BLOGTALK Paper (an excerpt and in full): Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom

In case anyone is interested in reading my thoughts on blogging in the liberal arts classroom, here’s the BLOGTALK paper.

Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom

Abstract:
Undergraduate students in a group-blogging literature seminar epitomize the writings of Pierre Lévy on collective intelligence (1997) and Stephen Johnson on emergence (2001) through the formation of a strong, resilient learning collaborative in which multi-media work naturally blends into research, personal reflection deepens scholarly insights, and the students see themselves as crucial participants in their education. This paper will demonstrate how students become the course, using the interface as a way to “take over” as their own teachers, creating an “Other” of the teacher in a unique synthesis of online and face-to-face work; they narrate a different course than expected and, if as Roland Barthes notes that “narrative is a hierarchy of instances,” the students’ narratives in this course suggest that they are indeed evacuating—challenging—even these post-modern categories.

Download the full paper


Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom
Barbara Ganley, Lecturer, Writing Program and English, Middlebury College

Abstract

Undergraduate students in a group-blogging literature seminar epitomize the writings of Pierre Lévy on collective intelligence (1997) and Stephen Johnson on emergence (2001) through the formation of a strong, resilient learning collaborative in which multi-media work naturally blends into research, personal reflection deepens scholarly insights, and the students see themselves as crucial participants in their education. This paper will demonstrate how students become the course, using the interface as a way to “take over” as their own teachers, creating an “Other” of the teacher in a unique synthesis of online and face-to-face work; they narrate a different course than expected and, if as Roland Barthes notes that “narrative is a hierarchy of instances,” the students’ narratives in this course suggest that they are indeed evacuating—challenging—even these post-modern categories.

1. Introduction: Blogging in America

Carol V. Hamilton observes the following about contemporary America: “We live in a culture in which the ultimate validation of personal achievement is to appear on television” (Hamilton, 2004,12). We are entranced by the talk show and reality television as vehicles for our notoriety; as we seek attention, we also crave connection as we move into “a post-literate, hyperreal world, [where] those accretions of historical time and psychological reflection that produce subjectivity tend to disperse before they constitute a deep, coherent self (Hamilton, 2004, 10-11). If the recent explosion of weblogs onto the American scene, as evidenced by the Howard Dean 2004 presidential campaign, proliferating CEO and journalist weblogs, and The New York Times coverage of blogging in the classroom (8/19/04) are any indication, if we cannot be on television, then we can at least be on the Web. Indeed, Americans are jumping on the blogwagon, self-publishing and self-promoting via the Web’s user-friendly but safely distant bully pulpit; weblogs allow us to invite the world into our private spaces, but on our terms: we are on display while in control of what we publish, of who we appear to be while connecting to virtual communities through comments, trackbacks and RSS feeds. The weblog medium’s very fluidity, its mutability, aptly mirrors and privileges the shifting face of culture and community, offering educators a unique opportunity to engage their students in a dynamic learning environment in which they are at once the actor and the reflector, the commentator and the instigator.

Even the ultra traditional Academy is on the brink of embracing weblogs, with such pre-eminent universities as Harvard and Stanford offering campus-wide blogging opportunities.
But American liberal arts institutions and educators hesitate to adopt this restless medium. Although computer technology and internet usage permeate virtually every sector of higher education, social software does not. Perhaps the reluctance to use weblogs originates in the academic resisting American popular culture’s worship of the fast, the new, the easy. Where educators promote the thoughtful and the measured, the deep investigation and response, blogging honors the impulsive, the careless, the superficial—anything goes: what matters is that you get a place to say whatever you like in public. Bloggers subvert higher education’s lofty aims with their disregard for tradition and protocol, hierarchy and even intellectual property. And worse yet, bloggers often write about their chosen medium with such unabashed enthusiasm, that there hovers about the blogging world the scent of the zealot’s evangelism, as though if everyone just got with it and blogged whatever it is they want to blog, the world would be a better place.

And so it follows logically that where weblogs are being employed in college classrooms, their use is often limited to more efficient or convenient forms of classroom structures already in place: student journaling spaces intended to be freewheeling and informal opportunities to generate ideas, and flexible course management tools to disseminate knowledge, to collect student work, and to hold asynchronous discussions related to course content. They have replaced paper to hold what paper has always held and to do it in much the same way, only faster. In liberal arts institutions, whatever acceptance weblogs have achieved has primarily been as receptacles of information and as accelerators of inquiry.

Herein lies the problem. The world has changed; the classroom has not. We ignore the fact that “the process of the emergence of the human species is not over. In fact it seems to be sharply accelerating” (Lévy 1997, xxiv). Our students, as native inhabitants of cyberspace, take for granted what teachers may yet have to learn: the astounding possibilities for creative and collaborative endeavors facilitated by the Web. We even ignore research suggesting that learning is “essentially a social activity” (Hamada and Scott, 2001, 1). Indeed, as James Duderstadt observes:

The traditional classroom paradigm is also being challenged, not so much by the faculty, who have by and large optimized their teaching effort and their time commitments to a lecture format, but by students. Members of today’s digital generation of students have spent their early lives immersed in robust, visual, electronic media–home computers, video games, cyberspace networks, and virtual reality. They expect–indeed, demand–interaction, approaching learning as a ‘plug-and-play’ experience; they are unaccustomed and unwilling to learn sequentially–to read the manual–and instead are inclined to plunge in and learn through participation and experimentation…They learn in a nonlinear fashion, skipping from beginning to end and then back again, and building peer groups of learners, developing sophisticated learning networks in cyberspace. In a very real sense, they build their own learning environments that enable interactive, collaborative learning, whether we recognize and accommodate this or not.”
(Duderstadt, 2003, 42-43)

If we allow computers and the Web into our classrooms to aid our quest for knowledge, as indeed we do, it follows that we should have some understanding of the full range of the tools as they affect our students in their intellectual, moral and social development. We need to awaken to the fact that we, as the dynamic users, create the context in which the technology mediates our communication, scholarship and art. If in the world beyond our schools, “we are increasingly seeing social software being used for the development of voluntary, bottom-up social networks around the common interest of the locality,” (Randle, 2004 1), our classrooms, too, might well be enhanced through our consideration of them as localized learning networks benefiting from the potential of the Web and software that facilitates nonlinear learning and communication.

