Like email and the World Wide Web in their times, blogs have become
the "killer app" of the moment. Three years ago, all but the
most hardcore of followers of Internet phenomenons would not have thought
much of the term "blog," other than perhaps it was a misspelling
of "blob." Now you know you are most certainly not a mainstream
Internet user if you are unaware that "blog" is an adaptation
of the term "Web Log," and that blogs exist as personal journals,
professional writing spaces, news sources, or some combination of all
of the above.
In their short history (Rebecca
Blood pegs the beginning of sites we recognize as blogs as about
1998), blogs have been labeled
as a form of "new journalism", and they have been a part
of the news coverage of the war in Iraq (see, for example, "Where
is Raed?" at http://dearraed.blogspot.com/,
and the March
29, 2003 NPR "Weekend Edition" story "News By Web Log").
reported on NPR's "All Things Considered" on July 28, 2003,
blogs were instrumental in democratic candidate Howard Dean's fund raising
efforts, though not as important in his fall from political grace. Even
Dear Abby (actually, the daughter of the original Abby) has weighed
proper blog conduct.
Posted by Steve | Top
teachers using blogs
And, of course, composition and rhetoric specialist have started to
use blogs for their classes. For example, the students in Derek Mueller's
Winter 2004 section of "Writing Purposes and Research" at
Park University are writing in
this blog space. Mueller's
syllabus makes clear that from the third week of the class on, students
are expected to post four times a week. As is evident by her links to
"Class blogs" on her
own blog space, Samantha Blackmon is using blogs as part of the
class discussion for her classes at Purdue University. And then there
are the numerous examples of weblogs developed primarily for writing
classes at Joe Moxley's Writing Blogs
space. Quite literally, hundreds of different blogs are hosted via
Moxley's site, most presumably having to do with various types of writing
and composition courses.
Clearly, the role of blogs in different writing classes varies considerably.
However, a quick glance through these examples (especially Mueller's
and Blackmon's) would suggest that many writing teachers seem to be
using blog spaces as places to facilitate dynamic and interactive writing
experiences. This approach to the use of blogs is consistent with what
at least some advocates of weblogs in educational settings have suggested
for a while now. In their T.H.E. Journal Online essay "Content
Delivery in the 'Blogosphere,'" Richard E. Ferdig and Kaye D. Trammell
claim that the benefits of blogs in classrooms include giving students
a "legitimate" space to participate in discussions and to
share diverse perspectives with readers in and outside of the classroom.
and Trammell argue that, "While blogging, students quickly
learn that posted content can be read by those other than the teacher
and their classmates. Blogging opens up assignments beyond the teacher-student
relationship, allowing the world to grade students and provide encouragement
or feedback on their writings." In a December
2003 "Talk at Brown" University, well-known
blog writer Jill Walker suggested that blogs are one important way
to "teach our students ... network literacy: writing in
a distributed, collaborative environment."
I am as excited about the uses of blogs in my own writing and teaching
as any of these other innovators. But after a failed experiment in
teaching with blogs, I have begun to wonder if it is advisable or even
possible to see blogs as a collaborative or especially "interactive"
writing environment. (2) Or, more accurately,
I've come to believe we shouldn't substitute blogs for other electronic
writing tools that foster discussion and interactive writing, particularly
email lists, commonly known as "listservs."
Posted by Steve | Top
this is all about
This text, which has grown out of my own experiences and a presentation
I gave at the 2003 Computers and Writing Conference, offers a reason
and a way to NOT use blogs in the writing classroom.
Blogs certainly have a place in writing classes, and I discuss one such
example in my concluding entry for this essay/blog. But I still see
the dynamic and conversational exchange made possible by a rather "old
fashioned" electronic writing genre, email-- specifically, an electronic
mailing list discussion-- as uniquely valuable in writing classes. In
fact, as I think my example of blogging gone bad demonstrates, I think
my students' return to email as a discussion forum resulted in a reborn
sense of collaboration and interaction.
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of my "bad example"
The source of my bad blogging example was a graduate seminar called
"Rhetoric and Culture
of Cyberspace." While it was a course part of Eastern Michigan
University's "Teaching of Writing" MA program, our readings
and discussions approached the idea of "cyberspace" from a
lot of different directions: computers and the Internet of course, but
also contemporary media, technical innovation in everyday life, technology
and security/counter-terrorism efforts, and so forth. Most of the course
work and course grade focused on fairly traditional assignments-- a
seminar paper, a book review presentation and essay, and a final.
The collaboratively written blog space was a small part of the class
and described from the beginning as an "experiment" for me
as a teacher. I thought the collaborative writing experience would be
best if the groups were relatively small and if the subjects of the
student writing spaces were not merely a response to the assigned reading.
