Blogging from Argentina

I donīt do much blogging from the field, preferring to jot notes and impressions from conferences in draft mode, letting them percolate into a post when I return home. Same with travels of any sort–I take a good old paper journal and leave the computer at home.

But as I am embarking on this blogging-the-world project with a small group of students heading to study abroad experiences this fall, I want to blog from the Northwest of Argentina at least once before I head home if for no other reason than to feel what itīs like to step off the streets, out of the immersive experience into this dimly lit, grungy little room filled with computer terminals and telephone booths, trying to figure out the differences between the keyboard here and my lovely little Powerbook at home, surrounded by teenagers playing computer games, travelers checking email, my daughter i-ming friends at home. I never sit tapping away on a greasy keyboard surrounded by strangers engaged in all manner of transactions, and I find myself distracted repeatedly by the people here. Fiction writer that I am, I am fascinated by the potential of stories. Internet cafe stories. Telephone booth stories from this neck of the woods–the old couple coming in to call someone in America. The indigenous boys playing shoot ém up games. The girls in school uniforms writing papers. The travelers playing online chess. The man singing Andean folk songs next to me as he surfs the Web. Stories. Is there a camraderie felt in these places between the people at their stations? Am I romanticising? Yes, I believe I am.

So here, nearly three weeks into this trip to Ecuador and Argentina I am ready to blog about blogging abroad. Iīve checked in on home a couple of times via email during the trip, but blogging is of course not at all the same as emailing. And as I sit here, I see that blogging has the potential to be more challenging and more valuable than I had thought. As I sit here trying to put words to the experience and as I miss out on whatever my daughter and husband are doing out there in the sun,I get a little glimpse of blogging in the world as my students will experience it.

Internet cafes take you out of the immersive experience–they interrupt it in a way that a journal or an aerogramme on a park bench do not. Itīs disorienting to have your blog homepage pop up as though you are actually sitting in your office. You could be anywhere. Or nowhere.

Taking the time to write more than a journal entry (for that is what I am asking my students to do–to be aware that they are publishing, that they are engaging in a conversation with the other project bloggers and whoever else reads along) is something they may well resist. Itīs different from writing in ýour private journal or a letter or even a group email which is a one-to-self, one-to-one or one-to-many proposition. The audience of the blog is self, inner circle and unknown other, and while you canīt really think about or worry about that unknown reader (reminds me of what my fiction writing teacher said in grad school–write for the good of the work first, then for yourself, then for the reader), you cannot pretend that you are writing just for yourself. So you shape your words more carefully, striving for clarity and pushing past the shards of memory and observation to try to express something you want to hear back about–you are communicating, conversing, discussing instead of narrating. (though you do a lot of that too) And that shaping can take time–internet cafes can be expensive and who wants to waste time away from the fascinating world out there. You can blog a la Piya and her India blog, writing the post first and then copying it into the blog later. This shaping and deeper thinking, processing of the expereicne can disrupt the experience. A paper journal can exist in jabby fragments each of which signals a full experience or response. A bog, or least this kind of blog, should do something a little different.

Reaching out and talking with others about the kinds of observations being made about life in Russia and Brazil and India and Germany, for example, can bring a sharper focus to the year abroad. Itīs the old “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” deal. And in turn, perhaps our senses will be heightened, weīll take in more and have more to say about it. Language will help us create the meaning. Certainly it could enrich it.

And so I see the blog as being a wonderfully fluid receptacle for all kinds of reflections and discoveries for the student studying abroad as long as itīs connected to other blogs and the bloggers get on one anotherīs blogs and keep a group conversation going on the main group blog.

Options and oppotunities for the group plus individual blogs–

— A place to try blogging in the second language

–Reflections and observations about the particular expereince

–Tips for travelers and for students considering a year abroad/Info exchange

–Questions for other bloggers

—RSS feeds from media & resources

–Photo repository

And as someone said about writing poems that itīs damn hard to keep the beat and the meaning at the same time, itīs damn hard to write in an internet cafe and keep focused. And so back out into the sun I go trying to make myself understood in my poor Spanish, wishing I had a community of bloggers-in-the-world who were discussing with me their experiences with the internet cafe.

Collaborative Blogging and Blogging in the World

Along with colleagues from other Northeastern schools within our Mellon cluster, I am looking into opportunities for students (and faculty)to blog in the field, collaboratively as well as solo. This idea originated when several students heading off to study abroad adventures, bloggers from my classes, approached me about setting up a blog to chronicle their journeys for the folks back home.

Ah, I thought–here’s an opportunity to do more than use the blog as a public journal or a version of the World-o-Gramme, a mimeographed letter sent out to everyone back home by my husband during his two-year adventure around the world in the days when we sent aerogrammes (yes, it dates me…). Here’s a chance to build on the work of students in Middlebury’s Rural Medicine Preceptorships, like Char in Scotland, blogging her experience; or like Piya using the blog to chronicle, to analyze, to converse, to reflect on her journey through India. And now there’s Donovan blogging his way to Antarctica. What interests me in particular about what’s he’s doing is how the blog allows him to integrate his geology studies with his writing: he’s a scientist first and a writer second, but he feels as though the blogging will enhance the experience for him and will enable him to report back to the world and hopefully engage with other interested scientists and lay readers in discussion about his findings.