Bringing social software into the classroom requires us to view our classrooms as communities interconnected directly as well as indirectly with multiple communities beyond our walls. Giving our students opportunities to explore the Web, which is “more complex, unpredictable and dynamic than any novel that could have been written by a single human writer” (Manovich, 2003, 15), means we need to understand what it means to be on the Web, of the Web, “a hybrid form of communication in which words instantiate and inform images as well as the reverse” (Bolter, 2003, 26). We need to examine the relationships between being in situ at a residential liberal arts college where classroom meetings are viewed as an essential part of the learning process, and having access to the wider world and to one another virtually. How must we re-see and re-situate our relationships within the classroom, teacher and student, student and student? How do we use those communities of practice and their intersections to further the goals of education? How can we see technology as a means for ourselves and our students to understand our condition more deeply and comprehensively?

What many educators miss in their use of computer technology is that “the most profoundly transformative potential of connecting human social proclivities to the efficiency of information technologies is the chance to do new things together, the potential for cooperating on scales and in ways never before possible” (Rheingold, 2002, 114). In the classroom this reality has profound ramifications for us as teachers as well as for our students. We have at our means a way to “develop new ways of thinking and negotiating engendered by the growth of genuine forms of collective intelligence…intellectual technologies are not just another branch of contemporary anthropological change, they are a potential critical zone” (Lévy, 1999, xxiv) as we prepare our students for the challenges and demands of this rapidly shifting world. Rather than seeing classroom use of communication technologies limited to a means of connecting us with knowledge already produced, we must seek ways to give our students rich and varied opportunities to make and share the knowledge as they participate in fluidly forming and reforming communities both in and out of the classroom. With the help of social software, we have the ability to create varied learning environments in which our learners are responsible to the community, and our pedagogy is aimed at experimentation and real-world situations, efficacy-in-action, integration of processes and content. Weblogs, because of their flexibility, their public nature and their rich linking structure, can be a powerful tool in our pursuit of such a classroom. They allow us to visualize learning, contextualize course content, encourage meta-reflective practices, and practice collaboration. Weblogs ask us not to behave as though they “have been composed for the medium of print and then repurposed for the Web, still meant to be read from beginning to end” (Bolter, 2003, 20) but as an entirely new way to write (Vila, 2004, 1).

It must be emphasized that weblogs are by no means the only tools we have to further these educational goals, and in and of themselves accomplish little (Wrede, 2003, 2). It is how we use any tool that makes the difference; it is how we teachers ask the question: “How can new media allow us to experience the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience in new ways, thus enriching our lives—for this, this is the real challenge lying before us” (Manovich, 2002, ). The weblog is not a panacea for the ills plaguing higher education, nor, however, is it the wolf in sheep’s clothing waiting to devour us. It is, as will be shown, a powerful aid in our attempt to further the mission of liberal arts’ institutions which are designed “to enable students to lead rewarding lives of ongoing intellectual and spiritual growth and to prepare them to meet the challenges of responsible citizenship in a complex, changing world” (Middlebury College, 2003, 10). It is precisely during these four years of skill consolidation and intellectual maturing within the safe space of our classrooms that we ought to be challenging our students’ preconceived notions of the world and its processes while we engage them in meaningful work.

This paper, in looking closely at one humanities classroom’s integration of weblogs into the course design, will demonstrate how social software can play a valuable role in undergraduate liberal arts classrooms as facilitators of deep learning when we capitalize on their capacity for connecting our students to their learning processes, to their classroom communities, and to the world beyond our walls. The students change the course as they are changed by it; the teacher is likewise transformed as she assumes her role as the Socratic mentor-expert. The integrated use of weblogs in a literature/writing classroom at Middlebury College has facilitated the emergence of a dynamic, resilient learning collaborative that through producing knowledge in collaboration and reflecting on that work as individuals exemplifies efficacy in action, emergence theory at work, as well as meeting the highest standards of traditional academic excellence while exploring new definitions of viable academic discourse.

2. The Reluctant Evangelist: A Teacher Comes to Blogging

A lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, I have degrees in art history and literature; I have no formal background in rhetoric and composition, in education theory, in communications, in media studies, in cyber studies or in technology. I teach such courses as Contemporary Ireland Through Fiction and Film, Introduction to Creative Writing, Writing Across the Arts, and The Writing Process. I am a successful, competent classroom teacher of many years, comfortable in her liberal arts setting and confident in her course content. Until I brought weblogs into my classrooms, I was also a reluctant user of technology. I was under the impression that technology would serve as a distracter, a shiny and compelling tool that seduced students into mistaking superficial research and handsome-looking essays for deep, sustained inquiry.

What could possibly possess me to consider incorporating weblogs into classrooms that are already productive? In a word: students. Described elsewhere in some detail (Ganley et al, 2002, 9), I have observed a growing cultural divide within my students who, on the surface, appear unchanged in profile over the years: Middlebury students are almost without exception affable, hardworking, and highly accomplished. They are eager to please and eager to succeed. They come to class prepared to perform: to listen, absorb, discuss, produce what they have learned. In many ways, they are ideal students.