So, toward the end of our first class meeting, we brainstormed on the
general topics of the blog spaces and then formed three collaborative
groups each made up of four or five students. Their loosely defined
subjects/topics for their different blog spaces were "Cyber-Communication,"
"Cyber-Terrorism/War/Surveillance," and "Cyber-Media."
On this first night of class, I also introduced students to blogger.com
and blogspot, the popular ad-based blog software/server we used for
When I described this project as "an experiment," I meant
just that. This is what I wrote in the course description which is available
on the class web site:
You may be wondering "what will this project look like?"
and "what is he expecting from us here?" Quite honestly,
I'm not completely sure yet. This is the first time I've tried this
assignment, so when I describe it as an "experimental" writing
assignment, I mean it. We will have to see how it goes. All I ask
is that you give this experiment a chance by staying involved with
it, that you be willing to take some chances, and that you remain
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I need to acknowledge three issues that, in hindsight, helped to make
this blogging exercise turn out badly. First, we used blogger because
it is extremely easy and it does not require any sort of server access
(if using the blogspot option). It does support collaborative writing
to the extent that blog writers can "invite" other users permission
to post on the blog, but this project may have been more effective had
I used a different blog-type option that better facilitated collaborative
Second, this assignment did not have any specific requirements in terms
of the number of postings, the subject of the postings, or just about
anything else. While we set up subject groups on the first day of class,
this was a quick and somewhat haphazard exercise, and I tried to make
it clear that students were more than welcome to drift away from this
Now, it's clear in hindsight that I could have headed off both of these
problems had I pointed students to an example of a successful collaborative
blog like Kairos News or Crooked
Timber. However, I didn't do that at the time, in part because it
simply didn't occur to me then, and in part because I wanted this assignment
to be as"open-ended" as possible. I was unsure what the results
of the assignment were going to be and because of that, I wanted the
students' blog spaces to evolve more "organically" than they
would have had I established more strict requirements.
Third and most important for my purposes here, the blog spaces were
the only element of the class that was a full-fledged "electronic
discussion." While there was a class electronic mailing list, one
that figures prominently into my discussion here in a moment, there
wasn't a specific requirement or expectation that students would post
messages on the mailing list. The list was supposed
to serve as a class housekeeping device where I would post updates to
the evolving class activities and where students could post links or
announcements of their own. The discussion and interaction was supposed
to take place on the blogs.
Posted by Steve | Top
Part I:Bad blog writing
As of August 2004, the class blog spaces are still up and running and
available if you follow the links on the class
homepage, though some of the archives were no longer functioning.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought the blogs turned
out poorly. Some students posted repeatedly, while other students barely
posted at all. The amount of text per posting varied considerably. While
there were times in which some students wrote longer messages, more
often than not, the posts were short, merely links to other documents,
or text that was "cut and pasted" from another source. There
was very little writing that could be described as reflective, dynamic,
collaborative, or interactive. There was almost no exchange or conversation
between posters, and no"themed" group writing project emerged
from any of the blogs, which was one of the goals of the assignment.
It wasn't even clear if the students were reading other posts. Individuals
made their posts in an erratic and inconsistent manner, and then they
In other words, the experiment failed.
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Part II: Defining a desire/need to write/blog
Certainly, much of the failure of this assignment can be traced to
its open-ended nature. As I already said, I purposefully gave my students
minimal directions with this project because I didn't know what we would
come up with (after all, I hadn't attempted blogging in my teaching
before), but also because they were grad students (i.e., "grown-ups")
and I thought in less need of the forced motivation by assignment than
some of my undergraduate classes. I also thought that the blog technology
very much called for this sort of open-ended and unformed writing assignment.
My goal was to create an opportunity/space where my students would simply
just want to write.
But what I found is my "open-ended" non-assignment translated
Maybe I should have known before I began that this wasn't going to
work, but I was disappointed that my students didn't "just write,"
if given the opportunity. I still feel a bit disappointed, actually.
Every once in a while, in conference presentations or in essays in journals
like Kairos, someone idealistically suggests that writing teachers
ought to focus on fostering and nurturing an atmosphere where students
can "learn" instead of being "taught," where students
can write not because they are being required to do so by some
sort of "teacherly" assignment but because they want to write,
where students aren't required to write old-fashioned essays,
but where they can create and explore new forms. And so forth.
Well, in the nutshell, that's what I felt I tried, and, in the nutshell,
it didn't work. And when I talked with my students about this, they
more or less said that they needed the direction of a teacherly assignment
to write, and they weren't going to "just want to write" in
a blog space (or anywhere else, for that matter) just because they were
given the opportunity. Perhaps this is common sense, but it is a piece
of common sense I think is too often forgotten in ideas about fostering
student writing in general, and fostering student writing with various
computer tools like blogs.
