4Cs: Evaluating Academic Weblogs

With my ongoing interest in understanding the pedagogical purposes of weblogs, in understanding what they do with the intersection of reading and writing and how they help teachers to help students write better, this was a panel I couldn’t miss. I wasn’t disappointed: the four presenters offered a really useful and provocative prism through which to start understanding these things. And, actually, I just realized that this is one of the panels who I didn’t ask for permission to blog my notes, which means that I’m going to be sending out some e-mails once I post this.

Bradley Bleck went first, offering the results of a pilot study he performed in his own classroom with an eye to how the technology of blogging might help to enhance student motivation in writing. In an American Literature course, Brad had students use weblogs as daily reading journals, with the hope of fostering inter-student dialogue beyond the “grading black hole” of paper journals. (In writing this, it’s suddenly more clear why Brad asked the questions he did at my presentation, and why I had such difficulty answering them; we’re all familiar with the tension between wanting students to learn for their own purposes but trying to use external pressures and motivations to get them to do so. I can only offer here the neoclassical notions of opportunity cost and the marginal rate of substitution: in a system of finite resources [including time] one does one thing at the expense of another, and the neoclassical economists love to talk about work versus leisure, like how many weblog entries is Jane willing to give up so she can go to that kegger, and what are the grading rewards she gets from doing so versus the social-psychological rewards versus the intrinsic hedonic rewards — because I think most composition teachers want their students to get those intrinsic hedonic rewards, that pleasure in the act of writing itself, but dammit it’s a struggle to make them like it.;-) Brad presented a lot of hard numbers on students’ uses of computers, but maintained some skepticism about some of their responses to his survey questions, as I think any effective teacher-researcher would. The students who liked weblogs the most were, perhaps not surprisingly, the ones who had the most difficulty with other assignments, but the most provocative finding Brad offered was that there was no apparent correlation between student blog quality and other writing ability. Which — as Brad acknowledged — seems like a really strong demand for further research beyond this pilot study.

I don’t think it takes anything away from the excellent presentations that Brad, Anne Jones, and Dennis Jerz gave to say that I thought Derek Mueller’s presentation “Ping: Readdressing Audience in the Blogosphere” was absolutely extraordinary; I characterized it to Clancy as a tour de force, and I won’t be able to even come close to doing it justice here, but I’ll at least attempt to offer a brief sketch of Derek’s ideas.


Derek used the rhetorical possibilities and metaphorical implications offered for writers and readers by three Web technologies — the simple link, the trackback or bi-directional link, and the server ping — to complicate the claims made by Walter Ong in his seminal PMLA essay, “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” Derek began by offering a brief prĂ©cis of Ong’s argument about the rhetorical unknowability of audience in writing, and then moved on to more contemporary arguments about writing for the Web as a recuperation of the notion of a “general” audience. Some theorists, Derek notes, urge us to help students write for that “general” audience, while others argue for a withdrawal from that very same “general” audience. How, then, do weblogs complicate the commonplace injunction to know your audience? First: with weblogs, the writer’s audience is always linked. Simple linking is the basic referential protocol of the internet, and (as Mark Bernstein has noted) is quite similar in nature to the footnote and the bibliographic reference. (Somebody once said rhyme is hypertextual. Who?) In Derek’s words, “Links fashion a discursive trail rich with digressions.” Derek draws a strong distinction between the general or abstract audience and the concrete or present audience and suggests that simple linking deeply complicates Ong’s assertion about the writer’s negotiation of audience. Second: Derek characterizes trackbacks or bi-directional links as the “con permiso” or “with permission” of the Web, in that they ask of the linked text, “Grant me a portion of this space.” As two-way permissive links, they mark the link but also the linked, and serve as a reference — a beckoning — by the reader rather than the writer. In effect, they create a co-present audience, a reader who is there with you. (At this point in my notes, I have scribbled in the margin: “Holy shit! Derrida — metaphysics of presence — writing sous rature, absence, via rupta — Barthes & work/text — Derek, submit this to Reader!”) Third: the server ping, a query sent to validate an IP address, is an immediate register of an online action, and gives writers apprehendable records of audience activity as server data, including the time and duration of visit and the web location from which the visit came. In other words, the ping collapses the time-space distances of audience in Ong’s work, and tells writers very concretely about the ways in which their writing is being perceived. Ultimately, on the Web, one’s audience is far more tangible and empirical than the so-called “general audience,” and far more co-present.