However, I have noticed an unsettling trend: just as the world outside our doors is becoming increasingly volatile, the work of my students is becoming more predictable—not less accomplished, just comfortably, dutifully competent, as if they sit in boxes to think in boxes, boxes equipped with a set of clear instructions to follow and with direct lifelines to the teacher. They rarely make an unchoreographed move. Yet outside the classroom, these same young people are engaging in the “dynamic staccato dance” of Instant Messenger interaction and its playful, emergent vocabulary and grammar; they are experimenting with images and video and sound files within their own personal computing spaces (Ganley et al, 2002, 9). On the one hand, they crave clear parameters and easy-to follow rules on the road to the all-important academic success; on the other hand, they are cobbling together inventive pastiches made-as-they-go with cell phones, digital cameras, mp3 players. They are connecting with the world and one another; indeed, if “the aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology,” (McLuhan, 1964, 5), they are seeking it online and out of class.

Whereas their out-of-class actions are efficacious, having an impact on their immediate environment, their actions inside the classroom remain performances for the teacher, for evaluation, cheerfully undertaken because that is, after all, what one does in a classroom: listen to the teachers. But what do they really take from these classes? What do they retain months and years after the experience? In focusing their gaze on the teacher, they often do not know one another’s names: the word community to describe the grouping of individuals within the classroom is becoming a misnomer. But is it not too easy to blame the students and their machines? After all, has not school taught them to train their eyes on us, the experts, the authorities, more than on themselves and one another and what they are trying to learn? They are behaving themselves impeccably, as directed. And year by year, with each successive class, the chasm within them widens. They inhabit discreet, parallel worlds kept quite separate from one another. Am I unwittingly encouraging my students to adopt split personae a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Am I contributing to a new kind of digital, cultural divide? (Thorne, 2003, 2; Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, 1) How can I get them to bring that inventiveness, that energy into the classroom, and how can my demand for deep, sustained inquiry aid their personal growth?

To return some of that liveliness to the classroom and at the same time to foster clear, critical thinking means more than pulling into the classroom their own media: the internet, the chat, the phone and the digital camera. Equipment, gadgets, technology on their own are mere distractions if there is no clear and necessary relationship established between them and the situation into which they are introduced. Incorporating these platforms and tools as a means of working towards a fully integrated educational experience requires re-envisioning the entire classroom experience. The work has to have relevance to their lives; it has to matter. To matter, the work must have an impact on the world the students inhabit; each student must feel essential to our endeavor. It means efficacious learning achieved through turning the classroom over to the students and demanding growth in return. To steal from the architects, we dare explore how form follows function, how our methods and structures grow out of our inquiry to suit it. To do so necessitates building a bridge between the classroom and the real world, through authentic activities, “which are usually project-based, and the complexity of the activity represents the kinds of tasks that are often undertaken outside the classroom” (Halvarais, 2004, 2-3). It means infiltrating the students’ natural habitat—communication technologies—to accomplish these goals in the liberal arts classroom.

To introduce social software in the classroom, the students and their teacher must work as a social entity, as a collaborative linked to and communicating among themselves with the world. Such transformations take time, and indeed over the course of three years my students have experienced an evolving, gradual integration of weblogs into my courses, from an initial first use of the medium as a simple course management system to individual student weblogs linked to a course weblog, and finally to a single collaborative public MOTHERBLOG, to which we all contribute, and for which we are all responsible. The weblog is at once backgrounded as invisible mechanism for course activities as it is foregrounded as locus, as space for collaboration and connectivity. The weblog itself becomes Lévy’s knowledge space (Levy, 1997, 5); blogging becomes a new form of communication that facilitates efficacy and emergent behavior within the classroom.

The technologically-challenged teacher learns to adapt as she adapts the weblog to suit the needs of the course; after all, “weblogs are not special because of their technology, but because of the practices and authorship they shape. And it is a practice that will require a weblog author to be ‘connected’ to process, discourses and communities” (Wrede, 2003, 2), which in turn forces the teacher to listen ever harder for correspondences as she learns to conduct this unruly, unfinished, evolving learning experience.

3. Blogging in the Humanities Classroom: Efficacy, Emergence and Collective Intelligence in Action

3.1. Course Context
In the fall of 2003, twelve first-year students and a team made up of class instructor, educational technologist and research librarian created a collaborative group weblog for the seminar, Contemporary Ireland Through Fiction and Film, an investigation into the political, social and cultural realities of Ireland through the study of selected contemporary novels and films (Ganley, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishf03). This twelve-week course met three times a week: twice in seminar/discussion format and once for film screenings and multi-media and technology workshops.

3.2. Weblog as Course Management Tool
In part, the weblog is used as a simple, flexible, and effective course management tool: the locus of information dissemination (the syllabus, links to online resources, updates, class lists, advising details), discussion (formal and informal asynchronous discussions on course material, student feedback loops on writing-in-process and finished products), and student publishing (all writing assignments are gathered and organized in multiple formats). With the exception of the books the students need to purchase and read, everything required for the course is accessed via the group weblog.

The visual organization of the weblog design emphasizes its use as course management tool, with clearly-listed categories grouping the course content in multiple ways on the left-hand menu: information generated by the instructor, off-site resources, and work created by the students (Ganley, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishf03). Having a single, universally accessible center for course material and activity makes communicating updates in the syllabus and relevant campus events convenient and efficient. Although email is also used for individual contact between members of the class and the instructor for personal and/or private questions or requests, all communications affecting the full community occur on the weblog. During the opening weeks of the course, all postings appearing directly on the homepage (as opposed to being directly posted to the menu categories) are written by the instructor, many of which are designed to point to updates added to the menu (Ganley, 2003, http://wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/2003/09/05).