Students (or anyone else) don't just want to write, and certainly not
in a blog space. As
Walker puts it in her "Talk at Brown" notes, "How
empowering is it to be forced to blog?" And yet, that is ultimately
the power and even charm of web logs: it is very easy to master technology
and interface in which just about anyone who wants to can
post their writings and thoughts about anything. However, like the paper
diaries and journals that web logs are so often compared, the writer
has to have a reason-- and generally, a personal reason-- to write in
the first place.
Posted by Steve | Top
I thought this blog assignment failed most interestingly in its inability
to generate a dynamic discussion, particularly in comparison to an emailing
list. This is the first class I have taught in a long time in which
there was quite a bit of reading and there wasn't some sort of required
discussion taking place on an electronic mailing list. In my other advanced
writing classes, the mailing list is the place where students talk about
the reading before the class, giving the group a starting point for
discussion and giving me an idea about where students are "coming
from" on the readings. But that wasn't the use of the mailing list
for this seminar. In fact, before the events surrounding the Herring
essay, there were fewer than two dozen messages sent to the list in
three months worth of class.
Posted by Steve | Top
point: discussion and the class emailing list
One of the last assignments I had for the blog groups was to come up
with some readings to share with the rest of the class-- essentially,
I was asking for students to come up with relevant and current readings.
One of the groups suggested the Susan
Herring essay "Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication:
Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier." Now, I wasn't
very happy with this group's choice because while I think the basic
premise of the essay is true, I think it's very dated (it was published
in 1994) and I think that Herring's approach to issues of gender online
are a bit simplistic. At the risk of being reductive myself, her reading
is more or less an essentialist one, where men are aggressive and uncooperative
and from Mars, and women are kind and cooperative and from Venus. Again,
it's not that I completely disagree with her; it's just that I think
it's more complicated than what she seems to be suggesting.
We didn't get to talk about the essay in class because we talked about
other essays that students had suggested, and without thinking very
carefully, I off-handedly and inappropriately referred to it as "that
feminist essay" at the close of that night's class. The next morning,
I checked my email and found a message posted to the class mailing list
from one of the more vocal female students in the class(3),
a post that was made at about 1 o'clock in the morning. She begins by
qualifying herself and noting that this wasn't a criticism of me as
the teacher, and also by noting that while she considers herself to
be a feminist, she didn't want to come across as a "feminazi,"
so to speak. Then she wrote:
I just wanted to draw a parallel to the one big article that we did
not talk about tonight, just about the only thing the semester that
I actually cared to read (which is odd because I'm interested in the
topic, hmmm). It's the article that Steve called 'the feminist article,'
the one that Lisa suggested, about gender differences in communication
on the internet. I found it quite fascinating and wanted to discuss
it tonight. But did I even feel comfortable enough to bring it up?
Nope. But I think that it applies as accurately to "The Rhetoric
of Cyberspace" as anything else we've read.
She went on to do a reading of the blogs, noting that there was some
subtle flaming by the men in the class in the blog spaces, and some
of the patterns of communication in the blogs was very much in line
with what Herring was talking about in her essay. Finally, she noted
that the male dynamics on the blogs ended up appearing again and again
in our face-to-face class meetings as well.
As you can imagine, this email opened up quite a discussion, one where
just over half the students in the class offered their take on the discussion
practices in class and on the blogs, the Herring article, and what this
student originally said. The email discussion carried on to the face-to-face
meeting the following week, and all of this was done in a more or less
polite though pointed and intellectually rigorous way. I found it to
be a real turning point for the better in the class because it was the
first time during the semester where I thought students fully engaged
in the subject matter, and also the first time in which there was a
connection between what happened in our face-to-face class meeting discussions
and our electronic discussions.
I don't want to dwell on the specifics of this discussion, though it
is arguable that it is indeed the specifics of the discussion that motivated
this student and thus put this exchange in motion. It's arguable that
it was not the mechanism being used or not used, but rather my bad treatment
of an article this student was very interested in discussing that got
the ball rolling here. However, it is very interesting that the student
put this message on the class emailing list and not in a blog
Posted by Steve | Top
as discussion space; Blogs as publishing space
My students' email exchange-- how it came about and how I think we
should understand it-- is very much in line with what we have understood
the uses and dynamics of email discussions to be for quite a while.
As I noted in my 1995 essay "'How
Will This Improve Student Writing?' Reflections on an Exploratory Study
of Online and Off-line Texts," there were numerous studies
in the late 1980's and early 1990's that specifically argued that email
discussions fostered dynamic, interactive, and "real" writing
Michael Spitzer suggested in his 1990 essay "Local and global
networking: implications for the future" that networked communications
could encourage a greater sense of audience by fostering an "online
discourse community" where writers and readers are genuinely communicating
with each other and see a purpose behind their writing beyond the assignment
itself. He argued that because computer networks change the dynamic
of the classroom to an interactive and social one, they "have the
potential to transform student writing from listless academic drudgery
into writing that is purposeful and reader-based" (59).
