Trackback Recap

A few posts back I wrote about trackbacks vs. comments (with an insightful comment by Aaron Campbell thrown into the mix). Developments on my course blogs and with former students who miss the blogs have me thinking more about the rich, rough texture of the weaving of conversations I have on this blog with myself (with my current thinking and my older posts), and with those who care to trackback or to comment.

My last two posts brought several bloggers into my world I hadn’t known about, and wouldn’t know about without this kind of connectivity. I wouldn’t have wandered over to Carla Shafer ‘s blog, found the reference she left for me to her Anti-Syllabus for her first-year writing seminar at Cornell, a course in which she’s using blogs and wikis and having the students understand action research by working as a true community of practice. Fascinating.

I wouldn’t have found Situativity, Learning in Context blog which led me to Feld Thoughts Blog with its “The Me Too Zone” discussion of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma or Tensegrities, another blog filled with thoughtful commentary and reflection on teaching and social software. I’d like to see students taking advantage of trackbacking–to get out there in the world of blogs of students at other institutions and make the kinds of connections I’m making with fellow teachers.

Which brings me, as usual, to my students and what’s going on in their blogging. Eugene, whom I’ve blogged about before, is a blog-less blogger, hopping onto other blogs in lieu of his own, for he’s afraid that no one would find his, no one would read it if it were floating untethered out there alone in cyberspace. When he’s part of a blogging community, he knows he’ll be read if not responded to, and that makes all the difference. And so I’ve been thinking of ways for him to have a blog outside of his classes without getting lost–how he can connect with likeminded bloggers out there.

And it’s got me thinking, in this, the fourth week of the semester, about these two new classes worth of students as they take to blogging, observing who leaves comments versus, in their case, new entries (I haven’t really stressed trackbacking since we’re building a collaborative blog, though I probably should since every student has a blog as well). I’m interested in how they perceive their connectedness, and use it and extend it in the context of our courses. They are still testing out the differences between posting an entry that calls to another post and commenting on the original post. It’s quite interesting to note how students shift in their relationship–in their attitude towards the ways in which blogs, podcasts and wikis work for them. I ask my students to develop reflective practices right away, frequently taking stock of how and what they have learned–and many of them are beginning to open their minds to this blogging business. They do love how it connects them to their peers.

Questions for me: how do I get students to refer back to one another’s posts, weaving in links and observations, and to use the commenting function fully without hiding there. Some students are much more comfortable sitting there off the main page, inside the comments, which is understandable, for being out there on the front page center of the MOTHERBLOG is a vulnerable place if you are a student who has been told repeatedly in life to be the best, to do it right. Blogging is both visual and loose, fluid and yet open to the world–how intimidating at first.

But slowly, they’re jumping on (some with a little nudging). One student, Julia in her “opening night” performance on the blog homepage, opens up with her post letting us know just how that feels:

I feel like a comedian on stage right now, the spot light on, the audience coughing, the digital clock counting down… and nothing is coming. I clear my throat and laugh a little to myself. “How is everyone feeling tonight?” A few random claps. “Great! How’s the Prime Rib?” Silence. “Okay, so, um, I was at the circus yesterday and…” This is what the blog feels like to me.

She’s self-conscious, but she’s now blogging and prompting responses from her classmates who are curious, too, about how it feels to blog rather than to post crafted stories, how it feels to initiate the conversations rather than to respond, how it feels to wait for a response, any response.

And then there’s Charles, writing in from Scotland:

A Word on Dancing and Elephants

My name is Charles Logan. I am, like Eugene, Steve, and Julina, an EL 170 Spring 2004 alumnus. And I am lonely. I miss her. I am jealous. I used to take her dancing. We would dally in the back next to the pecan cookies until our song came on and then it was off to the polished gymnasium dance floor where boys and girls grew into men and women. I never liked the cookies. But she seemed to enjoy saying “pecan” so I kept my opinion to myself. Besides, she was an excellent dancer, all hips and thighs.

Now see what you’ve done? I’m weepy, nostalgic. I cannot live without the blog.