Although the students respond favorably to the convenience of having a single access point to course-related communications, resources and information, they find our dependence on technology frustrating when the college server is down, or when a group of students temporarily destroys the weblog (Olsen, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$1069). Indeed, the weblog and associated technology present considerable challenges, especially when students lose work due to mistakes made in posting or when they can not easily access assignments. In a course designed to emphasize connectivity and co-learning rather than the simple flow of knowledge consumption, the weblog transforms in ways not anticipated at the start of the course: categories are added or revised or eliminated, as well as assignments altered to fit the shifting directions of the class (Ganley, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/2003/09/09). Form is following function even in the most traditional and one-dimensional of weblog uses. The more that entries and links accumulate, the more precise we must be in naming and organizing the posts and categories. By semester’s end, over one thousand separate entries have been posted to the weblog (excluding comments). Our innovation leads to “increased flexibility and freedom, but also increased complexity.“ (Manovich 2003, 2) At times, the students equate complexity with chaos.

By mid-semester, finding the sheer volume of postings overwhelming and the shifts discomfiting, some students voice a desire to return to the “normal” way of conducting a class (Lee, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$892?mode=day). Initially they resist the integration into the classroom of technologies that heretofore have served them in their private, social lives; boundaries are in a sense being transgressed. When students complain about technology in general or the weblog in particular, rather than viewing these difficulties as unwieldy and unacceptable, we seize the chance to discuss our relationship with technology, especially our expectations of it. We examine the implications of machine-mediated communication and our need for it to be available to us at our convenience. We come to see that we, human users of the technology, are responsible for making the technology work for us, to make improvements in organization and design, thereby growing the functionality and value of the classroom weblog rather than viewing it as an impediment that is some undefined person’s responsibility. We discuss active learning and its demands. We learn firsthand that “understanding emergence has always been about giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints” (Johnson, 2001, 234). Computer crashes and disasters force us to step back and reflect as well as consider why we understand that our own composing practices are often hampered by obstacles, by dry spells, by “crashes” in our own thinking process, but we find it unacceptable when the technology proves cumbersome (Ganley, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$550). As one student explains, “As much as we all complain, the truth is that I like the way everything over the term is in one space. It may be dense and at times confusing, but being able to view and link to other’s work helped me to expand my own ideas” (Connolly, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1151).

3.3. Beyond the Static Tool: The Weblog as Catalyst for Collective Intelligence; Experts and Apprentices in Cyberspace and in the Classroom
The weblog creates a classroom that is, at least in theory if not always in actuality, available everywhere and always, in essence following us about as we move through time and space. Such omnipresence also implies that if the teacher possesses sole managerial responsibility for the weblog, it could well smack of Orwell’s Big Brotherism to the students, with an authority figure free to enter their lives at will, dictating actions and responses, or it could smack of hypocrisy with the teacher intentionally creating a schism between descriptions of the class as community and the actual practice of a benign tyrant holding the reins, as is the case with course management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT, which are teacher driven and constructed with a traditional hierarchy. For the weblog to work as a facilitator of efficacious learning, it is essential that everyone has an authentic voice and an authentic role on it, that everyone has a hand in creating the medium as well as the message in an environment in which the reader becomes the writer, the student the teacher, the teacher the learner as we traverse boundaries of classroom and real world, our communities forming, shifting and reforming. The teacher has to do precisely what is most difficult and most essential: create a system of shared control, of checks and balances between teacher, student and technology. In a sense, technology mediates the teacher-advocate student exchange, fulfilling the promise of a Socratic education so important a hallmark of a liberal arts education. (Vila, 2004b). The teacher must have faith in the process of collaborative learning and in the students to assume their roles in reciprocal apprenticeships (Lévy, 1997, 10).

Because “emergent behaviors, like games, are all about living within the boundaries defined by roles, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts” (Johnson, 2001, 181), sharing responsibility with the students for the course weblog requires careful planning and preparation of those boundaries. Poorly designed collaborative work is doomed to follow the failed model that so many of our students remember with distaste from their high school days: one student shouldering the burden for all (Kammerer, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1133). For cooperative management of the weblog to work, the students must share a strong sense of belonging to a dynamic learning collaborative, following the apprenticeship model of learning, in which everyone is expert and apprentice to one another (Lévy, 1997, 10). Then, as Halavais has shown, “weblogs allow for learners to engage a larger social network, and to participate actively within that network, and to become localized experts” (Halavais, 2004, 1), a condition expressed in one student’s final course reflection: “During the first class BG talked about how we were both experts and apprentices, and I think that analogy is prevalent through everything we’ve done in the class. Dixie was an apprentice when BG taught her the formula for writing, but then became an expert …When I was reading Marisa’s final project for the feedback group, and started asking “so what,” that’s when it hit me that my analytical skills had improved so much. For that instance I went from Dixie’s apprentice to Marisa’s expert, and vice-versa when she helped me with my ideas” (Connolly, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1151). Using the weblog as simple course management system as well as arena for assigned and spontaneous discussions, free-wheeling posting and collaborative explorations of the subject provides an effective framework for the course. Letting the weblog’s essential characteristics of the restless homepage and the “unruliness of the complex webs of links we produce” (Bernstein, 1999, 1) prompt us into synthesizing, reflecting and commenting pushes us towards excellence and innovation. Preparing the community itself for their reciprocal roles produces conditions ripe for students to grow intellectually.

3.4 Meeting on the Weblog Before Meeting in the Classroom
To integrate the weblog into the goals and structure of the course, it is immediately introduced to the class as a tool and a virtual space. We do not discuss the weblog before we use it; we do not demonstrate how a weblog creates community. Indeed, the seminar convenes for the first time, at a distance, online during the summer before the students ever matriculate at Middlebury College. From their homes across the country, the students join the weblog community, making a series of postings and responses to postings: a traditional analysis of a passage in a cultural history text assigned for the course (Ganley, 2003,wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$29); a knowledge tree exercise in which they narrate an event articulating their relationship with their own cultural identity (Vila, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$40), and a summary of their knowledge of nineteenth-century Irish history. Before arriving at college, the students have experience with the technology we use during the course, with four modes of discourse we practice (textual analysis, exposition, personal narrative and feedback response) as well as learning about one another. In concert with the teacher, who is using the homepage as assembly point to demonstrate blogging practices and to weave together the proliferation of new voices accumulating on the weblog, the group is forming their classroom community virtually, beginning to position themselves as experts and apprentices to one another before meeting face-to-face.

