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Day 11: Teaching To and Through Blogging

I spent my day writing syllabi, and so I’ve been thinking about what to do to inspire learning and what I’ve done that seems to have led most successfully to student learning.  Last fall, I taught an upper-level course in which students had to post or comment on the class blog for every class session.  I am here to testify that it raised the level of discussion in class and the depth of written work for the class better than anything else I’ve tried.  This post is for those of you who might also be preparing to begin your semester, who are wondering whether having students blog is worth it and how to set it up.

As a faculty member who engages the world regularly online, I think we have a responsibility to teach students how to do things well on the Internet.  We talk about informational technology literacy, but we also need to talk about how engaging intellectually online is a cultivated practice that, as Michigan State Dean of College of Arts and Letters Chris Long blogs, requires us to develop certain skills of writing and of engaging community.  These practices contribute to our flourishing IRL (in real life, for those of you don’t spend time that much time online), too.  I look at my life on the Internet and I can only hope people will get better at this, so I have a responsibility to help make my students better at it.

I have a number of friends who use blogs to teach.  Leigh Johnson at ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore has been doing this for years. The rubric I use I borrowed from Chris Long mentioned above.  I recently heard Ryan Trauman talk about his success teaching writing through student blogging (he has each individual student develop her own blog).  Notwithstanding the person I recently heard say in a discussion of digital pedagogy that blogging was passé, I know it’s a thing. But I had some concerns and some travails.

The biggest obstacle I encountered was I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate blogging in a way that students would feel both compelled and motivated to blog.  I wanted it to be organic so that they could write when they were struck by something they really wanted to say.  I wanted to give them freedom but I still wanted students to do it.  I tried this in one course I taught–again, upper-level small discussion-based course–and the only way I can describe the student response is a revolt.  They just didn’t do it.  Even though it was worth a serious chunk of their grade.  So I had to find a way this time to give them less freedom but still get out of blogging what was useful.

So what is useful in blogging?  One thing I thought was useful was the publicity of blogging.  In one course where blogging was public, I required student blogging as assignments on specific days, but they had a hard time engaging one another’s posts.  They weren’t motivated or interested in one another’s posts and didn’t seem to have time to engage with one another beyond their own blogging and reading for class.  (I’ll note that in this course where it was successful students noted in end-of-term evaluations that it was more successful when one person was writing the original post (OP) and others commented.  Otherwise, they didn’t have time or motivation to read one another’s posts.) On top of that, I became concerned about the publicity.  I wanted the blogging to be a place for them to make mistakes, to say things that they were trying out.  I didn’t want them to worry that some employer or graduate school committee would find it.  At HASTAC15, I attended a panel where faculty discussed situations in which students blogged and were retaliated against by strangers, so I didn’t want that either (see the need to cultivate online communities above).  But then why blog instead of using the discussion pages on the Learning Management System?  These were my concerns.

I decided blogging was better than the discussion board on Canvas because even if the site was private, there was a sheen of publicity to it.  I hoped that the official sense of the blog would motivate a different level of engagement.  In the same way that livetweeting a conference can be public note-taking, I thought blogging might be a kind of public note-taking for my course, too.  I hoped that it would give students a record of the issues and concerns they raised over the semester to which they could refer back.  But chiefly, I wanted them to work on having a line, an angle, a take about a text and then develop support for their line both within the context of one post and over the course of a semester.  I didn’t want to grade that line, but I wanted them to take it seriously.  I had some practice with blogging by requiring my undergraduate student research assistant to do this kind of public, or at least shared, note-taking over the summer.  All this to say, one thing teaching blogging requires is practice, both on my end and theirs.

The Set-Up

I had students blog for my course on Aristotle’s Politics.  I only had five students, and their reading assignment for each class meeting was typically short — five-to-ten pages when we read Aristotle’s text and fifteen-to-twenty when we read secondary literature.  The small class and the short-ish readings made it possible to require them each to write a post and to read one another’s post for every single class session (or so I thought at the beginning, but it turns out it was harder for them to do that than I realized.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I started this way, because it was important for them to begin having to have something to say that they came up with in response to the readings, and that I could read and to which I could respond, even if none of their classmates did).  I also had them start blogging over the summer.  They had to write introduction posts.  I asked them to read the book over the summer and they had to write a post at the end of the summer on what they thought the point of the book was.  This was useful because we took care of technological glitches by July.  I followed up with students who hadn’t done the Intro by the end of June to ask them to do it.  I wanted them to know from the beginning that I was serious about the blogging, that is, that they had to take it seriously.  I  made it 30% of their grade.  The rest of their grade was one paper toward the beginning of the semester and a scaffolded final research paper.  But I also wanted them to know that it was low-stakes — they could try out ideas and their grade wouldn’t suffer just because the idea didn’t ultimately work out.

