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.

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