The impact of this initial online experience is profound. The students are required to confront our use of the Web and our intellectual undertaking in a visible, emphatically “exposed” way. Not only is their work being published every time they post an assignment to the weblog, but unlike in teacher-driven course management systems with discussions attached, the blogger-teacher is using the unquenchable homepage as a place to synthesize the postings streaming in, to ask questions designed to push the thinking forward, to point to particular posts as models, challenging our assumption that learning experiences are essentially individual, private affairs conducted according to time-honored if unspoken rules about student-teacher interactions. It is a jarring and exhilarating, if for some, bewildering experience. The students face their greatest fear: failure, by having to write for others, to contribute ideas to the collaborative, and to be responsible for responding publicly to one another. Even before meeting Marisa, for example, the entire class, if not the world, can see the differences in her voice, diction and style through even these first pieces of writing, from the formal voice of: “Michael Cleary is a man of mystery. Maybe he is an incredible actor, as he premeditated his wife’s death and pretended to blame it on fairy legend. However, possibly motivations of stress and unconscious inferiority enraged him for a small period of time that would cost him fifteen years of his life and his wife’s life.” (Burton, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$82?mode=day) to the direct, declarative:
“I am a cracker. Hence my race has never stopped me.
I am of Irish-Italian descent. Hence I am Catholic.”
(Burton, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$78?mode=day) to the lively, informal: “”Hey Mahisa, didn’t ya fam (expletive) sheep back in Iyaland?” (Burton, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$77?mode=day). It is through the range of voice and subject in her writing that Marisa’s classmates first come to know her and that she affects them. Theoretically they can take her in, little by little, at a distance, returning to read more or to reread her writing as they attempt to understand her ideas, her life, and her hopes for the course, and then they can compare them to their own.

During our first face-to-face class meeting, it is apparent that the students have indeed influenced one another from the first piece of writing posted to the Web. The discussion is lively and intense: they want to see the faces of the writers; they want to talk about how intimidated they are by one another; they want to say how excited and yet uneasy they are about the level of work they are undertaking. The Web work has scared and yet energized them; they have experienced the pressure of posting, the pressure to post, and of wanting to write something brilliant. Everyone has something to say this first day; everyone wants to listen; no one dominates. Students are compelled to discuss the nature of communities in general and the nature of this community in particular, a conversation that will extend through the semester and beyond for this group of students.

Incorporating the weblog into the course from the outset with little fanfare but in a variety of ways helps to create an atmosphere where the only incentive they will need for posting is how many of the group have already posted, and how long the homepage has remained silent and unchanged. From the first day, therefore, this work is less about the grade than about the group. No one wants to let the group down, even at the beginning, in public. Just as the blinking cursor urged early computer users to write, the “anxiety” of the link and the restless homepage drive the blogger to post (Miles, 2001, jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v02/i03/Miles/). Already the students feel a bond developing, but only, I contend, because of the balance of writing assignments that prepare them to view one another as a collective of experts and apprentices, because of the shared feeling of urgency and expectancy engendered by blogging, and because the first assignments are quickly followed by classroom exchanges face-to-face concerning the nature of online communication. Using the weblog solely for public posting of formal academic papers destined for teacher evaluation and discussions observed and controlled by the teacher can lead to the rapid establishment of a classroom pecking order, which inevitably ends in the demoralization of the less skilled and confident students and emphasizes the distance between teacher and student.

In this weblog-based course, it must be said, students’ first impulse is to judge themselves and their classmates according to the measure of the old classroom hierarchies. Indeed, their first glimpse of one another in the three-part pre-course assignment is as budding scholars, and so they position themselves initially according to who is the smartest, the best writer, the one with the most knowledge. They are, in fact, acting the part of good students according to the old script. One student in his final course reflection comments on this moment: “Like everyone else in the class I was terrified after reading everyone’s knowledge trees before leaving for Middlebury. It seemed like everyone had much better writing skills than I did. It also seemed like everyone had a much better literary sense as reflected in my somewhat weak analysis of The Burning of Bridget Cleary” (Sung, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1157). If the teacher limits the weblog assignments to the kinds of writing that can be done without a weblog, and uses the medium to conduct classroom business as a student-teacher transaction, she invites a continuation of the same kind of lethargic student engagement that occurs in courses taught with teacher-directed course management software. If the teacher occupies center stage by commenting too soon, too often, and too much, she reinforces the student-as-empty-vessel model of learning. The teacher instead waits patiently for the students to respond to one another’s work before commenting, all the while urging, mentoring and modeling.

It is the more personal of the three assignments, the knowledge tree, that subverts this urge for hierarchical positionings between the students, as the same student also points out: “However, I had already begun to learn as an apprentice after reading Marisa’s knowledge tree. Her knowledge tree was extremely personal and revealing. After reading her knowledge tree I felt more comfortable writing my own, exposing to the class my own personal story” (Sung, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1157). Several classmates feeling less prepared in the “academic” arena come forth in the personal narrative with strong voices, confident style and insightful commentary. The students rapidly realize that something different is going on in this classroom, and that they will have to let go of their expectation that knowledge and growth will be delivered to them and that they will be pitted against one another. Students feel ownership of the weblog, achieved in part by “making them answerable to a larger audience” (Halavais, 2004, 2; Mortensen and Walker, 2001, 269)) but also by giving them opportunities to find their own arenas of expertise and apprenticeship.

