What Do Weblogs Do?

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?

What Do Weblogs Do?
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8 thoughts on “What Do Weblogs Do?

  • March 2, 2005 at 8:57 pm

    Hi, Mike. I haven’t been avoiding you here. It’s just that I usually log on from home where my ISP is AOL and you won’t allow postings from AOL. Ah, what spammers hath wrought!

    I would agree that many comp folk have seen the blog as an online journal and tried to use it that way. I’ve had modest success in that form, but found several students balked at the public nature of the form and didn’t want to explore the personal in the public.

    Now I’m seeing its role more as a publication device–a place where we can share research, information, resources. But I haven’t integrated this approach into my courses sufficiently to create exigency for students. I think that’s the real issue: one of my students from last spring who did pretty well in posting told me that she struggled because she didn’t have the sense of purpose that I had. She read my blog a lot and saw it reflecting a certain clarity of purpose. My current hunch is that’s why student blogs don’t look like many of the “deliberative rhetoric” blogs you’ve cited. For most students, it’s completing an assignment. It is not their way of participating in public/civic endeavors.

  • March 2, 2005 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, John. Actually, I’ve wanted to comment a couple times on stuff at your place, too, but kept stumbling over the user registration, and was too lazy to go back and figure out what I was doing wrong. Re the AOL thing: does it just choke on the AOL e-mail address, or does it actually block your IP address? I’m thinking about changing to a different spam filter that has a whitelist, so that might fix both issues.

    And the sense of purpose thing: yeah, that seems to be the stumbling block, doesn’t it? In an across-the-board-required first-year writing course, where few students are actually in the class because they want to be there, the sense of urgency that seems to be a prerequisite for deliberative rhetoric — or for dialectic — is rarely there, and even the most rhetorically skilled teacher can have a hard time persuading her students of the benefits and pleasures of such deeply engaged modes of exchange.

  • March 3, 2005 at 6:55 am

    Well, Styles and I have been emailing back and forth about why my posts don’t get picked up on his site, so there is something in the air (Air Spam? Yuck)keeping us from constructively engaging in community building. It forbids us entry to Clancy’s blog, and now it’s eating up Mike’s site.

    Anyhow–I’m on the verge of using blogs with my developmental reading class and I am following what you two are saying with avid interest. The only hesitation that I’ve felt about using a blog has been the lack of privacy, but I think that if we can get away from the blog = journal construct and think about the blog = something new and different, then things will be okay.

    I suspect that the comments may well be evaluative–after all, that’s what they have been used to getting on papers (though not from me), or be grounded in personal like/hate opinions. I don’t expect there to be any “civic” exigencies, unless by “civic” we mean the community of the classroom. The experience of blogging and of seeing everyone’s ideas posted and available for comment is going to be a new idea/experience for most of them.

    We shall see.

  • March 3, 2005 at 9:11 am

    Hey, Joanna, I’m glad it seems people understand what’s going on with my blog. Spammers have been hitting my site so hard (thousands of comments a day, literally) that it crashed Open Source Host’s server. I don’t know how long my blog will be down. It could be days. When they try putting it back online, the spam scripts crash the server within minutes. When it finally goes back up, if I can allow comments at all, they’re going to be registered-users only, which means I won’t get comments anymore. Sigh.

    But about your points, Mike: It’s true that my requirement was “just participate,” but I always gave them topics. They weren’t required topics, though. I’ve given course evaluation forms that specifically asked students to evaluate the blog component of the course, and they all seem to agree that weekly topics are very helpful and give the blog structure, so I give weekly topics but encourage students to write about other topics if they wish.

    To answer your question above, yes, your description of my evaluation of weblogs is fair. I think comments from outside readers enhanced the participation and awareness of the rhetorical situation too, which bears mentioning. We got a pretty good number of comments from people who weren’t in the class or even at the university.

  • March 3, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    OK, I’m definitely gonna have to look into adding a whitelist tonight. I don’t know if you saw it, Clancy, but Dorothea mentions a wonderfully nasty little .htaccess solution by which comment spammers suck up their own bandwidth rather than the bandwidth that they’re trying to steal from you. . .

    Joanna: actually, I really want to get away from the teacher-as-confessor model that the journal encourages. I mean, journals aren’t private, and we all know it: even as we encourage students to write “PERSONAL – DO NOT READ” at the top of stuff in their journals that they just want us to do the page-count for, all parties concerned know there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy. As charmed and delightedly amused as I was when I saw that a student had very sloppily written, “I’m so wasted” (my thought: and you’re doing your homework, God bless you!) in a journal entry a few years back, I didn’t like the role that put me into: in a way, I was intruding into dorm life, and I don’t think that’s a teacher’s role.

    Part of this unease comes from past experience: as a sergeant, I was responsible for leading the soldiers in my squad on their day-to-day duties — but I was also responsible for recommending them for promotion, and I was also responsible for counseling them if they showed up at the Troop Medical Clinic with a STD, or for writing them up if they got a speeding ticket, or worse. As much as I loved the people in my squad, in retrospect that was a deeply weird and contradictory role, and not one I’d ever want to be in again. By parallel, I love getting to know my students in the classroom, and I’m happy to get to know them as people with lives outside the classroom, and — as John recently wrote about — I’m always glad when I see former students, or when they keep in touch, as some have by posting comments here. But that doesn’t mean I feel like I should be able to demand that they show me their so-called ‘private’ experience to grade — and acknowledging weblogs as a public space helps get around that difficulty.

  • March 3, 2005 at 6:45 pm

    I hear you. I once used Skip Downing’s book, On Course, as my only textbook in BW2 one semester, and by midterm, I was hating the journal assignments. The book, which is excellent, is a good introduction to being a college student textbook and is loaded with all kinds of writing activities. The journal assignments, of course, asked the students to reflect on their lives, their failures, their poor study habits. By midterm, I felt like a priest locked inside a confessional booth. My students were writing reams of self-critical journals that eventually became formulaic (whether they realized it or not. I did, after reading fifty of them), and I felt like I was getting too much information for an English professor. Since then, I’ve used parts of the book, but never the whole thing.

    I don’t assign journal-keeping anymore unless it’s part of a week-long prewriting activity, and then it’s a directed journal. As far as the weblogs go, my first attempt is going to be a blog set up with individual authors, rather than a classroom full of individual blogs. And, it’s going to be organized around our reading of Fathering Words (Ethelbert Miller). I don’t know what to expect from the experience, but I’m very curious to see how it goes, particularly since this is a developmental reading and not writing course.

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