And neither should you. Whether you are aware of it or not, this community is global – I’m writing this from my cozy flat near the North Sea in Scotland. It is an artistic community I cannot bear to be without. The blog is a forum for us apprentices to pool our collective works, thoughts, frustrations, triumphs, new dance steps. As such, I wish to offer a quote you might find helpful as you move from creative non-fiction into fiction.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez explained, “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.”

Good luck with your elephants. I’ll be reading.


This class has already, in three short weeks, become closely tied to one another and to the class before them, through our time together in class, their Wednesday night workshops, and this blog. And even if they weren’t seeing results in their writing because of the blogging (which they are), wouldn’t it be enough to be heard, to know that someone was actually reading their writing, listening to them read their writing via podcasts, connecting with them through this return to a form of letter-writing and to what Robert Patterson(Via Aaron Campbell) describes as

a vector a return to an old culture.

When I say old culture, I mean the culture that fits the essential nature of humans and that fits nature itself. I imagine a return to the custom of being personally authentic, to a definition of work that serves the needs of our community, and to a society where our institutions serve to enhance all life.

I see signs that that we are going home. See if you can see what I can see.

Wouldn’t that be a good enough reason to keep our students blogging and wiki-connected and using folksonomies?


Saturation point?

Once again (and this seems to go in cycles) a lot of people are asking how much blogging in the classroom is too much. I see that conversation going on over at Will’s blog and the same kinds of questions were being asked at the Northern Voice Blogging Conference (check out Bryan’s live-blogging of the education panel), and now,a couple of days ago, one of my students walked into my office and said, “You know, I really think the blog is detracting from my ability to focus on my writing. I spend too much time looking at the screen, trying to figure out where to post what, engaging in conversations online when what I really took this course for was to improve my writing. It’s getting in the way.”

Hmmm…he has a point, of course. I have set up a rather complex series of inter-related blogs for that writing course, not all of them for actual blogging (the blogs vs. blogging divide). Students usually feel a bit disoriented during the opening couple of weeks in my courses as I try to pull them out of what I call “the rut of learning”–teacher-to-student delivery system–so his complaint was understandable. I find that students like social software just fine–but in their non-school lives, at least at first. They get it, but they don’t immediately get it in the classroom.

But I’m not concerned about the students doing a little complaining about blogging–a little uneasiness isn’t a bad thing at all in the classroom. I am concerned about the cry from people who aren’t actually using them in the classroom (or anywhere else for that matter); those onlookers reading sensationalized media accounts about lousy classroom practices, and listening to standards-based proponents suspect that something so “cool,” and so seemingly different from traditional ways of learning as blogging-the-verb couldn’t possibly enhance our students’ education. After all, aren’t we supposed to be teaching our kids how to write and write? Shouldn’t that involve pen and paper with a little keyboarding thrown in? Of course we do that, but we have to teach them also how to write well for a world that is no longer the world of pen and paper. It’s hard for our students (whom we’ve groomed in our image–at least inside the classroom) to understand–at first. And so, at the beginning of every semester I’m sure to get a kid or two informing me that blogging has nothing to do with “real” academic inquiry and the building of formal writing skills.

First off I wonder about our driving need to define, to categorize, to evaluate so quickly–I’ve been teaching for over twenty years now, and I feel as though I’m just now really coming into my own on many levels. Writers talk about apprenticeships that last a lifetime. And in my writing classes, I resist giving my students feedback too soon because well, for one thing, an immediate response from the teacher rather than a wider audience made up of peers, older students and the world beyond our walls, quite frankly sets up the teacher-student power dynamic that gets in the way of students taking responsibility for putting into practice the lessons they are learning through this learning collaborative. Too much feedback too soon sets up the expectation that teachers haveTHE answers and provide students with some sort of script to follow. That’s where blogging comes in.

