I’ve spent the better part of the day writing assignments for my classes this semester. Wheeee! [Says me; I’m sure the students are less than thrilled with the prospect of getting said assignments.] What’s been baking my noodle all day, however, are the ways in which I’m trying to embed blog community practices in these assignments.
When I first started using blogs for classes, I thought of them solely as online reading responses. The major benefit here would be that students would engage in the online world, and better yet, they couldn’t lose their reading responses. A blog was simply an online archive. As such, the reading of these blogs could be a bit, well, dry. Why shouldn’t it be? Why would writing in a digital space be, de facto, more exciting than writing on paper? The more I read non-class blogs and some of the reflections of Alex Reid and Will Richardson, however, the more I began to question my original implementation of blogs. In this model, the blog was nothing more than a trick pony doing an old routine–why bother? Over the past year, then, I’ve been trying to think about what I like to read, and what benefits me as a writer/thinker with a blog. How can those practices be put to use for students?
So, this semester, the students are blogging a bit more (as we all try to do when we first start a blog!). In addition, the assignment gives them some options about how they might produce knowledge for themselves and others in this form. I have to come to terms with the fact that not every student will do that with a close reading technique, so I’m trying to come up with ways to expand my notion (and the students’!) about the multiple ways that we begin to make sense of a text. As a grumpy old English professor, that’s a hard lesson to learn. But either the one holds true to the particularities of the form or one loses the whole point of the endeavor.
A source that has really helped me to concretize what these new avenues of knowledge production might look like is Dennis Jerz’ class. Here, he outlines a blog portfolio assignment for his class and details a series of categories they should strive to address. The most fascinating, and under-explored elsewhere, is that of what Jerz calls “xenoblogging.” He discusses the many ways that bloggers in a community work to make connections among their ideas, extend conversations, add to someone’s knowledge base, and give each other credit for original content and epiphanies. All of these are practices that I’ve consistently witnessed (and hopefully engaged in) in my own little communities, but would have had difficulty articulating to students. It’s not enough to say “write a comment that engages with someone’s ideas.” It helps to explain all of the different ways that can happen, and it helps even more to show someone the benefits these practices can accrue.
My second assignment experiment is in having students host “blog carnivals” as a form of group work. In my head, this seems like a perfect way for them to engage in collective intelligence and network behavior—they’ll read each others posts and arrange links so as to connect the ideas about a particular set of writings. Hopefully, these same carnivals can then serve as resources for the other students looking to get a handle on those same writings.
The “new media zealot” half of my brain thinks these are fabulous ideas. With the blogs and the carnivals, students are expressing their own ideas about class content, and engaging in a number of literacies simultaneously: reading, writing, communal, technological, research, etc. This is also the side that is convinced that these are the literacies that students are going to need in the work world, regardless of major. The “cranky English professor” half is very worried that I’m somehow shorting the students, that what they actually need to succeed in other courses is more work on traditional, single-authored, essays that utilize text-based, peer-reviewed journals. But how many of them will go on to write this kind of research essay with any kind of frequency after college?
While my two brain hemispheres battle it out, I’ve assigned both types of assignments–online and traditional essay–to the classes. No doubt they’re contemplating burning me in effigy as I write this.