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:


Digital Writing Month, Week One: Collaborative Writing and Editing with Google Docs

A few years ago, the folks at Hybrid Pedagogy announced a project to make November “Digital Writing Month,” a thirty-day challenge to explore the promises and potentialities of “digital” writing. According to Sean Michael Morris,

The event is designed to give writers from all over the world the opportunity to experiment and play with, and explore digital writing. We begin with the premise that digital writing is essentially different from traditional writing — especially in that it is not always text. “Digital writing is emergent writing. It mutinies at the imposition of form, the edicts of the grammars of old. It rails to change the rules. It raises the flag of anarchy.” As such, invention is the singularly most important ingredient for a rambunctious DigiWriMo project… invention, ambition, and fearlessness. The point is creation; the method to the madness is up to you.

For a couple of years, the event was structured around an online community (hashtag #DigiWriMo) with weekly prompts, twitter chats, and activities designed to help people set goals and commit to mutual support in meeting those goals. The 2015 announcement observed that

DigiWriMo can be about motivating ourselves to simply write more, blog more often, finish that book, revamp that website; it can be about starting new projects: launch that podcast, create a new Twitter hashtag; it can be about questioning our notions of writing and voice and their place on our lives; or it can be about trying new things – experimenting with different art forms – doing old things in new ways. It’s about pushing boundaries and tiptoeing beyond comfort zones – mixing it up, remixing – doing whatever feels or seems right to you at this time in your life.

The Hybrid Pedagogy editors have decided to step back from the project this year, but many folks are continuing with the idea on their own, in a kind of self organizing movement. So, this month Austin College digital pedagogy is taking up the challenge with a series of workshops on topics and issue in digital writing. This week we’ll start with some basics. Our session, “Collaborative Writing and Editing with Google Docs,” will explore uses of Google Docs for both personal composition and for group authoring and editing projects. Even if you’re already a user of Google Docs, chances are that there are features that you haven’t discovered that might be worth learning about. And we’ll be particularly focused on how you might use Google Docs for class assignments and exercises.

In his essay, “Co-Writing, Peer Editing, and Publishing in the Cloud” (part of the collection Web Writing. Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning), Jack Dougherty of Trinity College describes his discovery of Google Docs as a pedagogical tool:

Long before the web, innovative faculty began teaching collaborative writing techniques as a challenge to the tradition of solitary authoring. The transition from typewriters to word processors made this technique easier to teach, as students could independently author text and assign one team member to merge it into one document, or collaborate on writing one document by passing it back and forth….

But the writing tool that dropped my jaw—and reawakened the pedagogical side of my brain— was Google Documents, which enabled multiple users to edit the same web document and view collaborators as they typed changes in real time, in contrast to the delayed view of editing in wikis. Looking back to May of 2009, I originally understood that users could upload and share files on Google Docs but did not fully grasp its multi-authoring features until 2010 at my first THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), where session organizers shared links to Google Documents for multiple participants to simultaneously share notes…

Five years after the public release of Google Docs, educators continue to invent new ways of incorporating this writing tool into their liberal arts classrooms, building on a shared sense of community to enhance learning. Some focus on creating one collaborative document by multiple authors, such as when two or more people co-write an essay or pool together their notes. Others use Google Docs to highlight variations of the same text by different authors, such as Brandon Walsh’s “Writing Out Loud” activity. While writers usually try out alternate versions of a sentence in the privacy of our own minds or our notebooks, Walsh models how to make this editing process more visible and tangible for the entire class.

So if you are interested in learning more about Google Docs, join us this week for conversation and demonstration–Tuesday at 4:30 pm or Friday at 1:30 in Abell 102.

Further Resources:

Digital Reading in the Liberal Arts–Deep or Distracted?

chrome-extension-reading-thumbWe hope to do several followups to our previous post on Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, diving into the details of individual essays and exploring the implications for digital pedagogy at Austin College. Web writing is, of course, intimately related to web reading, that is, reading on digital screens in a networked environment. As the texts we read increasingly migrate to and originate in digital formats, concerns have been raised about the effects on our reading habits and comprehension. Can the liberal arts ideal of “close” or “deep” reading of complex long-form texts be maintained? There is extensive literature and debate on the topic, but here I’ll just draw attention to a couple of recent points of reflection.

First is this article, “Distracted Reading in the Digital Age,” which reports on conversations at Vassar College around the topic of reading practices and digital texts. Faculty forums and discussions have led to observations about shifting student reading practices and in particular the struggles of students to read intricate texts that require sustained focus and attentiveness. Some professors suspect that “hyper-digital culture” and the lure of frequent interruptions and multitasking is making it more difficult for students to concentrate and read effectively. For example, in one forum colleagues in history and English comment that

Since both of us teach rich, dense historical materials that require long stretches of concentration, we began to wonder whether the students’ unresponsiveness to assigned reading was just coincidence—classes have personalities—or whether we were witnessing some larger shift in the reading habits of our undergraduates, perhaps one brought on by their digital habits.