The first three weeks everyone blogged for each class meeting.  During this time, I would sometimes respond to students when I thought their reading had veered too far from the text.  I told them they needed to engage the text  and pinpoint a problem or a question to keep them focused.  At the beginning, I would raise questions in comments to their posts and others could respond to those questions.  I required students to come talk to me after three weeks specifically about how they were doing with the blogging.  We looked at the rubric and I had them discuss what they thought they could do better.  This check-in was important because blogging was a substantial part of their grade, so I wanted them to have feedback without feeling like each specific blog was getting a grade, which I worried would have a chilling effect.

Around this time, one student suggested that each person take turns being responsible for the original post and then everyone else could reply.  I hesitated because I wanted to make sure that each of them engaged the reply as seriously as when they had to do the OP, but they agreed that they would.  The rest of the semester, we followed that format.  It was especially successful when a student would reply and then the OP would reply to the comment.

What changed?

  • Students read more regularly.  I’ve learned I can’t take this for granted even in an upper-level class for majors.  Students know they need these kinds of motivations and they acknowledged as much in the course evaluations.  One student wrote: “It ensured we did the reading and that we used our own insights we gathered from the text to help us understand Aristotle in new and interesting ways.”
  • At one point in the semester, one student said to another, I was not sure whether your blog was just a summary or if you had a line.  When the student could respond and say my summary was my argument for what I thought it meant, I thought that we had reached a sophisticated level of discourse that was made possible by the blog.
  • Blogging in concert with discussion gave even quiet students a chance to show what their line was and to become a focal point of discussion at regular intervals.
  • Blogging put students on the same level to a greater degree than previous efforts in small text-based discussion courses I’ve taught.  We didn’t have the experience where some students knew what was happening and others did not.  Students both had to develop their own account of the text and to engage with other students’ accounts.
  • Relatedly, the blogging online led to better engagement with one another in class.  I planned for class meetings to address certain topics and questions, but I let them hunt down ways to address their own concerns.  This process was the most successful I’ve been at decentering the professor.  I could drop out of conversation in this class more than I ever had before.  Of course, I still needed to plan where to direct them in certain texts, but I could do more to let them work it out themselves in large part because they came to class with an agenda that they developed by blogging.
  • One student said in the course end evaluation that the blogging “forced [him] to interpret texts deeply before arriving to class which led to more discussion filled classes.”  One student said: “It’s a neat way to let your thoughts [out] and let others comment.  Then you have a chance to respond in class which makes for lively discussion.”
  • They wrote better papers.  The point of the class was to translate the depth of discussion into depth and insight in research papers.  These papers focused on secondary sources we used in class and sometimes references found in those sources, which is to say, the research was development of ideas between the text and the sources we addressed rather than in finding more sources (also a worthy task but not the focus of this course).  There was a continued dialectical relationship between their blogging, the discussion, and the drafts of their papers in the second half of the course.  The blogging and discussion at the beginning established patterns for how I expected them not only to reference the text but also to explain how they thought the text was working and to see “how they thought” as a claim that needed to be defended with reference to other elements of the text.  I was pleased to see that what resulted was not just engaging with the text but having a sense of what is meant by developing an argument across 15 to 20 pages.
  • Secondary source discussion.  I have found it difficult to get students to think about whether they are agreeing or disagreeing with the commentator or the primary text.  Blogging provided them an opportunity to draw distinctions between these views, so that they could first what the commenter’s view was and then whether the commenter’s view was right.  The blogging helped them establish that distinction. One student commented on how blogging “helped [him] think through secondary sources and Aristotle before coming to class, which [he] believed improved conversation.”
  • The shared sense that they already saw others had a different way of reading both Aristotle and the secondary sources helped them see themselves as readers who had a point of view and were invested in defending their point of view.

Conclusion

I don’t think I will do this in every course.  It seems to work best in small classes.  I can see the benefit of doing it in a big class, but I think you’d really have to be on top of it.  If students don’t feel like it’s important then it doesn’t happen.  It works best when it is required daily and when an expectation is established that the blog will be regularly referenced in discussion.  I worked on keeping expectations for posts high.

What I learned, and this is the point of the title of this post, is that students had to learn to blog as much as they learned through blogging.  They had to learn that technical things like setting up categories would make it easier for them to keep track of their own contributions and themes they wanted to follow, which they could then search.  They had to learn how to elevate their discourse even when it was informal.  They had to learn to have a habit of engaging the text and a peer’s reading of it (or their own) for every class meeting.  They had to learn to engage what their peers were saying instead of just going off on tangents (that did happen, but we talked about it when it did).  They had to learn how to take what was happening on the blogosphere into the class and into their research projects.  The research projects culminated in the Ancient Philosophy Workshop sponsored by the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative, which through further public exposure, also contributed to the elevation of their work.

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