The reality is that writers have to immerse themselves in the actual, complex, difficult act of writing–for quite some time–before it’s appropriate for me to jump in with my comments. Blogging becomes the student writer’s opportunity and responsibility to communicate to and with the group. I no longer even get on our course blogs very much to comment on student posts or to join their discussions. Horrors. I blog in my own spaces on the blog which allows me to participate without dominating, guide without controlling, mentor and model without interfering with the tender, new learning going on. Socrates online is what I’m striving for, I guess.
Many have pointed out over the past few years–James Duderstadt, Rheingold and Vila, for example–what Elmine Wijnia a Dutch researcher I met at BLOGTALK last summer, who has conducted an experiment on blogs in the classroom, observes:

The thing that was most interesting to me was a remark from one of the students that it was easy to check whether something new was published on the blog. It just felt natural to sit behind the computer (mostly at school btw, not at home) surfing around, chatting perhaps and check out the blog in between. Another student told me that it is easier to check to blog, because she often felt ‘too lazy’ to get her books and notebooks in order to get some homework done. It seems that using an internet based communication tool is far more fluent for today’s students.

To me that is the biggest challenge the educational system faces in the next few years. Schools are not dealing with the way teenagers learn. They are taught by people that grew up and finished their education before the internet era. Lots of teachers still lack the skills to teach current teenagers in the way they are familiar with and can understand. Loads of information is coming to them via the internet and everything they do is through the screen: the learning, the reading, downloading and listening to music, writing, designing and most importantly: communicating with the world. And if everything teenagers do is through the screen, why then is there so little taught through the screen??? It’s time for a change, it’s time to blog! (or to use wiki’s or whatever you prefer as long as it’s screen wise)

Researchers around the world are taking similar note. But all this is not to avoid my own tendency to flirt with the line of too-much techology, something I wondered about out loud here a few posts ago. Perhaps I have stepped over the line into the too-many blogs, wikis, podcasts, too-much too-much side of the room. I need to think about it. That’s what we teachers do–we constantly reassess what we’re doing, tweaking lessons, strategies, syllabi in the moment to make the most of the moment. And in blogging right here, I am working through these questions.

And here’s where I stand at the moment: The beauty of blogs, even in their current cumbersome state, is that they are so flexible and fluid as to allow for all kinds of writing, all kinds of uses, all kinds of individual choices. It is the linking, the modeling , the visual nature of the blog that works for me. Students can try out and then identify their writing voices and sitations. They can SEE when writing works and when it doesn’t. They can, at one moment, discuss the reading or respond to a classmate’s assignment, or post their own fledgling draft. They can blog in the purists’ sense of the verb. They need to learn how to write in all kinds of weather so to speak. And that blogs create this richly dense texture of linking to other blogs and sources out there in the world bespeaks the blogging student’s lively mind contextualizing his/her discoveries, grounding them in the larger, timeless conversation.

I do not use blogs because my students think they’re cool (actually my students don’t think they’re as cool as I do) or because I’m enamored of technology. I use them because they help my students become better writers (and you can read my BLOGTALK paper to find out why and how) and because they connect students to a world beyond themselves. And they don’t always welcome how different or challenging it is to have to learn how to negotiate new terrain. At this point in the semester, they’re irked–they want recipes, prescriptions, the five-foolproof-steps-to-writing-the-great paper-or-short-story approach. And we’ve trained them to expect no less, instead of the wonderfully messy process of deep critical inquiry with its switchback trails, its box canyon dead-ends, and its sandstorms out of which we somehow must find our way.

But if you keep them blogging long enough, something opens up…Take Eugene Lee, who has blogged in two of my classes and one of my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini’s, classes. He’s hooked and his writing has come a long way since he started on this blogging adventure a year ago. He’s now popping up on my Creative Writing Course blog as a guest post-er, writing to the students, and on the college’s new Diversity blog where he posted an essay on blogging, in which he refers to a blogging moment from my fall Arts Writing class:

This isn’t like novelists writing in collaboration (or “writing-by-committee”—that doesn’t even sound good), or a bunch of blow-hard critics critiquing, well, anything and everything under sun, it seems like. No, we’re somewhere in between. We’re not so close that we’re restricted by each other’s writing (stylistically or thematically), but we are not so far removed from each other that we are writing responses to each other’s work—we are actually responding. The transient nature of the blog allows for constant growth of our writing, constant change, additions and revisions, and the result is a kind of unified effort in which each piece is unique, and is vibrant and even volatile.