That the weblog functions in the background as a course management tool, a comforting tether to the expectations, the assignments, the calendar–the tangibles of the course–helps to deflect some of the initial discomfort with the unrelenting exposure of the forum and the pressure to post. Already the students view the weblog as serving them in a multitude of ways: individual knowledge consumption and exploration, collaborative knowledge production and community formation. The work accomplished at the beginning of the course, available throughout the semester, serves as a grounding point, the first step, linked to by many students over the course of the twelve weeks. These first inklings have lasting significance as they are drawn into the multi-media digital story project and referenced throughout the semester. Several students comment on the growth they can track from these initial postings to the final ones of the course, and the value found in returning to their own personal narratives, grounding their academic work within a personal context (Olson, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$1069).

3.5 The Weblog as Facilitator of Internal and External Dialogue: The Power of Linking
George Landow observes that, “The strangeness, the newness, the difference of hypertext permits us, however, transiently and however ineffectively, to decenter many of our cultural assumptions about reading, writing, authorship, and creativity” (Landow, 1997, 307). Embedding hyperlinks within a posting not only weaves each student’s writing to other writing and writers, it releases that part of the mind that does not function linearly, but rather associatively “in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain” (Bush, 1949, 5). Active hyperlinking within “published” reflective writing encourages students to examine the relationship of the parts to the whole in both process and product: “I could have a binder full of my work from the semester but it would not look like this. I can track my progression this semester by looking at the blog. When I look at my very essay first that I wrote on Bridget Cleary, I still see the Barrie writing AP five paragraph essays. Then I scroll down to and look at my Wild Decembers essay and see growth and improvement. I see my struggle to find a voice and learn to write a good thesis” (Olson, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$1069). Each student has a page on the weblog on which they create links to their work, inviting an appreciation of the scope of their work and the evolution of it. Linking within one’s own work to one’s other writing allows the writers to take responsibility for the ideas, trying them out in different contexts, seeing them change and mature over the course of time. The visual quality of the Web coupled with the intricate weft of links facilitates an understanding of the differences between discourse modes, in terms of focus, structure, diction and voice.

Students ”see” their writing gathered onto an electronic portfolio as they also see the evolution of their ideas, individually and collectively within the larger, collected work of the class, creating a dynamic, ever-expanding hypertext document (Wright in Ganley et al, 2002, 16). In the learner-centered collaborative effort, students learn the value of linking to one another’s work, often taking a thread from a classmate’s assignment or online discussion, referencing it and building on the idea until it becomes something new all while engaging them in a call-and-response kind of conversation with their peers. In so doing, students learn lessons about citation and translating from the informal language and thinking of the online discussion to the more rigorous demands of formal academic discourse. Having their classmates’ work available and interacting with their own, permanently on the weblog, allows them to write quickly, close to the offhand manner of Instant Messenger, and then when an idea burns more steadily, to slow down the process of thinking and writing, turning within this quickest of media to one of the slowest and oldest of forms, the letter.

Active, ongoing use of the weblog archives opens up the course as subject matter: our own work can serve as instigator of inquiry as much as that of experts in the field. Because the weblog from the 2001 version of the same seminar has also been integrated into the class weblog, both as a complete archive available to the students, and as pieces assigned for reading, the students experience the impact of the living, growing archive. They learn from the older work, both formal and informal, which is woven into the assignments as models for the work they are about to engage in (Ganley, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$40), and as conclusions of additional experts from which to draw (Ganley, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$59). In citing their predecessors’ work in their essays, the students are also extending the efficacy of the first group’s work two years later.

The public nature of the weblog also propels the class into the larger scholarly conversation, as evidenced by students affecting an outside reader, (Ganley, 2003, http://wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/2004/01/16), students conducting research on the Web just to find their own essays and projects turning up on Google (Olson, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$1069), and students knowing that two visiting scholars will read their online work before lecturing to the class. They are blogged in Northern Ireland and emailed by readers affected by what they have posted. It is both unnerving and heady for them to realize that no longer will their work travel along a narrow, windowless conduit between student and teacher, just to be shelved when the grade is determined. These responses from the wide world beyond the classroom in turn lead to further explorations, heightened confidence, and a sense of greater responsibility for their words. These moments of intersection with outsiders echo research findings on communities of practice, where “radically new insights often arise at the boundary between communities,” keeping the group’s knowledge from becoming ingrown and stale (Wenger, 1998, 6). Contextualizing their work first within their own experience and then in the larger framework of the field injects excitement into the endeavor, and finds them digging even deeper to find connections.

The linking, commenting and archiving capabilities of the weblog, in creating internal connections within each student‘s work from draft to completion, draws attention to the processes involved in scholarship and to the multiple writing voices called upon depending on the situation, as well as immersing the students in the complex relationships between writer and reader. Through this network of linking and the tension created by the homepage’s insatiable insistence on being fed with new posts, the weblog reaches its potential (Pacquet 2002, radio.weblogs.com/0110772/stories/2002/10/03/personalKnowledgePublishingAndItsUsesInResearch.htm,). Student written and oral work improves dramatically in terms of critical thinking, organization, and clarity of expression.

3.6 Emergence at Work: Students Take Over the Weblog and Take Over the Course
As the students grow more adept at using hyperlinks to weave and synthesize higher-level arguments, they are taking control of their own learning; correspondingly, they also take over more control of the weblog, By the third week of the semester, they have taken over the course.

