I’ve been meaning to respond to Clancy’s post on assessing student weblogs for a while, but in and around reading Wayne Booth and not having fully sorted out my own thoughts on student weblogging, it took me a while to get around to it. I was going to post this as a comment at her place, but it looks like there are some technical difficulties going on over there as I write this, so here goes.
Clancy notes that my post a while back on the Ask MetaFilter thread on life-changing experiences got her thinking about how writing teachers who ask students to maintain weblogs evaluate what their students write. Her considerations of the nature of assessment when applied to weblog writing, while not a response to me :-), offer a lot to think about. Clancy seems to me to make two major points: first, what she thinks the weblog should do, “which is primarily to enhance community in the classroom, but then they invariably end up learning a lot about audience and rhetorical practices by engaging in the conversation, too.” Second, how she evaluates that writing — and it sounds to me like she’s arguing that her grading policy (essentially, just participate) places primary importance on the community-enhancement function, and the latter part — what students learn about rhetoric by engaging in that participation — will come naturally out of the first and needs or bears no evaluation of its own. (Is that fair, Clancy?)
In my own pedagogy, I’m still a little uncertain about what it is that weblogs teach students in the classroom.
When I originally assigned weblogs, I thought of them — inaccurately and inadequately — as a replacement for the low-risk, low-stakes (and I use those terms in a positive way) work of journal-keeping. As many of the contributors to Into the Blogosphere contend, student weblogs are much, much more than online journals — but for my own pedagogical practice, I haven’t yet figured out how, or what. As far as how I evaluated them goes, I had an informal length requirement, and required a certain number of posts and comments by the end of the semester. Since I teach in a computer lab, I’d sometimes have students do some informal in-class writing on a certain topic, so that blog entries were categorized as open topic, optional topic, or required topic. In that sense, the weblog entries went beyond community-building, and constituted a public space where students could see one another performing the daily writing of the course that would contribute to their essays. And I’ll point out that sometimes there were many students who’d say about an open topic entry, “I don’t know what to write about,” and ask me to give them topics. Still, this lessened as the semester progressed. So I guess the safest thing to say would be that I see student weblogs as serving a variety of rhetorical purposes for which I haven’t yet adequately theorized a connection to what I see as the purposes of the first-year writing course I teach.
Now: in his book, Wayne Booth claims the subjectivity-producing qualities of what Plato called dialectic under the banner of rhetoric, and I think that’s how I would categorize most good student weblog entries and responses: they’re rhetoric as give-and-take in a deeply committed listening from which all participants can learn. These entries are, however, quite rare, not just for my students, but for weblogs in general. More often, weblog entries seem to fall under the present-tense-focused (process-focused?) praise-or-blame ritual nature of epideictic rhetoric, and I’d argue that this includes much of the community-building function described by Clancy: students constitute themselves as members of groups by the things of which they publicly approve and disapprove. But in my course, I didn’t see student weblog entries undertaking the sort of forensic rhetoric we associate with the contributions weblogs made to the downfall of Eason Jordan and Trent Lott, and I didn’t see student weblog entries undertaking the sort of deliberative rhetoric we associate with the weblogs of Brad DeLong and Richard Posner. (This isn’t a critique, just an observation.)
But what strikes me is that many rhet-comp folk talk about the value of making writing matter by making writing public (Nancy Welch’s article in the new CCC is a good example), and what they’re saying is that writing has value in its public-civic-democratic exigency that extends beyond the community-sustaining function of epideictic rhetoric and the subjectivity-producing function of dialectic. And as much as I enjoyed seeing the work my students did on their weblogs, and as much as many of them seemed to relish the work, I didn’t really see that public-civic-democratic exigency in the weblog entries they made.
Which makes me wonder: could weblogs be showing us a way in which some of composition’s theoretically professed values might not line up with its practices?