I say volatile because it is sometimes dangerous to be a blogger. We tried an experiment, in my Arts Writing class last semester, The Blogger’s Fieldtrip. One of us would go out to the nearby Middlebury community and explore and find examples of art, and the next person would pick up from where his or her predecessor left off, and find more art in response to the previous blogger. Well, in the following discussion, we engaged in a heated debate (well, the others did, all I did was make an inappropriate poop joke), in which feelings were hurt, and egos bruised.

Because the blog is so spontaneous, there’s always the danger (which I find thrilling) of people getting mad. But it happens on a blog, and it happened on our blog, because everyone 1. had an opinion and 2. had the stones to express those opinions. And our own bloggers were brave, philosophical, funny, and unique.

Is this (people’s feelings hurt) an example of a blogging failure? No. People cared. We cared about what everyone had written and we cared about what we had to say. So often in academic writing, we are forced to be objective and as a result, detached and unaffected. But with the immediacy of the blog, we have the freedom to be fiery and irreverent, passionate and angry and hot.

And so when at the end of our meeting my blog-irked student said he didn’t like the blog because it made him uncomfortable–it was new and he had never written in so many ways all at once–I smiled at him. Indeed.

BLOGTALKS2 Book Now Available

Here it is…
Available through and libri

Papers Available Online

Wish I’d been there…Northern Voices…and Sarah blogging her grad class in adolescent literacies

Vancouver was definitely the place to be this weekend for blogger types, and from what I have read over on Bryan’s blog the discussion was lively and the range of blogging uses remarkable. I’m especially interested to see how many multimedia uses and tools were presented. Lots to explore.

I do have one wee criticism to make about conference sessions on academic blogging (and I’m talking about most conferences here):rarely do we see STUDENTS on panels or teachers outside the technology education/media studies/cyberstudies realm presenting, and to my thinking, we need to hear from the people using blogs, wikis, and other social software well in the liberal arts.

Sarah Lohnes, who has a new blog related to one of her grad classes at Columbia (a must-read for anyone who wants to think about adolescent literacy and learn from her insightful and thought-provoking commentary),is asking some important questions (and pointing to some great sites and resources) about adolescents and literacy–and the lack of the adolescent’s viewpoint in any of the research. In one post she points out:

There is a dearth of undergraduate voices in the literature on technology in liberal arts colleges; it was important to me to not only have student voices be heard, but to draw attention to the fact that colleges, whose mission is ostensibly centered around students, very infrequently draw on students’ practices in decisions around curriculum or administration.

Ah yes, students? What students? How many professors consult their students when creating a syllabus? I know that my practice of posting only a couple of weeks of a syllabus until I can really get a feel for who these students are, and what they want from the course and how they think it ought to be taught before weighing their requests against what in my experience seems to work is quite controversial. Right now I am tweaking the plan I had in mind in two courses, trying to seize upon the lessons I have learned about and from them these first couple of weeks. But the pressure in our classrooms to convey a body of information to students rather than to help them to learn processes and to think critically precludes our ability to listen to our students’ voices.

One of the promising aspects about classroom blogging (and how some students take the blogs and run with them both inside class and out, really making them about much more than classroom discourse as they feel their way through the choreography of their many writing voices playing out on the screen, switching from one to another post by post, something I observed even on a class blog last fall) is how the blog invites students to “take over,” to leave the teacher behind and to put their own voices, their own inquiry, their own concerns front and center. It takes time for a group of students unaccustomed to such a classroom experience to open up and let ‘er rip, but once it happens, they do a better job using the blog well than any of us cyber-immigrants could dream of doing. A couple of examples: last semester’s bloggers’ field trip took a couple of unexpected turns as the students started to feel attacked by one another on the blog, which in turn made them have to discuss in class their own positions within the collaborative and the learning act–fascinating (wish I been podcasting back then). Also right now, students from last year’s creative writing class and jumping onto this year’s blog, inviting themselves on as guides and helpmates of sorts, and indeed, contributing to the shaping of the class, from where they write.
So yes, let’s get students out there involved in the research, speaking with us at the conferences, and taking over the course blogs.