3.6.1 Student Ownership/ The Wisdom of the Group
“I feel this class is like that game where everyone tries to sit down on each other at the same time, in a circle,” one student writes. “And if they do it correctly no one falls because the weight is evenly spread around. All the assignments were a give and take between every member of the class, and tools such as the blog would not have worked without everyone’s participation” (Connolly, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1151). Because the use of a single, collaborative weblog, instead of privileging the individual, requires cooperation from the entire group, our knowledge space underscores an environment that is inclusive and supportive. The Web moves us away from the traditional publishing model of “control” to a “lively plurality of voices [which] sometimes can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts” (Weinberger, 2002, 8). This is a difficult task to accomplish, for no matter what we say or do, as teachers evaluating our students’ achievements and progress, we are ultimately the authority and the experienced expert. In this class, we succeed in largely repositioning the teacher. As one student points out: “Because of the format of the class, I learned as much from my peers as I did from the professor. I found that discussions in class extended into the dorm—another interesting aspect of this class” (Olson, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/discuss/msgReader$1069).

Student after student makes such observations, confirming the benefits of making the work public, visual and interconnected: “We all have our strengths and weaknesses—what Dan or Amanda may write really well, I struggle with, but where they struggle, maybe Caitlin and I excel. We all learn in different ways, and in this, we can all learn from each other, “ (Kammerer, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1133) and “The biggest thing that stands out in my mind when I think about the work we have done is the way it all flows together. We really were all experts and apprentices in this class, we chose our own area of expertise and taught the rest of the class what we learned as we managed the blog, posted our work and reflected on each other’s progress” (Sullivan, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1178). The quiet confidence and honesty of these reflective writing voices announce the students’ identification with the group as learning collective.

Students grow so at ease with the weblog and their ownership of it, that at times they play with the boundaries of form and voice, even bringing the weblog down while experimenting with templates behind the scenes. They go from postings that try to synthesize the work of the group to apologies: “P.S. Oops…sorry about what we did to the weblog…hopefully we will fix it soon…but in the meantime, if you still need to work on your projects and you can’t find them because we somehow lost the link, they are here” (Tavel, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/2004/01/16). Students with an idea burst onto the space: “Dudes…got $50 a month to blow? Then you can go to Ireland. Talk to me, my friends, and the doors will open. I am planning on going from after finals until my birthday…the end of June…so about a month or so. All for now. Sorry for flipping if I’m screwing over the other group, but I just wanted everyone to see this…talk to me after about it…ciao” (Burton, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/2003/11/17), to examinations of the journey itself: “Check out everyone’s personal journeys through the class and the responses to those pieces. Reading each other’s view of the class helps us see how far we have traveled and grown over the semester. This course has had its rough spots. At times we’ve shared Sannie’s frustration with the blog. Other times we’ve made breakthroughs…We truly are a collaborative class. It looks as though the feedback from our group will be an invaluable resource for our final project” (Knowlton, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/2003/11/16). Emergence is at work naturally, effectively, powerfully.

3.6.2 Transformation of the Teacher
In the early weeks, the weblog‘s dynamic homepage provides the teacher with an effective environment for modeling good writing, ways of interacting in an online community, vocabularies for our endeavors, and uses of the weblog’s linking and archiving to full advantage. In class the weblog is turned to when a student wishes to point out a post in the midst of a discussion, or when the teacher asks the class to analyze and imitate exemplary entries. During the opening days the teacher orchestrates the general direction and specific assignments, tweaking them to meet the needs and abilities of the members of the group. Having instant access to student work allows the teacher an efficient and effective means of continuously assessing student progress: postings can be read before class and lead to adjustments in the class plan to optimize the learning moment.

As the students gain confidence in their community’s resilience, strength and abilities, it becomes apparent that the professor’s role has also shifted “by transferring some of [her] power and authority to students” (Landow, 1997, 222). It is only when the students take over responsibility for blogging the homepage updates, however, that the teacher truly joins the collaborative, moving out of the center to the periphery, on the weblog as well as in the classroom, creating her own mini-blog of reflections, commentaries and updates. This movement is what the weblog’s demanding homepage offers us. If we do our job well, we then must make way for our students. Repositioned as class ethnographer and mentor on the weblog, inside the classroom, the teacher’s role grows similarly inconspicuous, as prompter, guide and witness. It is an uneasy space, challenging the teacher to leave things alone and yet be vigilant to the group’s course, as though keeping watch on a foggy night. Instead of being the focal point, the teacher suddenly finds herself as the “Other” who must urge and challenge, creating the learning environment in which the art is enabling the learning to happen by itself, without her intervention.

The public, visual nature of the weblog affects the instructor as well as the students, prompting the blogging teacher to be self-reflective and self-revising as well as actively modeling creative intellectual practices. Allowing the direction of the course to shift and reorient itself according to the desires and needs of the community also requires the teacher to recognize shortcomings and make adjustments when the syllabus needs correcting. Just as the students’ weaknesses and strengths are in the public purview so, too, are the teacher’s. It takes confidence and energy to make changes if an approach is not meeting with success. It takes flexibility to alter the course content to include discussions of learning communities and the process of using the technology. It takes time to explore ways to incorporate technology beneficially and to respond to the repercussions of its use. And until academic institutions value a learner-centered, creative, collaborative approach to education, it will take a willingness to absorb the tension resulting when students leave the weblog-based course to enter more traditional classrooms.

3.6 New Rhetorical Modes of Discourse
As they develop critical reasoning and writing skills, knowledge of the content area, and community-building practices, the students are also gaining fluency and interest in a new medium of expression. They experiment with the tools and skills introduced during the course, including multimedia narrative, image and sound embedding and manipulation, and recombine them with traditional text in ways not anticipated or even contemplated by the instructor. They discover with both relief and consternation that “digital text is…always open, borderless, unfinished and unfinishable, capable of infinite extension” (Landow, 1997, 175). By bringing a playful willingness to experiment with forms at times closer to collage than to traditional linear text into the humanities classroom—that same impulse that the teacher has observed in students in their personal use of the Web and computer technology and that has prompted her into incorporating weblogs into her classroom–the students push against traditional notions of academic discourse. By the end of the semester, they have created their own forms of research and analytical essays suited to their topic and argument, “mapping out new forms of discourse” (Landow, 1997, 262).