Anne Jones presented the somewhat troubling results of her empirical study of teachers teaching blogging. Jones noted the significant presence of weblog-related panels and workshops on this year’s and last year’s CCCC schedules, but pointed to the rather prominent paucity of empirical studies demonstrating the practical benefits of this technology that has writing teachers so excited. Many teachers at Jones’s institution construct blogging as the pedagogical equivalent of public journaling, which prompts Jones to ask, “Blogging has the power to connect students to a larger world, but how do instructors control this connection?” In fact, she continues, we may ourselves be confused by the power of blogging. When the pedagogical purposes of weblogging are inadequately theorized, many instructors begin to treat it as a form of busy work for their students. (An aside here: Jones made a passing reference to those teachers who teach in conventional non-wired classrooms as being “stuck in the dark ages” which I found troubling, since it implies that teaching without computers is somehow inadequate. Computer technology does not a good teacher make, nor its absence a bad teacher.) Instructors who have never maintained a weblog will have difficulty developing a pedagogical purpose for blogging it: they’re teaching it without knowing how to do it, and then complain about students’ “shallow entries.” Blogging only works well, Jones concludes, when it has an adequately theorized pedagogical purpose, and her study clearly demonstrated that the significant number of instructors at her institution who didn’t like weblog assignments had given no thought to how they were using weblogs.

Dennis Jerz wrapped up the panel with his excellent presentation on “Discovering Metrics for Evaluating an Academic Weblog Community.” Like many other presenters dealing with weblogs, Dennis began by offering some quick basic definitional points and then some statistics for activity in the weblog community at his institution. The numbers were interesting, as was Dennis’s representation of how the Seton Hill community works, but since I’m familiar with Dennis’s sites, I was mostly nodding and smiling rather than taking notes. Dennis noted regarding classroom work that weblogs help him to be “the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage” by allowing students to do and share research outside the classroom. However, this is a rather lopsided phenomenon: at Seton Hill, the top 5% of the bloggers do 50% of all the blogging. There were also some interesting findings in the word count numbers: the words “I” and “think” are more common in comments than in entries, and the word “interpretation” shows up with much higher than average frequency. Dennis offered considerable additional data, and concluded by offering some classroom positives and negatives for weblogs as a pedagogical technology. On the plus side, there’s a core of motivated students who feed off one another’s enthusiasm, and the blogosphere’s ethos of meticulous citation is good practice for the scholarly research paper. Blogging helps students respond to readings, and can help to jump-start discussion, as well. On the minus side, that same core of motivated students tends to dominate the online discussion and even find the classroom discussion redundant, and the rank-and-file bloggers tend to get overwhelmed by the productivity of the motivated core. Still, Dennis concludes, that small core of motivated students who post 400 to 900 entries is worth the huge majority of students who only post 1 or 2 entries.

13 thoughts on “4Cs: Evaluating Academic Weblogs

  1. mike Post author

    No problem — happy to share. Once I’ve got ‘em all written up, I’ll probably post a whole shebang link to k-news.

    Reply
  2. Katherine

    Wow! Great summary/reflection/analysis of the panel. Thanks. I agree with Jones. Teachers do need to theorize the pedagogical purposes of assigning blogs–just as they do with any kind of assignment.

    One of the things that concerns me about the interest in teacher-assigned blogs is the potential for teachers to follow the trend without thoroughly considering the purposes of such an assignment. It’s along the lines of your point that “Computer technology does not a good teacher make, nor its absence a bad teacher.” For an assignment to succeed–any assignment, with or without the use of computer technologies–it must have a clear purpose IMHO!

