Wrap Up from Spring Teaching: "Writing for the Internet"

Writing for the Internet: A Wrap Up from Spring 2013

Earlier I had mentioned I would be debuting a new course called "Writing for the Internet" this spring. Below are my reflections on the course as it actually transpired. I will certainly try and do the course again soon, though I might alter it or refine certain parts of it in some ways, and would welcome feedback from readers as to how to do this.

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.

I wanted to make online writing the center of this course, not a secondary feature. I also wanted to try and create an ecosystem where students would actually be interested in reading each other’s works and find it convenient and simple to do so. I also had hopes of connecting students with outside readers – so I was going to ask them to post on the open internet (of course, with the option to use a pseudonym). This mean we would need to move beyond firewalled courseware options.  

To help students feel that their writing was “live,” I decided to use Tumblr, a free social networking oriented blogging platform.  Admittedly, the Tumblr platform has some pretty substantial design limitations which would make it hard for me personally to commit to Tumblr as a primary platform for longer posts. Also, the broader stylistic norms on Tumblr emphasize a sense of immediacy and short comments rather than longer, more substantial writing. Successful Tumblr bloggers tend to be aggregators, image hunters, and meme generators rather than serious writers (which is not to diminish the value of skillful aggregation – but it’s a different skill from composing a convincing argument).

For the purposes of this class, however, we didn’t need to worry too much about those stylistic norms – since the goal was to create a closed Tumblr loop for the 19 students in the class and myself. This was fairly easy to do. (You can see my root blog for the course here: amardeeplehigh, with a blogroll consisting of student blogs on the right column.)

Three Characteristics of Good Internet Writing

My experience writing for the internet over about a decade has led me to some pretty simple conclusions about what works. Here are the three principles of effective writing on the internet that structured much of what we did in this class:

  •  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)”).

Those three principles probably cover the bulk of what we did in “Writing for the Internet” with regards to nurturing student writing. There were a couple of other elements of the course that might make it a little different from other writing courses. One was our focus on incorporating visual and video illustrations into posts. This is one of the most obvious stylistic norms of internet writing, and we did not ignore it. I even spent some time in class showing students (admittedly, it’s not that hard) how to do embedded video in Tumblr.
What Students Wrote; What They’re Writing Now

Students came in knowing this would be a pretty intensive writing course, and I did ask them to do a substantial amount of writing – a minimum of 500 words a week (generally two 250 word posts, one for each class session).

I also assigned a certain amount of reading related to internet culture, including books such as Siva Vaidhyanthan’s The Googlization of Everything, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and Jaron Lanier’s manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, as well as a textbook called (appropriately!) Writing for the Internet, which provided a general overview of the world of online writing. We also spent a session discussing the Curious Rituals Ebook, and periodically stopped to discuss some recent events involving young people abusing social media – we talked about Dharun Ravi/Tyler Clemente as well as the Steubenville rape case. 

I gave students the option to write on any topics in which they had a strong personal interest, encouraging them to try and identify a particular niche or theme early on, but not requiring a niche if none presented itself immediately. This seemed to work well, since students generally picked topics for themselves that they cared about: a couple of students wrote on movies and celebrity culture (tieacp, elizabethlehigh), while three students focused more or less exclusively on sports (Levine-lehigh; rhc-lehigh; harrylehigh). I was especially impressed by the writing of the class' “sports bloggers” – it often seemed to me that they were only a step or two shy of the quality of writing one might find with professional sports columnists at places like ESPN.com. One student, justinpierce28, focused mainly on music, and provoked some memorable debates involving several students on electronic music (see this post, and this response from a peer). Joselehigh’s focus was ostensibly on business, but he ended up writing on the business dimension of a pretty impressive range of topics, from the dysfunctional economics of European soccer to the clean-up costs of the BP Oil spill, to Wrestlemania.

Rmchristal focused on the theme of “women and work,” which turned out to be a timely topic – given the incredible amount of interest and coverage this spring related to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, not to mention Marissa Mayer’s decision to end the work from home option at Yahoo (on my suggestion, she also looked at the controversy over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s bombshell essay from The Atlantic last summer, “Women Can’t Have it All”). Another student (julz83), who aims to become an English teacher after graduation this spring, focused on issues related to the teaching profession, including especially the union / merit pay / charter school debates (another hot-button issue!). Emwaterfield focused on the fashion industry, writing about “insider” topics such as the controversial rebranding of Yves Saint Laurent but also on the constructive and empowering impact of cable shows like “What Not to Wear.”  Travallure used her blog as a way of working through experiences and reflections related to her study abroad experience in Brussels last year. Connormarr, an aspiring comedian and actor, often wrote about comedy and comedians, starting with posts on Seth MacFarlane’s attempts at humor at the Oscars, continuing with posts on comedians like Louis C.K.  

A couple of students found a sense of focus mid-way. Mollyyjeann started following the issue of gay marriage closely a few weeks ago, when the Supreme Court was discussing DOMA and Prop. 8 in oral arguments, and has stuck with that topic, writing a series of posts on the subject (for example). Jaminnyc shifted gears somewhat from earlier posts on NYC nightlife to a focus on the New York Knicks in his later posts. Lauralehigh also developed a niche in the second half of the semester, focusing on celebrities on social media. We discovered that if you tag celebrity names in your Tumblr posts, you are likely to get a fair amount of attention from Tumblr fan blogs – her posts on Taylor Swift and Josh Groban got a good number of “reblogs.”

Appropriately for a class of this type, several students wrote about internet culture, social media, and smartphone culture. Katielehigh started with a general focus on “media and society,” but many of her posts specifically dealt with internet and smartphone related issues; one such memorable post might be “The Cell Phone Has Become the Cigarette.”  Many of ktorrisi’s posts also dealt with these subjects; posts like “Reality vs. Photoshop” were especially effective at using personal experiences and observations as part of a more general argument.

For their final projects, students have the option to either write a more or less conventional paper (though we will be posting these final essays on a Wordpress blog upon completion), or to write up a proposal and rationale for a site they would plan to work on after the course ends. For the second option, I’ve asked them to research other sites that do things similar to what they envision, and try and articulate how their proposed site might look different. I also wanted them to think about the design and features of the sites they’re proposing (though I’m not actually requiring that they implement those designs – though several students have been experimenting with Wordpress templates and widgets in any case).

In practice, it is pretty hard to start a solo blog and gain large readerships, even with help from social networking avenues for self-promotion. A much easier path to success might involve collaborating with groups of other writers around a topic or set of topics. I certainly had my largest consistent audience (about 10,000 readers a day) blogging as part of a group of “second gen” South Asian Americans a few years ago (the now defunct group blog Sepia Mutiny), though probably the single most influential piece of writing I have ever done started as something I wrote for my personal blog in response to the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin in the summer of 2012.

Despite the challenges faced by solo bloggers just starting out, I’m not discouraging students from thinking big with their proposals and ideas to start new blogs. For one thing, I have been lucky to work with a group of very talented students and a few of them might well pull it off (you never know where the next "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" might come from). But it’s also true that even if they don’t find thousands of readers off the bat writing on the topics that interest them, their experience of attempting to enter into those conversations and establish themselves might prove to be quite valuable to them. It’s entirely possible that they can build on that experience down the road, even if their career paths take them in directions where solo blogging is not a primary expressive venue.