Faculty have been led to reflect more intentionally on the implications for teaching and learning: if student reading habits and competencies are shifting, how must pedagogies be adapted and realigned? What new strategies are needed to encourage active and effective reading of challenging texts? The article describes several responses to the situation, and suggests that there are ways of using the very technologies seen as “distracting” to actually increase student engagement with texts. One strategy for doing so is “digital annotation,” a theme that we have visited before on this blog. Classics professor Bert Lott describes using the digital annotation platform Annotation Studio in his classes:

“I require students to examine the text before and after class,” says Lott. “They write annotations about grammar, syntax, and lexicography and compose interpretive comments. Strands of conversation emerge between students as they do it.” Lott says there are many benefits of this approach, in addition to encouraging students to more deeply examine the text. “Having students write down their grammar questions carefully and ask them before class adds elements of the ‘flipped classroom,’ ” he says. “It allows us to get those technical questions answered outside of class, so the expectations for what they know in class are higher. It allows them to formulate their thoughts better and to participate more fully in class discussion because they have thought through some of their ideas beforehand.

Lott goes on to make some more general observations about how professors should approach reading and technology:

Seeing what such technologies can bring to the classroom, Lott says he’s “not entirely sympathetic to the notion that distracted reading and devices are wholly bad, that our job should be to protect the classroom as a space for only the old kind of reading. It’s much more complex than that.” “I think this is going to be the way in which students are going to engage and get information. Technologically enhanced reading can have huge benefits to education and scholarship. We’re just not sure what they are or we’re not entirely convinced of them yet,” he says. “This is one way for my students and me to practice what it means to read texts in the form they will undoubtedly read them as their lives move on.”

The theme of attentiveness and reading is also taken up in a recent presentation by Alan Jacobs of Baylor University entitled “The Attentive Reader.”  Jacobs is a distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor and a leading voice on textuality and technology. His Text Patterns blog at the New Atlantis is a valuable resource on this topic; he is also the author of, among other books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Building upon Katherine Hayles’s distinction of hyper attention and deep attention, Jacobs proposes that any serious analysis of how we read must take into account distinctive modes and environments of attention and the various technologies that operate within them. Modes of attention take in relatively more or less of the ambient environment. All modes of attention are contextually valuable; for example, when driving a car it is better to be hyper-attentive, continually scanning a wide range of stimuli and phenomena, than to be narrowly focused on only one sensory input. Managing a digital life of frequent notifications and task-switching is also a form of hyper-attentiveness. Yet it remains incumbent for liberal arts colleges “to be distinctly hospitable to focused attention,” which they can only do “if they become more thoughtfully intentional about environments and devices.”

Jacobs has also promoted annotation and commentary as a positive affordance of digital technologies and a means of prompting greater attentiveness to and engagement with texts. Among his “79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation,” he proposes that

  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative.

In other words, the digitization and networking of texts is good because it invites greater levels of commentary and annotation on those texts (“deep reading”), which is at the same time, for Jacobs, the preferred form for learning how to write well. Taking up the challenge of the disputatio, Andrew Piper of McGill University further elaborates the pedagogical implications of the “annotated web:”

There is a vibrant movement afoot to remake the web as a massive space of commentary. The annotated web, as it’s called, has the aim of transforming our writing spaces from linked planes to layered marginalia ….

Missing from these models is pedagogy. The annotated web gives us one example of how to remake the technology of writing to better accommodate responsiveness. It’s a profound first step, one that will by no means be universally embraced (which should give us some idea of how significant it is).

But we do not yet have a way of teaching this to new (or old) writers. Follow the curricular pathways from the lockered hallways of elementary school to the bleak cubicles of higher education and you will still see the blank piece of paper or its electronic double as the primary writing surface. The self-containment of expression is everywhere. It is no wonder that these writers fail to comment well.

It’s all well and good to say commentary is back. It’s another to truly re-imagine how a second grader or college student learns to write. What if we taught commentary instead of expression, not just for beginning writers, but right on through university and the PhD? What if we trained people to build and create in the annotated web instead of on pristine planes of remediated paper? Now that would be different.

Whether or not one is in full agreement that commentary is “the central scholarly genre,” the discussion raises intriguing questions and opportunities for reflection about digital textuality. Do you have observations from the classroom about student reading and writing in the digital age? Let us know your comments.

Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning

WebWritingCoverUMich2015-02One of the richest resources for digital pedagogy that we have seen recently is the new book, Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. The book is a collection of twenty essays that “explore why online writing matters for liberal arts learning and illustrates how different faculty teach with web-based tools for authoring, annotating, peer editing, and publishing.” Originating in a faculty initiative at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Trinity College (Connecticut), Web Writing, edited by Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell, was published by the University of Michigan Press in March 2015 as an “open-access” text that can be read for free online (a print edition is forthcoming, as well). The essays represent a broad range of scholarly disciplines, but are all grounded in the classroom experiences of liberal arts teachers:  “The richness of the book is that it represents authors from 15 colleges across the liberal arts curriculum who demonstrate how they use writing in disciplines like biology, history and sociology and across platforms to improve student motivation and learning.”