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  4. joanna

    Katharine–I’m with you on there needing to be a clear purpose behind assigning blogs–I’m remembering the time when word processing was supposed to lead to better writing. Well, it does, sometimes, but other times it leads to more legible writing, and I think that as email has become part o our students’ daily lives, there is no “specialness” in word processing like there was back in the 80’s. I’d hate for that to happen to blogging–especially since we are just beginning to see what it can do in terms of comp, rhet and so forth.
    One of the comments at the 4C’s that I heard several times was that we haven’t yet nailed the full potential of blogging in the classroom–haven’t gotten to the AHA! point yet, moving beyond journals into the construction of something of which we can say “Now THAT was a blog!” I wonder how many of us who use blogs have internalized the potential ourselves–I know that I’m beginning to, and after this semester of experiencing my students using blogs, I’ll be more aware.

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  5. mike Post author

    Absolutely, Katherine: as my recent posts may indicate, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about antidotes to the uncritical discourse around weblogs that says, “Look! They’re like interactive online journals! And they’re public! Cool!” Obviously, things are more complicated, and I think some teachers who have (as Joanna says) internalized the potential may be trying to insert blogging practices into their classrooms first and tack on pedagogical purposes later — which is a teacherly train wreck waiting to happen.

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  6. Daisy

    I haven’t read this entire post yet but from the last 2 comments I can see that this rings true for the general use of blogs in my First Year Comp. program, which is why my research so far has shown the blogs of online students and service learning students are more reflective. The pedagogical purpose behind those courses is much more specific, perhaps those courses are still in the pilot stage at my university and have been created with the dedication of a select few instructors. This is what I plan to present on at MLA and I hope to run my ideas past you all in the coming weeks and months.

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  7. Dennis G. Jerz

    An academic conference is a form of publication, and I think you ought to feel free to offer your opinions on your blog.

    I was very happy with the talks given by those on the panel, and I’m glad you found my presentation useful.

    I like Joanna’s observation that we haven’t found the “AHA!” point yet, but I’d adjust that observation to suggest that we’re at the “I know it when I see it” stage, but we still haven’t systemized how to get students there, how to get them to appreciate the power that we can percieve, and that the 5% of SHU bloggers obviously perceives in blogging. We’ll get there.

    And yes, Mike, the “bloginators” who put a lot of effort into their blogs and who therefore smile and nod while they and the other committed bloggers summarize for the benefit of the rest of the class what they just blogged about the night before can lead to some uncomfortable class dynamics. Blogs can be a great tool to integrate class discussions with out-of-class experience, but for a disinterested or struggling student, blogs can be just one more way to feel alienated from the intellectual environment. I’m not sure what to do at this point, but it’s good to see more people thinking along the lines of, “Okay, so we’ve got blogs. Now what?”

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  8. joanna

    Well, not exactly, Mike. I think internalizing is a GOOD thing–but that it going to happen with the instructor’s familiarity and comfort with blogging. To be honest, as much as I’d like to have a much more clearly articulated pedagogical blue print for using blogs this semester, I know that some of it is going to be “seat of the pants” pedagogy, which I need to go through in order to understand and then question what I’m doing. Internalizing means understanding to me–and I tend to be the kind of thinker/teacher/computer nerd who has to try it out first to “get” it. The clearer and more experienced I become, the sharper and more critical my approach becomes. But yes, there are those who jump in without thinking and then can’t figure out why it isn’t working. And, since we’re all relatively new at this, we’re also discovering the “train wrecks” along with the successes.

    The “train wreck” experience is one that I try to avoid at all costs, so I am going to have one class blog and see how commenting about a common reading with each other, the author (I hope), me and anyone else who want to drop in, goes. My pedagogical goals are two: to provide developmental readers who meet as a class for just 2 and a half hours a week the space/place to extend their thinking and discussion of what we’re reading; and to give students who may be used to filling out worksheets more demanding tasks (well, I”m already doing that)and a taste of this kind of communication format.
    You can imagine that it is going to be very basic and that there may be some shy people in the mix. I may have them work as groups and do group posts if I find that their nervousness is inhibiting their contributions. But beyond that (and my vow to “give points” for posting), I’m going to relax and see what happens. In a few weeks, I’ll decide how I want the experience to end, but I need to see what happens first.

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