It's hardly revolutionary to use blogs or blogging in writing courses. I myself had used blogs in courses before, but generally as a secondary feature in courses where conventional papers constituted the bulk of the grade. Students in those courses generally didn’t care too much about the course blog: it didn’t really reach outside readers, and the students saw it as a chore, not so different from logging into Blackboard/CourseSite to write a response paper.
- Writing should be clear and focused, expressing a point of view with authenticity and commitment.
The use of the first person voice can strengthen the sense of authenticity that can be a decisive element in composing a good argument. For that reason I actively encouraged students to make their arguments personal where appropriate: why does this issue particularly matter to you? Is there a personal experience you can mention along the way to discussing a topic that might be of general interest?
Needless to say, this approach to writing is very different from what many students are taught, either in high school English classes or even in many composition courses at the college level. I did try and stress to students that this particular component of their work for the course might not be appropriate in every context – but it’s one of the cultural norms of internet writing (both in the blog world and on social networks) that seems really important to understand. Part of why blogs have been so successful finding loyal readers in the past decade is that they have proven to be places where writers can be honest and frank in their perceptions. Individuals expressing their views on blogs are not trying to write in the “fair and balanced” way required by traditional journalism, nor are they going to necessarily limit themselves to safe views or safe topics. To be clear, the decentering of institutional journalism has not meant that objectivity is now irrelevant – we need it now more than ever. Paradoxically, removing the requirement that we sound fair and balanced might actually lead to an environment where real objectivity can be achieved through debate, rather than presumed.
- Writing should be actively engaged with other voices – part of a conversation with numerous other people rather than simply the expression of a lone “genius in the wilderness.”
To help ensure that students were getting this message, I tried three different kinds of assignment models that aimed to stimulate dialogue. One was to ask them to write a response to a particular argument written by someone outside the class, especially writing that itself might be a blog post (including “professional” blog posts at the New York Times and elsewhere). Another assignment model I used involved asking students to write a full-length post of their own responding to a post by another student in the class. And a third assignment model (used more sparingly) involved asking students to go out and find people writing on their topic, either on blogs / websites or on Twitter.
Another important feature of the course that aimed to encourage a sense of dialogue was the practice of reserving a significant chunk of time from just about every class session to having students read and discuss their work aloud. While I did aim to give airtime to all of the students in the class, I didn’t notify students in advance that we might look at their work on particular days, partly thinking that a certain degree of randomness might encourage students to try and put forward their best work daily. I believe this strategy worked, though I will probably hear from students later (i.e., in course evaluations) if we might have ironed out this part of the course a bit better.
Reading one’s work aloud, in front of an audience, remains an invaluable way of evaluating its effectiveness. You can see it in the eyes and body language of your listeners, and in the nature of the questions and comments you get afterwards. If there’s something I’ve written that isn’t quite right or poorly articulated, reading it aloud in front of people I often feel it in my bones.
- Good writing is almost always the product of work. Just because we can have our thoughts immediately accessible to others does not mean we should publish half-baked ideas or poorly articulated arguments.
Our work is much more likely to hit its target if we think it through, and work hard to make sure we are making our case as clearly and carefully as possible. Good writers are not born but made. I have learned this from personal experience – I do tend to think that my writing early in my career (even enrolled in Ph.D. programs at Tufts and then Duke) was clunky and often inefficient. I am still no Andrew Sullivan, but I have improved – through lots and lots of practice, and through hearing from readers when my work leaves something to be desired. (Of course the loudest feedback when writing on the internet might well be silence: if you write something you share with others and get no feedback, no Facebook comments, no Retweets, you probably didn’t hit the mark.)
To underline the importance of care, self-editing, and revision, I assigned several “revision” posts – where I asked students to go back to an already published post and revise it. This goes against one of the cultural norms in the blogging world, but it seemed appropriate for this particular class since the idea is that these students are using the class to get practice and develop technique and voice. I did encourage students to mark the revised posts as revised in the title (“XYZ (Updated)”).