Podcasting and Wikis in the Blogging Classroom

I remember reading Will’s post the first time he tried out podcasting and remarking on his combined interest and dismay over the whole thing (how he felt a little silly). And so I wasn’t sure how I’d like using it in my classes even though I begged the college for some iPODs to play around with in the writing classroom. Since November I’ve been watching how other folks have been using podcasting–and while it certainly makes all the world of sense in language classrooms, it wasn’t until last night when I postedmy first wee attempt at podcastingthat I really saw its potential in the writing and literature classrooms.

Here’s what I’m trying and thinking:

Embedding podcasts on our class blogs to ignite a love of literature and an understanding of how reading literature aloud can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work:

As Mark Bauelring writes in the February 5 edition of TCRecord, in his “Reading at Risk, Culture at Risk”, literature reading is on the wane, and with it some essential cultural understanding:

Civic and historical understanding may seem a far cry from literary reading, but in truth they belong on a continuum of intellectual activities that come together in an enlightened citizen. Literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the past and principles of civil society and governance.

While he oversimplifies the issue by laying the blame at the feet of the Internet in general and weblogs among other applications in particular, he does make a valid point about needing to immerse our youth in the wonders of literature.

And, by golly, podcasting might help out here–at least in my classes. When I asked my students (17 of them in the The Writing Workshop II how many of them read any of the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses aloud to themselves to help them to understand the disorienting sentence structure and ordering, only a couple raised their hands. I, for one, can’t imagine missing any opportunity to read him aloud–the sentences need that slow mix in the mouth before being pushed out in the air–they make such sense this way. And so I recorded myself reading the opening paragraph, so they could hear the words.

Every week from now on, two students will podcast passages they select from the readings, followed by succinct explorations of what they learn as writers from the passages. They will, as I did, refer to other postings on our reading blog that amplify our understanding, or that create tension, or that we just really ought to read. That’s what I did in my first podcast, pointing to a student’s sensitive reading of the opening pages. What is especially effective about embedding the podcast onto the blog in addition to uploading the files onto iPODS is the accessibility of the full blog as they listen–they can look at the post I’m referring to at the same time.

We’ll also record the mini writing lessons the students present to the class starting Thursday, as a way to archive these lessons and as a way for students to hear themselves give presentations. Again, the podcasts will serve multiple purposes, essential to any teaching tool in a twelve-week semester.

As for wikis, Héctor’s class is up and running with our inter-class experiment, my class to jump on this week to explore chronicling the experiences of two sections of the writing workshop–how much will the two classes affect one another as virtual communities? We’ll see…

We’ll also see how much blogging is too much blogging in the writing classroom this semester as my students work on several interconnected blogs–will they hit the saturation point? Will the blogs lose their effectiveness if we pass some as yet-unknown threshold? Are many others out there using blogs in quite this way? I’d be very interested to see…

New Spring Blogs Are Up & Fall Evaluations Are In

My two new course blogs are up and ready for tonight’s workshops when the students will create their own blogs and join the ranks of bloggers.
el170.jpgEL170 Introduction to Creative Writingwp101.jpgWP101: he Writing Workshop II
Both are pretty bare bones at this point, but it’s good to take stock before the students transform them into much more effective vessels for transporting us through this writing adventure.

A couple of interesting developments to note: on the Creative Writing Blog one of last year’s students stepped right up and asked if he could write a letter to the new class and have it posted to the blog, which in turn, has prompted other Creative Writing class alums to show interest in responding to the new writer-bloggers. We will, as always, use the previous course blogs as a resource throughout the course, learning from their successes and failures, being inspired and knowing we can do the same.

On the Writing Workshop Blog, I’m trying out many things for the first time–more on those in future postings–but here we also have alums participating, but not alums of the course, blogging alums, bringing with them their blogs from their first-year seminar this fall, and instead of creating new blogs for this course, they’ll continue on with their original blogs, folding them right into the work, extending their writing portfolios. Does this mark the beginning of blogging portfolios? At Middlebury it does. These four students will also serve as class blogging and digital storytelling experts, helping those classmates who struggle with the technology.

