If handing blogs to students means a shift in the way they write, then shouldn’t it also mean a shift in the way we look at their writing?

Why are we having such a hard time INTEGRATING rather than applying technology in all but a very few classes? — Perhaps because blogging seems not to honor the high-level formalized version of Bloom’s taxonomy that we’ve come to associate with “good college writing and thinking.” This isn’t any earth-shaking revelation. But it’s something I find myself talking to people about almost every day.

Dennis Jerz, in notes from a 2004 CCCCs presentation on the Forced Blogging Paradigm, mentions the tension between blogging formal papers and “real” blogging, which is of course more fluid, more improvisational than much of the writing assigned in classrooms.
With this tension comes the teacher’s reluctance to make or adjust to corresponding shifts in the entire classroom paradigm, in the role of the teacher.

In the 1970s and 80s, following the lead of Peter Elbow and Donald Graves , among others, we focussed on process–how to get ideas stirring and on the paper, how to infuse the process with energy and excitement. This kind of writing instruction is now limiting–we have to move beyond this now codified approach. Of course, detractors think that blogging embraces the messiness, the anything-goes-mentality, the very worst of the writing-process; and on first view, student blogging can be extremely undisciplined and informal, dynamically unruly in its humor and irreverence, its disregard for rules and conventions. Yup, this work unsettles just about everyone–still–teachers, administrators, parents and even the students themselves. We hand over the reins of our courses in large part to the students themselves. At least, this is my approach. And sometimes our students write downright incoherent entries due to a lack of simple copyediting , (take this recent one on my artswriting blog, for example). What do we do? Do we jump in and correct the mistakes, clean it up before the world sees and judges? Or do we wait to see what the class will say or do? Will anyone notice? Will anyone care? And if they don’t?

On the collaborative class blog, a doubly public space (student writing being thus published to the class community and to the anonymous blog-reading public beyond), we shift our focus to pointing out what is working and where, and what questions have been overlooked, or when a potential avenue has not been considered. We treat student writers as worthy and able contributors to the larger, historical conversation about our subject matter. And so (no matter how much we might want to from time to time) we don’t jump all over them on the blog. Or at least, we don’t ink up their writing. We keep them writing, joining the conversation, learning by doing, learning by reading, learning by making mistakes. To some it seems as though this slow-response mode means that we’re letting kids get away with shoddy writing. And once we add multi-media options into the mix–forget it, we’ve bought into the whole easy-is-best, lowest-common-denominator-works-fine American reality, our detractors worry. Parents worry. (I heard another set of them ask just that question this past weekend during a presentation of student multi-media work.)

And yet because the work is truly published, they do not ultimately get away with sloppy thinking or writing, except in the most informal spaces on the blog. They do not hide behind process the way many did in the 70s and 80s. They see all their previous posts and all those by their cohorts, and they learn from their mistakes. Right there in the open.

In a way, we’re returning to the old Socratic classroom ideal and also to the English system of the tutorial, saying to our students, “Go on–through the blog, check out the world and what’s going on; try out your writing out there. What kind of response do you get? And then in class and in my office we’ll talk about effective writing. We’ll put pressure on it. Then you’ll go out and try again.”

When I took a look today at some of the writing starting to open up on the artswriting blog–especially between writers–I see them loosening the chains, the fetters of AP English thinking and writing; I see them asking questions of one another to get them to push the writing along. Until they have something to say and feel that they’ve gotta say it, the lessons of sentence variety and structure and rhetorical grammar will not matter. Publishing raises the stakes; they want to move their readers, to entertain them, to educate them–they are writing for a real rather than a manufactured or nonexistent audience. They are writing with purpose and so begin to ask me questions in those f2f conferences about flow and style, about voice and humor, about the hows and the whys.
And then I make them read and emulate, and tear apart what they read from a writer’s perspective.

So I don’t use blogs in my classes for my students’ personal rants or diaries, but as a public space in which we must try to reach our readers and move them; we don’t want to contribute to needless fill in the blogosphere. We should want our writing to count, to matter, to move something or someone–every time–if we get favorable responses that strike us as honest and authentic, then we’ll know we’ve written well or at least not badly, and that writing matters, our writing matters.

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People Outside the Classroom Don’t Get It, But the Students Do…

Blogging is too cool to be the stuff of the serious schoolroom, yes?
Making digital stories is no better than wasting time on yet another lame poster project in high school social studies class, right?

Funny question–have the people who feel this way ever blogged? Have they tried to manipulate the balance between image, sound and text as a means of expression? Do they blog regularly? Have they experienced the potential of what Ken Smith points out in his response to a recent conference keynote on his

Weblogs in Higher Education blog:
Genres to nurture fragments of insight. In this morning’s keynote talk at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference (IS-SOTL), Randy Bass said that he and his colleagues at CNDLS (Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship) were looking for ways to use the web to help with the process of making new knowledge. He said that some familiar genres, like the scholarly article, can end up feeling flatter, less rich, than the body of knowledge, experience, and practice they grow out of. The articles also tend to lost track of some insights that arise during the process of inquiry. So, he said, he and his collaborators were looking for genres that could help nurture the fragments of insight that emerge during that process. Of course I thought about blogging…

This is, indeed, one of the reasons for blogging in the classroom–especially for undergraduates who are beginning to have real insight into their chosen fields but tend to be all over the place–they can put fragments out there, small attempts to articulate something they’ve observed. And little by little, because those fragments are gathered, archived and linked, they can assemble more extended arguments, narratives and syntheses.

Other reasons for blogging–and why it isn’t empty messing-around or a privileging of sloppy thinking & writing–that are showing up in my Artswriting class –and ones that people don’t always understand if they haven’t tried it out themselves:

–Blogs as places for informal writing and responding.
Blogs can free students to have conversations-in-writing about issues that matter to them (and to the course) but that they haven’t tested; how having those conversations promotes good thinking and good writing. Take a look, for example, at this blog conversation. The students are trying to convince one another and yet are willing to revise themselves as they go. Furthermore, the discussions, unlike on forums or discussion boards, are woven right into the larger fabric of the entire course conversation, represented by the full blog–in all its flaws and glory. Seeing the most informal, error-riddled improv prose side-by-side with formal, polished, even scholarly essays makes valuable points about various means of discourse and their appropriateness and effectiveness.

–Blogs as Virtual Knowledge Spaces Foster Co-learning
My students have started bemoaning the fact that now that they are immersed in the solo aspect of digital-story making, they miss having constant access to the processes of their classmates. They want to see behind the scenes of their peers works-in-progress. When they begin to falter in their own process, they boot up the blog and take a look at what everyone else has come up with in response to the assignment. They take inspiration from one another through the blog.

–Blogs as Teacher-Development Tools
That my students are feeling the lack of in-process pieces of the digital stories makes me have to re-evaluate what I’ve done and asked them to do. I see that I should have been asking them to post their works as they are being created. Why not have a soundless string of images embedded and then getting some feedback on how they’re affecting my viewer? I can revise my teaching as I go–this is hugely beneficial to my students, of course!

To be continued…