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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