Blogs in class

In yesterday’s NYTimes, Matt Richtel has an article entitled “Blogs vs Term Papers,” in which he sketches a debate about college writing. Cathy Davidson responds brilliantly, talking at length about her own experience with teaching methods that stray from the traditional academic writing still taught in many places.

Even Richtel’s piece points out the false binary in blogs vs term papers (why not both?), but another false binary, introduced in a quote, goes largely unexamined:

“She’s right,” [William H.] Fitzhugh says of Professor Davidson. “Writing is being murdered. But the solution isn’t blogs, the solution is more reading. We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.”

So, it’s blogs vs term papers, or blogs vs. reading, as if requiring blogs precludes assigning reading. And reading what, by the way? Articles? Blog entries? Novels? Academic essays? Comic books?  And the prejudice remains that blogs are always short, sloppy, personal, ill-researched, and term papers aren’t.

I am having my students keep blogs this semester for the first time in many years. The blog entries I will require them to write take the place of short response papers they used to hand in to me. My rationale is that, if they feel they are writing for a public audience they will write differently, and be responsive to that audience in a different way. Their classmates will certainly read their work, and the general public also has access to these blogs. And guess what? They’re also writing more traditional papers.

I don’t believe that anyone thinks assigning blogs is avant-garde at this point, and I think the only way anyone could strongly oppose them is to come up with headlines like “Blogs vs Term Papers” and fall into stereotypes about what blogs do, as if the only function of a blog is to act as a 14-year old’s diary.

What I have found so far is that most of my students have never heard of, let alone kept, blogs. With a few exceptions, the few that have them use them for their English classes.

My hope is that they will treat them as a space for their own writing, for experimenting with prose and trying out opinions, and for seeing their own writing as  potentially valuable to others. I also hope it will teach them to be accountable in their writing and consider an audience beyond their stodgy professor. Finally, I hope they will take ownership of their new blogs and keep them after the class is over.

In assigning them blogs, I recommended WordPress but told them they can use whatever they like, including Blogger, Tumblr, Posterous or whatever. I also gave them the following advice about anonymity:

Everything you post on your blog is public. You may use your real name on your blog, but you do not have to. You might prefer to use your first name and last initial, or a complete pseudonym. So long as I and your classmates know it’s you, you can use whatever name you like. Think hard about this, but know that with most blogs, you can change your display name whenever you want, so your decision is reversible.

(The anonymity bit is prompted in part by the strange experience my class had last time we did blogs.)

I know I have created for myself a total mess in allowing different platforms and levels of anonymity, but I have learned from experience that students have different levels of awareness about online identity, and I want them to make informed decisions since these are, after all, their blogs, not mine.

I am going to put together a list of all the blogs from the class, but I am not sure I will publish it publicly, because, frankly, I don’t know what the FERPA implications are. If you have any insight on this, let me know.

I realize that this blog post has become quite rambling and fragmented, but isn’t that part of the point? I wouldn’t submit this to a journal, nor would I consider this scholarship in any traditional sense. But neither is it a pointless diary entry about what I ate this morning (if you’re interested, I will tell you). And writing this blog entry doesn’t mean that I cannot or will not write more sustained and organized argumentation around this topic. I simply haven’t chosen to at this point, in this venue, and I think that’s ok. If that’s all my students learn in their blog entry assignments,  I will be satisfied. After all, they still have to write a longer essay for me.