Classroom Blogging as Performance Art

The end of the semester leads to sporadic postings here–and just after I got through urging teachers who use blogs in their classroom to blog in their own space as well! Ha! Héctor, Will, and many others have written about how instead of finding more mental space for reflecting on our teaching practices and on how our use of technology fits the larger puzzle of this cyber-revolution (because, theoretically, technology frees us up from the grind of the administrative details associated with our teaching and enables us to efficiently and effectively create student-centered classrooms), we’re finding ourselves ever more pressed for time. As Will has blogged recently, there’s just too much to read and digest and try out and think about.

“What’s cool, and also overwhelming,” he says, ” is that there’s so much good blogging going on these days.”

I notice how so many blogs are beginning to sound the same, to post the same links and reflections, even. Seems as though we’re all traveling the same route… Maybe Héctor has it right, resisting the call of the blog and posting anxiety by posting long essays once in a blue moon. But for me, when I don’t post, I feel guilty (which makes me think back to the whole “Questions of Audience” discussion on a couple of blogs earlier this semester). I also miss it because I know that if I’m not writing about what’s going on in my classroom and what I see in the blogosphere and the rest of the world as it pertains to this work, then I’m probably not thinking about it as deeply as I should. I’m letting the pace of classroom life carry me off. Which it very nearly has…

Even though the semester is well into its last frenzied moments (which in my world means that I am practically living in the media development lab helping kids with the glitches in their webwork and the near-disasters in their eyes-bigger-than-their-skills multi-media projects) there’s a new calm within the intensity. What’s different about this semester is how undaunted my students seem in the face of server crashes, file corruptions, compression nightmares and program freezing. They blithely move through the mini-disasters determined to write for the Web , on the Web.

And that’s what I want to make sure to reflect on over the coming weeks and once I’ve figured out the “why,” to develop my teaching in such a way that my students this spring capitalize on what I learn: this group of students has broken through to understanding what it means to WRITE ON THE WEB. For the first time (in the three plus years I’ve been at this classroom blogging/multimedia authoring work in my classes) we’re really getting it. The students see how it’s not enough to post a Word document to the blog and congratulate themselves for some blogging well done. It is not enough to post and run, to comment and drop. Some of the students are weaving earlier postings into the fabric of their writing, or referencing one another’s work, or extending earlier conversaitons through new postings. There’s a new circling back as they move forward, a grounding of the new work in the old as well as in the work beyond our own borders. The linking is neither haphazard nor arbitrary (linking for linking’s sake) as it was in earlier semesters. Linking to the world outside is done deliberately and carefully, not as a way to hand off the responsibility for making a particular point but to extend a notion that is an interesting but secondary point, or to draw the reader’s attention to luminaries and interesting, related work in the field. I don’t see the writing getting lazy in the face of a link as it did at times in my Irish course last fall. If anything, the writing sharpens in the approach or perhaps, more accurately, treats the link as a naturally integrated extension, as in playful profile of an artist friend or Britt’s recent blog post in which she weaves earlier group postings.

This group understands the need to consider the design dimensions of Web authoring: what should they put on a single screen and where, how the individual screens relate to one another and to the whole, how the visual qualities of the Web affect the reader-viewer’s experience, how they must take into account sound and how it interacts with text and image. Certainly our <a href=””atrget=”-blank”digital storytelling assignments had an impact on our understanding of the interplay between the three modes of expression. Some of the final projects (still in process) demonstrate a pretty darn sophisticated use of the Web environment.

The students’ inventive and effective Web authoring pushes me to grow in my own use of it–as a teaching tool. Past explorations of discussions, workshopping avenues, publishing spaces and a building of assignments (moving from Levy’s knowledge trees to stories without words to hypertext stories to artist profiles and finally to multimedia final projects) are the first steps. Now I am trying to keep opening up the classroom to ways in which the blog invites us to explore a range of writing voices and modes and relationships–I won’t know for a while just how well these are working, exercises such as the Picasso-Stevens and Imagination piece which has them all posting responses to the Picasso in class on the blog without thinking about what anyone else is writing, and then posting again in response to Wallace Stevens’ response to Picasso–but not necessarily considering what their classmates have to say. We’ll take a look in class on Tuesday at what transpired around and between and in spite of each other. The Bloggers’ Field Trip is unfolding in an interesting way–wandering about town and countryside, and wandering about different voices and intentions and audiences all within the same post in some cases. And the side conversation going on in the comments section has influenced the field trip itself. Fascinating. This kind of exercise seems to offer some promising opportunities for writers to write about a work unhampered by what anyone else might think about it, and then push them up against what another writer has said about a work of art, necessitating a dialogue with that writer, and then free them up in the informal-and-heated conversation in the comments. We’ve had some fruitful discussions about the trip as it wends its way through our screens.

And then there’s the influence my students are having on others out there writing.. From Liza Sacheli, our most recent visitor, likening their blogging to performance art, to first-year Robyn in Héctor’s seminar, modelling her final project on the form created by Amanda in my seminar last year, to students using their blog work to springboard them into internships and jobs and publication offers, these student pioneers are having an impact on their world. That’s pretty good evidence of the power of this work.