The yin and yang of classroom writers blogging: lightening up

When I first started teaching creative writing at Middlebury College a decade or so ago, I preached patience to my students, describing the “glorious failures” that awaited them during their long apprenticeships a la Charles Baxter who talks about writing for some ten years before actively seeking publication ( see the Ploughshares profile). My students would indulge me by nodding yes yes of course, but then ask about how, once they were ready, how to get their work out there and read. They wanted to know right there in the first weeks of the intro course if they were good enough for the long haul. I wanted to know if they dared put away their own sense of direction and ego long enough to learn from those who came before them. I talked about Japanese potters throwing the same shape day after day for years–could they do that? Could they write some hundred pages for every ten they kept? I made them read and read and read and write. I quoted from Samuel Johnson: “I hate to meet a writer who has written more than he has read.” They were aching to have contact with the world, and I was telling them about the young art students of Europe standing day after day in drafty museum galleries copying the masterworks, learning the grammar of the brush and the work of those who came before them as they pushed to create their own work, to exert their own voices upon their art. I likened their trajectories to those of painters and dancers and musicians, all of whom spend many years grasping the technique so they can find the art inside their instruments. I agreed with Thomas Mann, who said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for anyone else.” My students looked at me impatiently: yeah yeah yeah, but when will we know if we can do this thing?

Now I find myself urging my students to put their work out there right away and frequently–on their blogs and the Motherblog–to experiment with media and voice and audience and genre. People mistake that for a 180 degree turn, thinking that I have abandoned my stance on taking time to learn and hone the craft, to dare make big mistakes before caring about publication. Hardly.

Blogging is different altogether, providing a wonderful balance between putting work out there and developing the practice. Yes, they get to float their young, sometimes inspired work out in the world and see what comes back. They get to read it on the Web, Google themselves, try the writer’s life on for size. They look back at old posts with incredulity–I wrote that? Argh!— but see the growth, the need for apprenticeships while reaching out with the work to see how the world responds. Through blogging, they also develop discipline, writing regularly both at as high a level as they can and freely, because no one expects you to do anything spectacular on a blog anyway. There is the freedom that comes with a medium that is not altogether accepted as a means of artistic expression. At least not yet. How immensely satisfying for the teacher and the student. We can both relax into the writing for its own sake, relishing the discoveries and the risks as they appear through our fingers and into language on our screens, and hold ourselves to a routine of writing and to a standard–the fact that our words go out into the world instead of staying in our notebooks forces us to consider them more carefully, perhaps, than we would in a journal or for a teacher alone (at least the kind of blogging I’m talking about).

My student, Megan, in a recent post on practice, writes:

The Art of Practicing
Practicing my violin since I was three-years old, I learned two important skills:
1) Self-discipline
2) Ensemble

Piya mentioned, in a comment posted to BG’s blog, that part of her purpose for blogging involves a “space” for practicing writing. I’ll be returning to Middlebury in January, and I feel more confident, composed, and excited about approaching writing and its entire process since participating and sharing within this community.

Writing is perhaps the most important skill in college. So why aren’t we practicing our writing by reflecting conversationally about our subjects of study in a blog-setting???

We need to pay more attention to the value of this comraderie felt through Web publishing and connecting. As Megan says, students hanker after this collaboration, this community-making out there in the world. This is the arena for discussing how to share ideas and to incorporate the ideas of others into our own work, the way Will Richardson discusses in his excellent “What do we do about that?” post. Communities of practice within the Academic Commons subvert urges to “steal” or to “hoard” ideas while they encourage boldness and accomplishment. Competition becomes friendly and respectful and measured–the individual striving for excellence while benefitting the group–because students support and applaud one another in this blogging atmosphere–everything is out in the open and connected, honored and learned from and carefully considered.

And so this blogging serves the work and the students themselves. My blogging creative writing class from last spring has organized a reunion at my house tomorrow–they miss the community, but they are kept so busy in their studies that they don’t have the time to participate meaningfully in this kind of community outside the classroom, they say. Except for the group abroad. Which is a shame. Laura Blankenship’s recent post about homework in the early grades made me wonder how meaningful are the assignments we give our students in college. Do we overload them with information and tasks instead of giving them the room to explore the material and their approaches to thinking about it critically and creatively? Is this not also perhaps what Aaron Campbell discusses in his “Violence in the Classroom” post when he writes, about his EFL students:

When given the opportunity to take control of their learning, they get nervous, confused, and irritable; and like sailors on a sinking ship, they look desperately for rescue. From the very beginning of their formal education, they have rarely been encouraged to think for themselves, take a critical stance, and choose the direction and pace of their learning. They’ve been marginalized, homogenized, standardized, and processed. They sport student numbers and grades like cattle sport brands and bells; and like all domesticated livestock, they are completely dependent on their owners for sustenance.

Blogging through a course–any course–as a means of interactive reflection and questioning and experimenting with form frees students to explore, to practice, to work hard for their own reasons. There is space and time on a blog, just as there is the drive to post and to comment–to post anything if need be just to ping people’s Bloglines feeds. George Siemens’s “The Joys of Shallow Thinking” post which gets at how our we are now literally surfing through hundreds of essays, articles and posts, looking for the general idea, the bit to return to later captures half of the tension. Yes, blogs have us skimming. But through the practice of regular posting, of having something to offer the group, students can slow things down, go deeper, hang in there longer with the unending apprenticeship because suddenly what they have to say can matter now while not being held up to the kind of scrutiny it would if printed, between covers, and costing money.

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One Response

  1. Hello there

    I asked some questions in a recent blog post about how I could encourage my students to get into blogging. I think I could do little better than point them at your post here… and the one before this… and…

    Thank you for sharing these ideas. To quote just one of the many bits I want to share with my students, you say, “Blogging through a course–any course–as a means of interactive reflection and questioning and experimenting with form frees students to explore, to practice, to work hard for their own reasons.” Bloggers as self-motivated, self-reflectve students working in a community of learners. Brilliant!

    Thanks again for getting me thinking and hopefully inspiring some of my students to get blogging.

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