Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Teaching Blogging in a College Classroom (a Response to Gawker)

Gawker has one of those sneering snarky posts that seems to be giving everyone a good chuckle this morning:

So then, it's a new academic program straight outta Duke University: "Write(H)ers," which will, according to the Duke Chronicle, "create a community of feminist-oriented writers," by, you know, teaching women how to blog. Specifically—direct quote—"The 23 members of the program will participate in personal blogging." This new program is officially sponsored by the Women's Center at Duke University, a school with a tuition of $43,623 per year.
As strong supporters of feminist-oriented writers and bloggers, let us be very clear: this is a total fucking scam. (Source)

Whenever you want to make something unconventional at an elite university sound ridiculous, all you have to do is bring up the tuition. Sex week at Yale? They pay $45,000 a year for that? Just about anything college students might do at any such expensive institution could be made to sound ridiculous with that sticker price. Invoking tuition is, in short, an easy rhetorical move (a bit cheap).

Once you get past the tuition shock, the reason Nolan gives for claiming that the new "Write(H)ers" program is a scam? You can also learn how to write online for free -- just by doing it:

The finest bloggers, meaning the finest writers who happen to write primarily online, got good, like every other writer, by reading, and writing. These things—particularly the writing part—can be accomplished for free, without ever paying a penny to Duke or any other university, and without filling out an application form to an academic program. I hear Tumblr.com works well. Contributing "three blog posts over the course of the semester" is not going to help you. Sorry.

It so happens that this spring I am teaching a course called "Writing for the Internet." It is a writing course, and blogging is a major component of what I have been asking my students to do. The platform are using is Tumblr. It actually does work well. You can see what my students are blogging by starting here. We've used Tumblr's Dashboard / social media design to create a "blog circle" -- where everyone in the course follows everyone else.

I do not know enough about the Duke program to defend it directly, though the Duke Chronicle article cited by Gawker does help a little. For one thing, any university education in the humanities is as at least partially about socializing in future professional networks. And an important part of "Write(H)ers" seems to be oriented to just that. The program has several influential feminist bloggers visiting the campus, and students in the program will be interacting with them. The Duke Chronicle has a helpful quote from a participant named Sara Van Name along those lines:

“This program was a dream come true for me because I read a lot of feminist blogs and several of the women who write these blogs now have the opportunity to come to Duke and explain to this new community how to follow in their footsteps,” Van Name said.
Gawker asks whether it's worth their tuition dollars for students to get access to people like Jill Filipovic (of Feministe) or Rebecca Traister (of Salon) by enrolling in this program; I tend to think the answer would have to be yes for those students, especially if down the line they might want to think about writing for Salon, Feministe, Jezebel, etc.

The other question, which of course this snarky post on Gawker won't bother with, really boils down to whether there's any value in teaching writing in a college classroom to begin with. Over the years many successful authors, especially creative writers, have at times made arguments to the effect of: "there's no point teaching writing in a college classroom, you just have to get out there and do it." (Here's a recent one by Anis Shivani.) But for every commercially-successful novelist that has said something along those lines, there are 20 published and well-reviewed literary novelists who make far better salaries teaching in various university MFA programs than they ever would by selling books alone. I would tend to expect that they believe that what they do when they teach writing has value--that writing can, in fact, be taught. (Though perhaps it's right to acknowledge that not everything about good writing can be taught.)

Could you learn to write well entirely on your own? Yes, surely, if you were very motivated. But teaching can also be part of it: there is value added in working with students to help them learn the mechanics of effective sentences, as well as effective and interesting arguments. They could probably learn some of these skills by going out there and trying to blog "for real," but is Hamilton Nolan really going to argue that it hurts them to have help?  Didn't he have his own modes of help as he learned his own chops at Gawker -- for instance from editors at Gawker itself? Professors in writing workshops often approach their task as exactly that: a first editor. In any case, that's the role I have tried to assume for myself this spring, in "Writing for the Internet."

[Update: a friend pointed out to me an additional point, which I had neglected to mention, that the Women's Center at Duke is not an academic program, and that this is not a part of any course curriculum -- it's extra-curricular. ]

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