I’ve been using blogs for a long time in my classes as a place for informal writing and reflection. I originally used the blogs as simply an online repository to store weekly response readings but the more I’ve used them, the more I find that the actual medium creates a particularly dynamic space for writing. Not only does a blog feel personal — you can customize your blog by adding pictures, links, widgets, etc. — but it also opens up for interactive writing via the comments and through external linking. It is an excellent way to have students think about audience when they know that other people, possibly even outside of our class, will be reading their posts.
[Indeed, Brian Croxall‘s “Intro to the Digital Humanities” students over at Emory have had wonderful conversations about the articles they are reading with the actual authors of those articles who have come to comment on their blogs. See some great discussions going on between student and author in the comments on posts here and here.]
I’ve also found that the students feel less pressure writing in a digital space in contrast to the intimidating blankness of a Word document. And students generally like the fact that they can vary their posts to include both serious reflections on the reading and more informal posts with links to related content or personal musings on current events. My assignment calls for them to write at least one substantial post a week, but once they have done that, they can post as often as they like.
However, one thing I’ve found to be especially effective in the composition classroom is using student blogs as a place to develop longer essays. This semester my students developed formal “literary analysis” papers on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year by beginning with informal brainstorming and writing assignments on their blogs. The full assignment is here, but basically the students moved from a “first impressions” blog post where they could do a free-write or brainstorming on their first reactions to the novel, through two “close-reading” posts where they selected passages to analyze, to an outline and tentative thesis statement as they honed their argument. At the end of the process, many chose to post their rough drafts on their blogs as well. With each step, the students gave and received feedback via the comments (in addition to a session in the T-Square chatroom with their group members) and used peer-feedback to shape their initial ideas into arguments with supporting evidence.
I asked the students to write about their experience using the blogs to develop their papers and their comments were insightful. One student, Anna, wrote that blogging the early stages of the paper led her to rethink the order of the writing process. As she describes: “I’ve always been taught to write my thesis first and then collect evidence. In this paper, I gathered material I found interesting and then shaped a thesis based on this information. This was a different experience for me and I feel it broadened my writing process.”
Another student described how the format and the commenting helped her develop her writing. She wrote that “the blog allowed me to see my work in print, which helped me recognize and revise errors or incongruities in my writing. Posting my work to a blog also gave me feedback from my peers, and their comments helped me tremendously in shaping and focusing my paper.”
Some students found the constructive criticism of their peers helped them see things in their writing that they couldn’t see themselves. As Matt wrote: “After several blog postings on my specific topic, I became too comfortable with the material I had written making it difficult for me to realize that few others could understand my logic and thus I was less open to criticism. However, thanks to a particularly constructive review from Susan I had a small epiphany that although my writing and logic makes perfect sense in my mind, on paper (or in this case on a blog), most everyone else perceives my writing as simply an unclear, unorganized mess.”
Many were surprised by how dramatically their original blog posts differed from their final drafts, perhaps because they were used to thinking of a topic first and then working from that point towards a final paper. Matthew observed that, “[w]ithout a doubt my rough draft and final draft differed immensely from the Literary Analysis blog 1 and 2. However I think this fact is a very good sign because it shows that the blogging actually worked. It shows that by blogging I was able to transform a horribly mediocre bunch of nothing in particular into a well written literary analysis paper. So I believe that if there are significant changes then that is a good sign of a successful paper.”
As I think these comments show, using the blog as a space for brainstorming and early writing freed the students up to focus on the ideas they had about the novel and then to work on gathering more evidence and shaping their ideas into arguments. Posting these stages in a public forum meant that they had more stake in what they wrote (yet, interestingly, many said that they felt freer to write whatever they wanted in that space) and the feedback from their peers was often probing and insightful. This is not to say, of course, that all students embraced the possibilities of the blog space; few of them actually posted links to external content or used images or other media to supplement their posts, but that wasn’t really the focus of the exercise. The focus was on writing and on process, and for those things, the blog space worked really well.
To look at some of my students’ posts, check out our course blog here. You can access the individual student blogs from the section tabs at the top.
Id love to hear in the comments how you use blogs in the composition classroom – what other uses have you found for blogging?