and seven more comments on their classmates’ blogs. Every Monday, I post two prompts related to the content we either have just covered or will cover the coming week (for an example see here; for the complete series of prompts, see here), so there are always options for students.

Ian considers the practice “moderately successful” so far and notes, “While I continue to work on ways to get students to be more engaged with each other, I’m also working on generating traffic to their blogs from people outside of the class to provide students a wider forum to discuss their ideas.”

The chance to give students “a wider forum to discuss their ideas” strikes me as a really worthwhile goal. Derek Bruff, mathematics instructor and director of the center for teaching excellence at Vanderbilt, gives a compelling account of the value of publishing student writing on a course blog:

Last fall , for my first-year writing seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography, I posted my students’ expository-writing essays on our course blog. The assignment had asked students to describe a particular code or cipher that we had not already discussed—how it came to be, how it works, how to crack it, who used it. They described more than a dozen codes and ciphers. It seemed a shame that I might be the only one to read such interesting content, so I asked the students to read and comment on two papers of their peers. The course blog provided an ideal platform for that task.

About a week later, one of my students arrived at class excited. He had Googled his paper’s topic (the “Great Paris Cipher”) and saw that his paper was the third result listed. He said, with a little trepidation, “Some high-school student is going to cite my paper!” Another student asked if I had seen the lengthy comment left on his blog post by a cryptography researcher he had cited. “That’s pretty cool that the guy in my footnotes read my paper,” he said….

Developing a successful course blogging practice requires a willingness to experiment with, reflect upon, and revise one’s course design. Mark Sample, director of the digital studies program at Davidson College, has been chronicling his ongoing pedagogical experience with student blogs and public writing at the ProfHacker blog, and describes a threefold framework for thinking about blogging assignments in terms of the overall structure of the blog, the rhythm of postings, and the use of different student roles.

I’ve tried two overall structures:

A hub-and-spoke model, in which every student sets up his or her own blog, and I aggregate their postings on the main class blog.

A centralized class blog, in which all the students have accounts on the same blog, and their posts and comments all show up in the same place.

I’ve experimented with different rhythms:

The free-for-all model, in which students simply must post 10 (or some other number) of blog posts by the end of the semester.

The checkpoint model, in which students must post a specified number of posts by particular checkpoints spread throughout the semester.

The weekly model, in which all students (or, if using roles, a subset of students) must post every week.

Finally, I’ve increasingly relied on assigned roles, so that not every student is posting at the same time, and furthermore, so that each group of students has a specific task for that week. For example, most recently I divided a class of 25 students into four groups, rotating week-to-week from one role to the next:

first readers–these students are responsible for posting initial questions and insights about the day’s material to the class blog the day before class meets.

respondents–students in this group build upon, disagree with, or clarify the first readers’ posts by the next class meeting.

searchers–students in this group find and share at least one relevant online resource. In addition to linking to the resource, the searchers provide a short evaluation of the resource, highlighting what makes it worthwhile, unusual, or, if appropriate, problematic.

the fourth group has the week off in terms of blogging.

As you can see, there are many possibilities and approaches to incorporating student blogging in your course. So join us for more conversation and demonstration at this week’s workshop.

Curated Resources:

Got Blog? Getting Started with WordPress

wp1This week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Got Blog? Getting Started with WordPress,” will occur Tuesday, September 22, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, September 23 from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).

We all know what a blog is, right? You’re reading one now. Have you thought about starting a blog of your own, but aren’t quite sure where to begin? Come join us for some conversation and demonstration this week about academic blogging and the WordPress platform.

We’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of getting up and running on WordPress, but that’s the easy part of the equation. What requires more thought and consideration is answering the questions, “Why blog?” “What is my purpose?” What are my objectives?” “Who is the audience?” “Do I have something to say?” There are at least a dozen or so colleagues here at Austin College who blog or have blogged with some degree of frequency. And no doubt you read blogs from people in your field and beyond. So one learns by observing that blogging can take many forms and serve diverse purposes. Still, only you can determine whether and how blogging and other forms of online digital academic activity will fit into your larger set of practices for research, teaching, and learning.

I do think that establishing a significant scholarly presence on the open web can be a game-changer for an academic. Traditionally, scholarly work only became public through, well, “publication,” that is, the dissemination of the finished product of a process of investigation, research, and reflection. But now that the process of knowledge production can take place in an open and connected environment, we are more and more discovering the benefits of thinking and writing “out loud” and of “open peer review.” Blogging can be one vehicle by which we make our thinking visible to ourselves and others, not as a finished product, but as something that is still and always probing and provisional, searching and reaching toward greater clarity, insight, and comprehension. By opening our thought to public dialogue and conversation, we create the very conditions by which our ideas can be refined, our understanding deepened, and our expression made more eloquent.

In his post “Who is this for?,” Gardner Campbell (@GardnerCampbell), professor of English and vice provost for learning innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University, reflects on blogging as part of the practice of “observable work“:

I began blogging by understanding that this was my blog, so it was for me, but the work I do for me has the potential to be of interest to others as well. I knew that without being able to explain it, largely because my experience of reading other bloggers had made that impression on me. This is his blog, or her blog, and they write out of their own experience, narrating their work, wondering aloud, bringing things to light the way a good late-night conversation will….