Next fall, we will hand several student bloggers their own blogs as they head out to study abroad, and add a Motherblog, a collaborative space for the students to create their own virtual community of practice, exchanging perspectives and advice, discussing the experience and extending the learning while bringing it to the people at home. This collaborative blog, I am thinking, will provide an essential ingredient to the blogging experience, something I’ve been mulling over these past weeks–

–And especially now in light of two recent comments on the blog about blogging collaboratively. First, in response to my Trouble in Blog Paradise postinga couple of posts ago, Chris Alfano writes in from Stanford:

I have a lot of empathy about your struggle with student bloggers — I use blogs in my writing courses as well and find myself continually revising my approach to my blogging assignments in an attempt to find that “right” mix of pedagogical purpose and creative experimentation. Surprisingly, I tend to have a mix of reactions to blogging no matter what I do: some students embrace it warmly and enthusiastically, while others look at it as “busy work.”

What I’m really curious about is your work with collaborative blogging. As we start up our new quarter in a week or so, I’m planning to implement (for the first time) a class blog. However, I’m still in the process of concretizing my expectations for it. I would love to learn more about your own experiences with the collaborative blogging format since it appears you’ve been employing it in conjunction with your courses for a while.

It’s heartening to see that Chris and others are also exploring the benefits of the collaborative blog in the classroom–getting the students to work with one another, to see learning as a social activity, and understanding that we can expand our students’ horizons with such simple steps as putting them in direct contact with one another in class through the kinds of discussions that occur on a blog on which they link all of their work as well as hold forth on topics relevant to the course. The benefits to a community both in and out of class are pretty remarkable. I have used collaborative Motherblogs as a portal for all the student blogs, the course information, relevant resource material from the outside world, and a range of discussions within the class group and with experts out in the field. Perhaps the most valuable, and the riskiest, use of the collaborative blog is the gaping, public homepage handed over to the students a few weeks into the semester(for the pitfalls of open-ended, student-directed blogging, see my Trouble in Blog Paradise post). The first couple of semesters I would find myself pulling up the blog several times a day to see if they had posted and what they had posted, worrying about whether students would “do themselves proud.” But after a couple of courses, I relaxed. Some postings were exquisite, others pretty bad, but they all represented threads of the course, a building of something far greater than the sum of our parts. But of course, sometimes, the blog just never takes off. If they don’t find things to share and talk about, relevant, meaningful things, then the blog stalls and falls limp, serving us as a repository of objects we’ve produced rather than a dynamic, evolving learning experience that becomes a presence, so much so in one class that a student experimented with “becoming the blog.”

On Sunday, I ran into one of my current creative writing students in the Chicago airport as we were both making our way back from the west coast after spring break. We ended up talking about the class, naturally, and he (unprompted) observed that he had never been in a class with such a strong community bond, and he was certain it was blog that made the difference. There’s something, he said,about being alone in your room late at night, and popping over to the blog to see what was stirring. You could read someone’s latest story or the new musing-at-large, comment on someone’s work, join a discussion underway, or start something new yourself. Some students automatically pull up the blog first thing every morning and then each time they return to their rooms. If I had just given each student a blog, this wouldn’t happen. And if I just used a discussion board (yes, I do get asked at conferences about the difference between the blog and the discussion forum or board) without giving each student their own blog, too, it wouldn’t happen,. There’s a magic that emerges with the mix of collaborative Motherblog and individual blog. And my students really feel it.

One student (a now blogless one at that) has been popping up on my blog lately, leaving me some wonderfully insightful,spirited comments, including this one from yesterday:

Hello Barbara, I am not sure whether or not you realize it, but your encouragement for students to blog and to link different communities across the web is so crucial in helping ignite new and successful forms of ‘social capital’ that this country desperately needs. Robert Putnam spoke today at Middlebury and for those that don’t know…he studies the rise, fall, and effects of civic engagement and ‘social capital’ in our country. He could not have stressed more that this country is at an all time low. The effects that this has on our society are numerous and bridging people together across and among communities is what needs to happen. New methods and means of participation must be established in order for ‘social capital’ to once again rise. Putnam said, “Boy scouts, the Lions Club, and Bridge just aren’t doing it anymore.” In an increasingly transnational world, what better way to link people together than through BLOGS! So when you ask yourself, what can students do after the class is over and they still want to blog? The answer is anything you can! It is a great sign that students are willing to participate and that they are looking for a community to engage in. I do not completely know your authority in setting up blogs for students, but if there is anything that I can do…let me know!- ZOEY

She’s not just speculating about the potential for convening on the blog, she has experience within a strong classroom blogging community and was emboldened and supported by it in her own creative and critical work. And to think that she, a sophomore in college, no longer even in one of my classes, is posting comments to my blog, engaging me in discussion, asking me questions, and even making suggestions. This is efficacy in action: her work clearly is meaningful to her environment–her commments make a difference to my blogging and my evolution as an educator– and thus she sees its worth, her worth.

And so, as I watch Donovan embark on his Antarctica adventure, I applaud and support his efforts, but I also know that if he had a whole cadre of blogging cohorts on their own adventures, his blogging experience would be enriched, grounded, and extended well beyond what he can possibly do on his own, checking in for comments and posting out there into the wind.