The impetus for this study was an existing list of blogs maintained by the Writing Center at San José State University (SJSU). We set out to expand and update this list by asking writing center colleagues to tell us about their blogs. In November 2016, we posted on the WCenter listserv asking subscribers to complete a survey, and we sent a reminder in February 2017. From this request, we received 31 responses. We combined this submitted list with SJSU's existing list of blogs, resulting in a total of 43 blogs. Blogs were submitted from high school, community college, and university writing centers across the United States; one international blog, from the University of Bangor in Wales, was also submitted.
The survey asked writing center colleagues to submit a URL of their blog, name of the writing center, name of the college or university, and answers to the following questions:
To supplement the survey responses (n=31) as well as to analyze the blogs that we already had a list of on the SJSU website, we developed an additional list of criteria by which to analyze each blog:
Why did we pick these criteria? We decided that to understand blog best practices, we needed to understand the importance of factors like posting frequency, visual conventions, and engagement. The factors provide evidence of the prevailing wisdom in social media marketing that engagement by readers (such as likes or comments) is a marker of success and that frequent posting and use of a variety of multimodal elements keep readers engaged. We say this knowing that the correlation between engagement and other metrics such as usage is sometimes unproven and that the definition of engagement itself is contentious (Barger et al., 2016).
Beyond evidence of engagement, we were interested in how blogs can be used as an outward-facing forum to promote writing center work or values and as a resource for writers, in addition to their educational purpose, as scholars have discussed. Promoting the center's mission and resources makes writing center blogs distinct from classroom blogs because their educational purpose is not only for the writers of the blog but for readers, especially student readers; thus, blog posts serve a double function, both educational and promotional. Other criteria—such as who writes posts, platform used, and post length—were chosen in order to identify patterns of practices across blogs: For instance, how many writing center blogs are written by student/peer tutors as compared to guest writers or administrators? What is the average length of blog posts? With over 40 blogs to analyze, mapping patterns, we hoped, would help us identify best practices.
The results of the survey responses and our supplemental analysis of blogs show some patterns across blog authors, posting frequency, use of visual elements, blog platform, and post lengths.
In terms of authors, the majority (65%) of the blogs are written by peer high school, college undergraduate, or graduate tutors, with about 28% written by non-tutors such as directors, staff, or guest writers.
In terms of posting frequency (Table 1), the most common frequencies are once a month (9 blogs post once a month) or 2–3 times per month (10); together, these 19 occurrences account for 45% of the responses. Yet it is important to note that when we cross-referenced the blogs for our analysis, we determined that 20% of the blogs were no longer active.
|Posting frequency||Number of blogs|
|4–6 times per month||5|
|2–3 times per month||10|
|Once a month||9|
|Less than once a month||6|
|No longer active||9|
|Blank or unclear||4|
Regarding visual elements use (Table 2), we noted that approximately the same number of blogs use stock photos (14) as those that use photos taken specifically by writing center staff (14). We were surprised to see such a high number (9) not using any photos at all.
|Visual element||Number of blogs|
As Table 3 shows, WordPress is the most commonly used platform, followed by a platform that is developed in house or at the university (which may also be WordPress, or it might be Drupal). Some blogs used the Blogger platform (with a Blogspot domain) also.
|Platform||Number of blogs|
Across the blogs, post length varies, but the most frequent (16) length is 500–800 words (see Table 4). This seems somewhat longer than the typical non-academic blog post, and likely reflects writers posting on scholarly topics or writing posts for class or training credit.
|Blog post length||Number of blogs|
|Less than 250 words||4|
Based on the high percentage of blogs written by peer tutors and the relative frequency of postings on the active sites, these results confirm the use of blogging as a tool for organizing links and discussions (Baer, 2006) and as a tool for reflective learning (Blazer, 2015; Chong, 2010; Hall, 2011). However, these blogs are not always used as tools to help tutors gain multimodal literacy (O'Byrne & Murrell, 2014); for example, blogs that rely on stock photos or memes, or have no visuals at all, emphasize instead written content. Sometimes this content seems better suited for traditional academic purposes as it is written with long sentences, full paragraphs, and so forth. In addition, it may be the case that the writing centers that started and then did not continue their blogs (20% are inactive) have not been able to fully integrate their blog—either as tools for tutor reflection or as a resource for writers on campus—into their writing center operations.
The question of whether blogs are used for marketing or outreach is more complicated. While it may be the intention of some blogs to garner engagement from other students and members of the campus community, there is little evidence of engagement in the form of likes and comments. While this might lead us to suggest that the blogs are not successful in this realm, we argue that a lack of typical markers of engagement does not mean failure when a) the definition of engagement is contested and b) the blog also has a campus-facing educational purpose.
On the other hand, we do suggest that blogs that 1) are integrated into their other online presence—such as linked through the website, 2) create content for a wider range of readers (not just for other tutors-in-training), and 3) demonstrate multimodal awareness, all lead to blogs that are more sustainable and, therefore, worth the effort to create and maintain. We use these findings to analyze several exemplary blogs in the next section, What Makes Blogs Exemplary?