Trouble in Blog-Paradise

I’ve been one of the lucky ones whose students blogged away blissfully. No need in my classroom to require blogging, to cajole or to entice students, to evalute them on the number of posts. They got it because they could see how valuable to them blogging could be–and besides, it looked like fun.

Until now.

One class (Creative Writing) has taken to blogging, the other (The Writing Workshop) refuses to blog. And on the surface, it all makes sense that a bunch of creative writers would like blogging better than would Comp students, who can have major writing anxiety at a school like Middlebury (associated as it is with the reputation of Bread Loaf–school and writers’conference).
Many researchers and teachers using blogs write about how to get students to blog and how to evaluate them. Dennis Jerz, for one, gives his students a clear rubric for their online portfolios, and Bud Gibson from Univesity of Michigan discusses ways to get students blogging.

But several moments from this past week have me back here on the blog musing aloud that there’s something I’m still just getting a handle on about the role of blogs/wikis/podcasting in higher ed–where social software makes sense and where, perhaps, it does not. And I still find myself resisting what I’m feeling is a tendency to put blogs into boxes in our classrooms, when it is through their messy, sprawling, informal nature altogether that powerful learning takes place.

In a discussion between faculty and students about the role of “experiential learning” on campus now and in the future, I was struck by both how passionate the students were about their independent and/or service-learning work, and how passionate they were about its academic viability in the traditional sense: they espoused its rigor while they argued for flexibility. Students want more options for learning here, but they also like the old forms. In other words, they don’t want to change the system, they want to expand it. And these were among our most daring kids, the ones with enough drive and vision to actively pursue creative, independent options as part of their liberal arts education. These were the students who push past barriers. Interesting.

What they said rings true to my recent experience with student bloggers. If students see and accept the viability of blogs within the traditional curriculum, they seem to take to them with energy and enthusiasm. My creative writers, for instance, get it. Quickly. They see the value of having a space for talking as writers about writing. it’s our online coffeehouse, if you will. They like posting their work for feedback; they like hearing their voices reading online; they really are beginning to like collaborative blogging, or blogging-as-conversation rather than blogging-as-monologue. And so, here in the fifth week, they’ve gone and taken on the course blog, engaging with one another and course alums and class tutors in all kinds fo writing. Of course it’s pretty much an in-house blog in that they are not linking to the outside world, bringing in other blogs or resources. They are content to explore the full range of this little writing community of 21. The blog works for them, and they give to the blog. Comfortably. And it makes sense–these are the students who, for the mostpart, came to Middlebury to write; they are the ones who will move forward with their blogging past the course. They want to be writers. They like seeing their own words out there on the cyberscreens of the world. It gives them, as one of my blogging students put it, a whiff of what it will be like to publish their books.

This week, in my other class, the composition class, the blogging has just about come to a halt. Emphatically. The students do not like blogging. They do not want to blog. Nor do they altogether like the blog as a place to post their writing. They don’t want so much exposure–that’s why they take this class–to improve so that they will get good enough to feel ready for that kind of exposure. But not yet. It’s too public. And it makes them more anxious about performance than they already are. The podcasting, interestingly enough, comes more easily, as do the wiki discussions (though my students do not feel the kind of ownership of this space that Héctor’s do–and there are good reasons for that including my own absence on the wiki). But they don’t want to post alone.

And so that brings me round to how difficult it is for students at colleges like Middlebury to feel okay about “glorious failures.” One blogging class isn’t enough–they have to sense that blogging is viewed as a legitimate form of academic discourse in their other classes. What the students in the experiential learning meeting said about needing some measure of mastery of their discipline before embarking on independent work or in experiential learning surprised me. Where’s the fun? Where’s the mucking about in the messy landscapes of inquiry? Where’s the using writing to learn rather than to deliver the learning for evaluation? What have we done?

As I prepare my part of a collaborative proposal to the upcoming social software workshop at the Annenberg Center (the most interesting and significant part of the proposal coming from two of my blogging students with whom my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini and I are collaborating on a panel discussion proposal), I’m going to zero in on this conundrum–how do we really use social software to open the windows in the classroom and let some fresh air in. How do we do so without inadvertently reinforcing our students’ natural desire for a roadmap through our courses.

Perhaps I let my students flail about too much. Perhaps I should make it easier for them, on them. And so I have a choice here. I can require my students to blog, or I can abandon the blog, or I can keep working with them to see the value of informal discourse, of conversation, of thinking out loud, of writing for this medium as well as for the page. And of course, that’s what I’ll do– keep working on ways to put the responsibility in their hands, saying: you blog, you benefit. Simple? We’ll see.