As the Introduction to the collection explains, the project was conceived as a conversation among liberal arts faculty who actively engage with writing in their classrooms in multiple disciplines but need guidance on ways that web-based tools can contribute to our educational missions:

Web Writing seeks to bridge philosophical and practical questions that arise from the experiences of liberal arts educators who have stepped into the digital realm. What are the most—and least—compelling reasons for why we should integrate web writing into our curriculum? Which tools and teaching methods deepen—rather than distract from—thoughtful learning? How does student engagement and sense of community evolve when we share our drafts and commentary on the public web? To what extent does writing on the web enable our students to cross over divisive boundaries, and what new challenges does it create? The book’s subtitle signals our desire to blend “why” questions with examples of “how” it can be done, presented in both print and digital formats.

Whether in persuasive essays, scientific reports, or creative expression, all academic disciplines value clear and compelling prose. The act of writing visually demonstrates our thought processes: how we respond to ideas that challenge our own thinking, consider alternative perspectives or counter-evidence, and create entirely new points of view. As college educators, we recognize that our students become more engaged in the writing process when they draft, share, and respond to writing with a community of peer readers who encourage and challenge them to revise muddled first drafts into more polished, thoughtful essays. Moreover, we now realize how a new generation of web-based writing tools—including wikis, Google Documents, WordPress, and others—can transform how our students author, edit, publish, and comment on texts in ways that advance, rather than distract from, our liberal arts mission. But exactly how college educators can make use of these tools in our classrooms is not simple, and requires both time and support from our institutions. Our motivation behind this book is to offer faculty a wide range of web-based writing examples across the liberal arts, to help all of us to rethink our current approaches and inspire us to innovate with our own students.

A perusal of the table of contents reflects the breadth of the topics addressed and their grouping under four category headings:

table of contents

The project practices what it preaches–the essays were composed and revised in an open space on the web that invited public feedback and suggestions for revision. You can read about the process in the Chronicle article “Call for Open Peer Review: Web Writing.” The WordPress plugin CommentPress facilitated this method of composition. In fact, you can still read the original drafts of the essays, along with comments, to get a sense of how reader response and feedback helped to shape the revisions of the texts.  The results of this experiment were transformative for the authors:

As educators, our compelling reason for constructing this book online is because that’s exactly what we ask our students to do when we assign them to share their writing with us and other readers. Every educator who requires students to post their words on a course learning management system (such as Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) or the open web should try the same experience by uploading their own writing for feedback from peers and the public. For many of us, our first experiences in publicly circulating drafts was equally terrifying and exhilarating. The process opened our eyes to how our writing changes when engaging with a broader audience, particularly one that talks back through comments that suggest new connections and sharpen our thinking. We hope that Web Writing will encourage more faculty to author and comment online, and that these experiences will transfer into richer forms of teaching and learning in their classrooms.

And now, even though the essays have been published in “final” form, the text continues to invite commentary, discussion, and annotation. A newly developing “open annotation” tool known as is being used as a platform for continued conversation and dialogue. I’ll have another post up soon to introduce more fully, but for now, if you’re interested in experimenting with it, there’s a helpful tutorial by Greg McVerry in this post, “Three Tools to Annotate the Web.” The project also offers many appropriate examples of “collaborative open spaces” on the web that I spoke about in a previous post.

One of the initiatives being developed at Austin College involves “Written Communication Skills.” The charge of this project is that “Austin College will develop signature opportunities to enhance writing and other communication skills through curricular and co-curricular programming. By 2020, every graduating student will be able to demonstrate achievement and improvement in these areas.” Perhaps Web Writing is one resource that we could use to generate conversations and ideas to move us forward in this endeavor. Maybe it could be a choice for a faculty reading discussion group next year? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Draftback and Writing Visualization

FiveThirtyEight points to a neat little Chrome extension called Draftback that can “play back” any document composed in Google Docs.  As the author indicates, it does this by treating your writing as data, with each individual character entry or deletion (which are already tracked by Docs) being sequenced and played back by Draftback.

This could be a useful way to help students visualize the process of their writing.  What about a workshop session like this?

  • Students write drafts of their essays in Google Docs.
  • They share them with a partner or small group (or the professor) before class.
  • Their group watches each draftback animation and notes places where the author made specific structural, thematic, or grammatical choices that contributed significantly to the current draft, as well as speculate about other directions the draft could have taken if different choices had been made.
  • Then in class, groups conduct a mini-workshop with each essay, drawing on the specifics of the draftback animation for details in their constructive criticism.

This approach could help students understand more concretely the nature of writing as process in addition to product, which is something students often struggle with but that can help immensely in both improving their writing and increasing their confidence in their own writing ability.