Blogs and Letter Writing–Reading today’s Sunday The New York Times Book Review


R.M. Rilke

I first pulled blogs into my college literature and writing classroom four years ago in part because I guessed that if implemented carefully within the course structure, blogging would invite students to experience the pleasures and rewards of, surprisingly enough perhaps, writing the extended letter. Indeed, I often remark here on the wonderful irony that this speed-tool, this hand-it-to-ya-quick-n-easy format, actually encourages the slow, the discursive, the thoughtful and thought-out extended correspondence between my students, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes one-to-many, sometimes many-to-many communications–dialogues or letter-like exchanges via meaty postings and comments rather than adjacent monologues or the rat-a-tat of repartee. The key is audience. On the blog, they are writing to someone, for someone, for many someones. And they get it very quickly. And it’s downright heady to know that if you have something to offer your reader–something expressed authentically, with all the deep thinking and feeling you can can muster, well then, someone else will hear, and respond, and most likely be touched in some way. How often do we encourage our students to aspire to such ends with their writing? How often do we let our students know that it will take a great deal of practice to learn how to feel the shape of the letter, the compression as well as the flexibility of the form? How often do we say, go ahead, and do it wrong for a while–you’ll get it when you’re ready?

I’ve learned over the years that it takes considerable and well-considered guiding and mentoring and modeling to ignite the blog-letter flames. They often have no experience whatsoever in letter writing or any kind of extended written discussion before being introduced to blogs in a class. It takes careful planning on the part of the teacher. And a willingness to write blog-letters, too. And slow things down.

And so reading today’s New York Times Book Review on the heels of teaching a workshop this morning during Middlebury’s Project for Integrated Expression both made me nod and say, yes, exactly, and then sent me to last spring’s course blogs to ask, but did I really insist on the kind of depth and range and daring required of such a communication. Two kinds of letters struck me–first the Letter to the Editor, as written by Francine Prose, taking V.S. Naipaul to task for his perspective as reported by Rachel Donadio in the August 7 Book Review. What a beautifully written letter, for one thing, and for another, an example of a noted writer taking the time to carry out her part of the age-old dialogue about the purpose of art, the novel, stories. I’ll use it as a model in one of my classes.

A little further into the Review comes David Orr’s essay, “On Poetry,” that touches upon some of what I just discussed with my workshop this morning: the power of stories and of the poet writing letters (I should have read the online version early this morning before class…). The essay sent me back into my classroom blogging work, making me look once again at how my students are blogging–really– . In writing about the power and lasting beauty of the letters written by a handful of great letter-writing poets, he bemoans (though not bitterly) the disappearance of the literary letter in this age of email and text messaging. He’s both funny and wry when he gives the test-message equivalent of Keats’ letters to his brothers in which he explains his notion of “negative capability.”

Of course, something shifts when we take away the heavy-bond paper, when we cannot touch the actual paper and words put down by the sender,the smears and tears that give a lived, felt dimension to the missive.

He writes:

…the correspondence of Pope, Keats, Rilke and many others is more than simply an interesting supplement to the poetic canon; without these letters, poetry as we know it wouldn’t exist.”

Even email messages, which bear some resemblance to letters, are probably too short (not to mention too easily disposable) to maintain the letter’s literary position. So we’re likely down to our last few poet correspondents.”

Yes. But really? Or is it too easy to send letters off into Never NeverLand? Could blogs (and I am talking about the few bloggers–just as he was talking about the few letter-writers) save the art of letter-writing, even extending it into a new form of communication between many? Something with an equal richness?

And then there’s the back page of the Week in Review and the 1963 T.S.Eliot quotation about television:

“It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.”

This is one of the great challenges for teachers incorporating computer technology into the classroom, a question that came up several times at Antioch last week–we must ground our pedagogy in learning communities, be they Pierre Levy-type reciprocal apprenticeships, or Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice. We can use technology to bring people together rather than to isolate them further into themselves through using social software to connect communities, through the age-old community-building friendship-bonding, extended ruminating, reflective practices such as letter writing.

And that’s the promise right there, I think, of blogs in the Blogging the World Project–not just to give students a space to gather their thoughts about their own, particular, separate immersive experience abroad, but to connect with one another, student in Russia with student in Germany, say, and to reach out and say, this is what is happening here, and this is what blogging seems to mean and how it feels.

Lots to think through as the semester looms. Lots to keep in mind. Lots to thread into my teaching.