A complex and associative use of linking leads some students to write laterally, associatively organized collaborative essays structured to give the readers choices about how to read the parts and in what order (Sullivan and Kammerer, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$769). Some students integrate technologies to create collaborative multi-media research papers, incorporating voiceover narrations, images, linking and text to make their arguments more assertive, complex and compelling, two students even capitalizing on the visual qualities of the Web to create side-by-side visual and sound journeys along the two most infamous streets in Belfast, Northern Ireland, emphatically underscoring the polarization of the communities (Dan and Elise, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$847). One student has used iMOVIE to create a multi-media literary analysis which she has embedded in her longer comparative essay on poets of Northen Ireland (Tavel, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$912). Another student even incorporates a humorous sound-and-image treatment of the weblog itself in a paper about violence in Ireland, exploring the relationship the class had with the weblog as analogous to a point he is making in his argument about Ireland (Knowlton, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1032). Linking combined with the auditory and visual capacities of the weblog allows some students to explore the use of multiple writing and expression voices to create a new kind of literary analysis, by adding the personal, artistic context of their investigation, interpretation of texts, as well as formal analysis, all within the same body of work. The students demonstrate that “Cyberspace is a habitat of the imagination, a habitat for the imagination” (Novak, 2001, 254).

These new forms are eye-catching, certainly, and possess the allure of the new and the exotic, but they also adhere to the traditional rubrics of good academic discourse, putting forth clear and persuasive arguments. The students are working towards a means of using innovative expression to create sound formal academic papers, once again integrating what are often seen as contrary rather than complementary principles in academic circles: the artistic and the scholarly. So accomplished are these works, that two of them have been nominated for the annual award given to first-year students for excellence in writing, exemplifying Janet Murray’s contention that “we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity” (Murray, 2003,11).

4. 0 Conclusion
Teachers in a globally networked age seek ways to expose our students to the challenges communities face while enabling them to grow as individuals. Careful but thorough incorporation of weblogs into our classes can assist us in reaching these goals. Encouraging the integration of inventive, creative aspects of students’ out-of-school communicative, expressive selves into the classroom, the weblog provides the vehicle first for the formation of a strong bond within the learning the community, a “home” where students can exert their identities as they put their learning into action, a safe yet invigorating place to develop the skill and incentive to work beyond themselves in their academic pursuits. The weblog provides students with visual and tangible evidence that their work matters to the learning collaborative, that each piece written contributes to the collective store of knowledge. We have in evidence here, perhaps, the beginning of the future of writing that resists polarization, compartmentalization and fragmentation by insisting on collaboration and connection (Vila 2004, http://www.mediainquiry.org/archives/questions_and_more_questions.html). Blogging integrated right into the fabric of the course design can undermine the very tendency of which is accused—glibness and superficiality.

In a twelve-week semester, weblogs do not create the magic of learning, but because of their flexible easy-to-use design, their endless capacity for linking and their restless invitation to add posts, weblogs can accelerate and expand the process of experimentation and collaboration that ordinarily has little place in the liberal arts classroom. A weblog does not replace face-to-face interaction in the classroom; rather it can play an important role in intensifying and enhancing those interactions by extending the classroom discussions, and creating a densely interconnected community of learners according to an apprenticeship model of learning. This is new, largely unexplored territory for teachers, who must be willing to improvise, to assume their Socratic roles, and to let go of their own preconceptions of learning processes and outcomes, to consider the benefits of “multilinear rhetoric” (Bolter, 2003, 20).

Collaborative weblogs in the classroom honor each individual’s voice within the larger group’s chorus. For weblogs and other emerging social software to reach their full potential as catalysts of both self-expression and collective cognition, we must seek opportunities for our students to collaborate with one another, sharing knowledge, engaging in reciprocal apprenticeships, and then to traverse the boundaries between classes and between semesters. We must understand that, “Through their interaction with diverse communities, the individuals who animate the knowledge space are, far from being interchangeable members of immutable castes, singular, multiple, nomadic individuals undergoing a process of permanent metamorphosis (or apprenticeship)” (Levy, 1997, 17). Through their shifting form, their capacity, and their integrated classroom use, weblogs can help facilitate this fluid becoming, this ongoing relationship with self and world, this constant inconstancy that can lead to deep, ongoing learning. It is in the balance between the virtual blogging community and the face-to-face interactions of the classroom that we can push the boundaries of education to include, formally, collective cognition.

Education has become in this classroom, at least for a moment, playful and experimental. Risk-taking is not only allowed but encouraged while the public nature of our endeavor ensures the ultimate seriousness of the outcome: this work matters to them as individuals; it matters to us as a group, and it even matters to the world beyond our classroom walls. These students are not demonstrating the divided selves that had so concerned me in years past: their dynamic, wild selves are making appearances all over the weblog. They see the number of “hits” go up; they receive emails from readers beyond the class, including professors in other courses. As Barrie notes at the course’s end: “I have the feeling that while FS015 may have come to a close, the journey is really just beginning,“ and she even revises herself as she goes along in her final reflection: “To be honest I still don’t know why it is called a knowledge tree. Actually, maybe from this piece of writing, so much grew. Look at that, the class is practically over and I’m still having revelations on it…if you read my reflection on the Tinkers, I even link it back to the knowledge tree. It is amazing really” (Olson, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishf03/discuss/msgReader$1069). These students are beginning to understand that “in a global society we have outgrown our ability to contextualize. We are tormented by our sense of multiple conflicting frameworks for every action. We need a kaleidoscopic medium to sort things out” (Murray,1997, 283). Sorting things out is precisely what is happening in this classroom where we are experiencing the frontier of education: teachers and students actively engaged in collaborative learning, supporting one another in this apprentice model in action within our nomadic networked culture.

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