And other alums of blogging are reporting in–two seniors have approached me about blogging next year as part of their jobs, and the fall course evaluations from the Arts writing bloggers indicate that the wild, five-blogs-in-a-sixth did anything but scare them away. They found the real-world feel of the blog and the responsibility for bringing it to life and for sustaining it both effective in helping them develop their writing skills and invaluable in creating a sense of community that they often find sorely lacking in other classes.

We’ll see this evening, how the new group takes to wikis and podcasts as well as to blogs! Ha!

Thoughts as the semester opens…

Evening after evening as I chopped vegetables for dinner, I used to listen to All Things Considered and think that of all the media outlets, NPR made some effort at carrying NEWS, at finding out what’s really going on. But lately, I’ve been getting restless as I listen to yet another broadcast of what sounds just like what they had covered the night before instead of a ferreting out of what’s really going on–where’s the piece about the government requiring Iraqi farmers to purchase their seed from American companies instead of carrying seed over from the previous harvest, for example? Did NPR’s November 24 spot do more than give the story a quick soundbyte?

And so, I find myself more often than not, checking the Web for news or flipping on the iPOD instead of doing what a historian’s daughter , a political activist’s sister, and a resident of the sometimes proud state of Vermont used to do. And then a couple of weeks ago when I decided to give NPR another try, they did a little piece on podcasting. And at the end of it, I felt as though they had just coasted across the easiest, the top-layer of podcasting. Really. Why did they even bother except that it filled time, was hip and diverting.

Fortunately, not all is so bleak– listening to my students, past and present, and to my two teenaged daughters, I see how exciting and efficacious learning about the world and its current state can be if it’s done thoughtfully. Last week I watched my fifteen-year-old stuffing the last few items into her backpack for a four-month journey to South America with The Traveling School. She has propelled herself through high school at a ridiculous speed, careening through four years of high school Spanish and English and history and science and math in two and a half, learning little. Bored. Fed up. Restless. Schoolwork so empty, so driven by meaningless standards, and so cut off from her life–what she’s thinking about and wondering about–that the only goal is to get through school as quickly as possible. And so off she went with nine other girls and three teachers, learning about the world as they go.

And then there’s the phonecall today from my older daughter at Barnard College who was so jazzed about her “reacting to the Past” class that she just had to call. History is taught not through lecture but through role-playing experiences. To hear that kid talk about Rousseau…wow…

And then there’s my student Piya who took her blog to India and narrated her journey, examined the ideas and circumstances of the culture, and received replies from an incredibly varied readership–her peers at college, her professors, her family, and other readers interested in the Indian diaspora.

But these girls are lucky–and privileged–to be able to seek out these kinds of meaningful learning experiences. And as many point out to me, especially those involved in public education, I teach in a magic cocoon of a place, with the luxury of small classes and prepared, motivated students excited about their studies. True true. But I feel we could be doing so much more here where I sit, too. After all, didn’t the folks who run NPR and the other so-called independent media go to these kinds of schools? How can I promote more deep critical independent inquiry in my students while encouraging them to develop community awareness? How can I equip them with the skills to use writing to communicate their ideas, discoveries and experiences to the world–to speak out?

One way is to keep exploring the possibilities of integrating technology effectively into the classroom–not the gloss and shimmer of the hip and the new but the educational and community-building potential of the tools. I am excited by the kinds of experiments Héctor and I are undertaking this semester exploring collaborative memory and knowledge making through narrating the courses on a wiki shared by our classes, and podcasting student presentations to create an ongoing, living archive of the learning as well as a powerful self-evaluation tool for our students. I can explore ways to use these tools to engage learners, to extend the reach of the classroom, to help make the learning meaningful. But they have to get out of the classroom itself. And sometimes the only way that’s practical is virtually.

And so these are my notes to self as I begin the new semester–use the tools carefully and with pedagogical purpose in my classes, reflect often on the experience, collaborate frequently with colleagues here and at other colleges, and experiment fearlessly.