Blogging in the First Year of College

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As I make my way home from Yellow Springs, Ohio and Antioch College (a lovely little town and school that conjures up many images of students wanting to make a difference in the world) where I joined (sans links to the blog!) Alex Wirth-Cauchon from MITC, Nancy Knop from Ohio Wesleyan and Janet Russell from The College of Wooster to talk about integrating technology into the first year experience, I’m delighted to find a wireless hotspot in the Dayton airport. It’s always a pleasure to hear about the innovative and effective uses of technology at other liberal arts institutions–every year the circle of colleagues using technology in interesting and inspiring ways expands, and the questions and conversation get ever more interesting.

For those who want to take a gander, here are Download
the slides and links from my talk

Integrating Pedagogy, Connecting to the World

Back from time off the blog…of course I feel rusty and far behind the summer blogging world, but I also feel rested and clear-headed and ready to move into my fifth year of classroom blogging. A couple of interesting off-blog experiences made me realize how far into this work I have traveled, how well social software works in college writing classrooms, and how, to my continued surprise, many college campuses continue to resist integrating blogging, digital storytelling, podcasting, etc. into the classroom.

First, minor eye surgery kept me virtually sightless and definitely computerless for a week, forcing me to face just how dependent I am on my computer for news, communications and reflective space. It also made me face my poor (read that pathetic) touch-typing skills! Getting out of my eyes helped me to reconnect with other means of communication and contemplation–I do not need to write to know what I think–not always. The experience makes me want to reserve a good bit of time for reflection without spoken or written language. No cameras, either. This kind of quiet resting with the ideas and materials of my fall writing course will do my students good as well. Silence. And time. And introspection.

The second experience, taking my younger daughter on a swing through the west to check out colleges, gave me a fascinating glimpse into the realities of technology integration on campuses other than my own. While many campuses were saturated with technology–wireless access, free laptops, helpdesks, innovative media studies programs involving digital and web work–the humanities were quite quiet about integration of technology. Little in the way of service-learning, either. Makes me want even more than ever to write a book about the hows and whys of integrating social software and digital storytelling into the liberal arts classroom. And makes me feel the gap between such promising initiatives as the Academic Commons (via Bryan’s Infocult) and the reality of what I saw on this trip–very little use of technology in the liberal arts classroom beyond a means of information dissemination. Particularly insightful and valuable is the interview with Jerry Graff in which he says, among many right-on-the-mark things:

How is technology hurting higher education? Aside from the overload problem just mentioned, I think there has been a failure to recognize and exploit the potential that technology offers for improving and transforming day-to-day instruction.

I also found myself thinking back to a lunch meeting several summers ago with Sarah Lohnes, Will Richardson, Hector Vila and Bryan Alexander, because those early classroom bloggers have continued to do remarkable work and have informed my own explorations. How excited and hopeful we were about the possibilities! Following my first, clumsy foray into classroom blogging (in a first-year seminar on contemporary Irish literature and film–the blog is now, unfortunately, offline due to Middlebury’s migration from Manila to MT), with 15 brave students (who just graduated this past May from Middlebury), even back then, even with limited experience with social software, I felt that one of the most important uses of blogging in my classes would be to get students to lift their heads from the ever-engrossing world of their own immersive experience in college and connect their education to the world. Even in that first trial with blogs, I invited experts from the world of Irish film and literature onto the blog to converse with the students. It seemed pretty logical to me. Obvious even. Especially in a rural school quite far from the madding crowd–bring the world to the classroom. And bring the students to the world. We embedded video clips of student presentations onto the blog to serve students in future iterations of the course as well as to “publish” their apprentice-expert findings. Those first students were so fired up by the notion that they were so close to Ireland in reality, that four of them dreamed big enough to write and secure a grant to travel to Ireland that summer to shoot contextual weblfilms and try out a bit of blogging (so early, so clumsy!) But they did it and I still use their films in my classes. And now here goes my colleague, Hector Vila and his group of first-years to Argentina from where they have blogged with such elegance and energy and expertise (just read through the discussion coming out of this single post) that they are rewriting the whole book on a liberal arts education in my estimation. This is the journey. This is the promise of blogging in higher ed.

And the Blogging the World Bloggers are, one by one, setting off for points around the world, and already are using their blogging to delve into the essential questions of study abroad–they are communicating, reflecting, articulating, and announcing themselves and their experiences in deeply thoughtful, probing posts. Wow.

And so, here I am, back again, delighted to be a part of this evolution of blogs in our classrooms, convinced that we should take the time to help our students develop a grammar of and a practice of academic blogging, both individual and collaborative, then pretty much step out of the way except to ask questions and provide feedback (i.e. step out of the center of the blog and thus the classroom). Our students will surprise themselves by how much they accomplish even in a single course in a single semester. Imagine if all their courses, all their semesters, all their disciplines of study were connected via their blogging…