[F]or a scholar to commit to trying to work things out for himself or herself in public in this way can be very daunting. My longing for connection finally overcame my fear of humiliation, though that’s a constant struggle. More to the point, I discovered very quickly that working things out for myself in this way, with the fresh provisionality of the thinking still clinging to the thoughts, had the magical property of bringing other people who were doing the same thing into a distributed conversation that took on a life of its own far beyond anything I could have imagined.

I don’t try to work everything out here. I recognize the difference between personal and private, and I need that difference to exist. But to a greater extent than I had ever dreamed, working things out for myself with a questing, probing, sometimes halting voice brought me to a community where collegial inquiry and most of all connected learning became the norm, not the exception. Something like what I’d always thought a university could be.

Blogging can be part of a broader approach to academic work known as “open notebook scholarship.” Historian Caleb McDaniel (@wcaleb) asks, “What would happen if scholars worked to make every part of their research process more public, not only at the point of final publication, but at every point along the way?” In his blog post, “Open Notebook History,” McDaniel explains his rationale for conducting research on open platforms:

Open-source blogging platforms, curation tools, bibliographic software, and micro-blogging platforms enable historians to easily share information about our research as it happens. As Chad Black noted a few years ago, “we now have the possibility to construct and curate our research materials and process archives, what I call … the ‘Papers of You,’ in real time, and make it immediately available to those without the resources to gain access to our eclectic collections.”

The advantages of such a practice have already been well-articulated by the proponents of something called Open Notebook Science, a movement that recently received positive attention in the prominent journal Nature. Open Notebook Science (ONS) is the practice of putting one’s entire lab notebook online, so that other researchers have access not just to a scientist’s publications, but to the underlying data, methods, and experimental results that drive research projects forward.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about how blogging might fit into your professional practice. Join us this week to follow up and learn more.

Curated resources:

Student Blogging in PSYCH 101

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General Psychology (PSY 101) is a fun but difficult course to teach. As with most introductory courses, there is so much material to cover that you never get to present everything you’d like. I’ve incorporated weekly online discussions into my 101 courses since I began teaching them, with several objectives:

  • to get students to engage with content that I don’t have time to lecture about;
  • to expand on topics we discuss in class;
  • to provide a low-stakes opportunity to practice their writing; and
  • to get students who aren’t comfortable talking in class to share their perspectives with their classmates.

I originally used Moodle’s forum feature for a variety of reasons, including convenience, fears about the technical expertise required for other options, privacy concerns, and control over content. In my first semester at AC, an informal midterm evaluation revealed that 25% of the class considered the online discussions to be the worst part of the course, while only one student thought it was the best. I made a few small changes for the two sections of 101 I taught the following semester, but the midterm evaluation feedback was even worse, with 51% listing it as the worst aspect of class. The students largely perceived it as busy work because it didn’t directly correlate to material on exams.

After getting feedback from students about how they would improve the process, I decided to decrease the frequency of the assignments, increase the length of responses, offer choices in writing prompts, and select the topics myself. Around this same time I had several informal conversations with Brett Boessen about how he incorporates blogging into his courses. I figured if I was making changes, why not really try something brand new?

Now, on the first day of class, I explain the blogging assignments to my students and show them how to set up an account on WordPress.com. To reduce anxiety about the proper configuration of account settings, I created screencast videos (available here) to show students how to add me as an administrator to their blog, how to follow their classmates’ blogs, and how to manage their privacy settings (students have the option of making their blog public or open only to their classmates). Only a few students have needed help getting their blogs up and running, which has made the process much less hectic than I originally feared.

Students are required to make an introductory post, which provides some background about themselves and their interests regarding the class, and to post a comment on a classmate’s blog. Over the remainder of the semester, students are responsible for posting seven more times on their own blog and seven more comments on their classmates’ blogs. Every Monday, I post two prompts related to the content we either have just covered or will cover the coming week (for an example see here; for the complete series of prompts, see here), so there are always options for students.

The switch has been a moderate success in my eyes, both in terms of student response and my own impressions. The midterm evaluation comments this past year have been more positive. There were still a number of students who listed the blogs as their least favorite aspect of the class, but the comments were less negative (i.e., words like “annoyed” were used in place of “hate” and “despise”). Requiring longer responses is getting students to be somewhat more reflective and gives me a larger sample of their writing to give feedback on. The reduced number of submissions is also making the grading load more manageable.

One area that hasn’t improved like I’d hoped is the degree of interaction among students. While the posted comments are often a bit more thoughtful, extended conversations have been quite rare. While I continue to work on ways to get students to be more engaged with each other, I’m also working on generating traffic to their blogs from people outside of the class to provide students a wider forum to discuss their ideas. I’m contemplating partnering with 101 classes at other institutions to set up something like “pen pals,” though this idea isn’t fully formed yet and I’ll have to think about how to best make something like that work.

ICYMI: Professional Development Blogging

ICYMI – In Case You Missed It – Lee Skallerup Bessette did a nice rollup of professional development blogs by academics in The Chronicle‘s Prof.Hacker column last week.  There are probably one or more blogs linked there that would be helpful to you as you think about pedagogy (digital or otherwise).  Check it out.

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