Gail Hawisher noted in her 1992 essay "Electronic meetings of
the minds: research, electronic conferences, and composition studies"
that online environments provide "a real and expanded audience"
that student writers can return to with minimal restrictions on time
and place (86). And in their 1989 article "Computer conferencing
and collaborative learning: a discourse community at work," Delores
K. Schriner and William C. Rice note that when students posted messages
to each other via a computer network, "they knew they had an audience
beyond the teacher, and as a result their writing emerged as 'real,'
'volunteered,' even urgent" (475).
There have been refinements over the years in our understandings of
the discursive dynamics of email exchanges of course, but the basic
premise of these articles (articles that, in computers and writing terms,
are "ancient history") is still valid. I would argue that
the student posted her message to the class electronic mailing list
instead of to a blog space-- even though there were very few messages
posted to the class emailing list previous to her post-- because she
intuitively knew that her message would actually reach the "real
audience" of the class community. She felt her message was urgent,
important, and beyond the realm of an assignment, and that her best
option for getting her message to her specific audience was with the
class emailing list.
Blogs, on the other hand, do not foster this sort of dynamic discussion
as well. The jury is still out, of course-- blogs are still quite new,
and as I hope I've made clear, my classes' failure with blogs had as
much to do with my poor structure of the assignment as it had to do
with the technology itself.
Nonetheless, while blogs are interactive and dynamic texts in the sense
that there is a dialog between bloggers and their texts, the dialog
is not the literal sort that is fostered and promoted by email
exchanges. Email posts to mailing lists are drafts or works in progress,
they are conversational in their direction toward an audience, and more
often than not, they demand a literal response. Blog posts are more
finished, are more personal in that the audience is the writer as much
as it is a potential reader, and while readers might "respond"
in some sort of metaphoric way, they are not as likely to write a direct
response to the writer. Certainly, blog writers can enable commenting
features that allow readers to respond on the writer's post (4).
But even when readers are invited to comment on blogs, they are only
allowed to comment on posts initiated by the writer, and the writer
can ultimately control who is or isn't allowed to post comments.
Finally, to the extent that collaboration is fostered by the "interaction"
and "discussion" characterized by the exchange of ideas and
the give and take of a group of writers, I think that email offers a
much better opportunity for collaborative writing. After all, blogs
are in their most basic sense electronic journals; more often in not,
they are spaces for publishing highly individualistic writing.
Posted by Steve | Top
and publish; Discuss and interact
In the end, I think this student made use of the emailing list in this
instance because she understood something about the difference between
a blog and an emailing list long before I did. If you have a piece of
writing that you want to "deliver" or "publish"
as a more or less finished text, put it on a blog. If you have something
to say to a particular audience in order to enter into a discussion
with them, put it on a mailing list.
Posted by Steve | Top
are "Individualistic" rather than "Collaborative"
Blogs do not work well as a facilitator of dynamic discussion and interaction
between between members of a specific discourse community (a writing
class, for example), and my point here has been that, in terms of writing
pedagogy, they do not have the truly interactive or "collaborative"
writing potential of an electronic mailing list.
I suppose though that much of this depends on what one means by "collaboration."
For example, in his essay "Blogs
and Wikis: Environments for On-line Collaboration," Bob Goodwin-Jones
speaks of the collaborative potentials of a variety of different asynchronous
and synchronous technologies. I don't disagree with his general descriptions
of the uses and values of these technologies. However, as he describes
blogs, I do question the extent to which the writing done in these spaces
is highly "collaborative." Goodwin-Jones writes:
Blogs are well suited to serve as on-line personal journals for students,
particularly since they normally enable uploading and linking of files.
Language learners could use a personal blog, linked to a course, as
an electronic portfolio, showing development over time. By publishing
the blog on the Internet, the student has the possibility of writing
for readers beyond classmates, not usually possible in discussion
forums. Readers in turn can comment on what they're read, although
blogs can be placed in secured environments as well. Self-publishing
encourages ownership and responsibility on the part of students, who
may be more thoughtful (in content and structure) if they know they
are writing for a real audience. This same degree of personal responsibility
is lacking in discussion forums.
I certainly agree with all of the possible and valuable uses for blogs
that Goodwin-Jones outlines here for blogs, and I think these are some
of the ways my colleagues and I are using blogs in our teaching. Blogs,
as Goodwin-Jones points out, foster an ownership of text, a
personal responsibility for writing that is distinctly different
from the give and take interactions of the discussion in forums like
But in my way of thinking of it, these are not writing activities that
are "collaborative," "interactive," or "dynamic."
Quite the opposite. Blogs have the distinct advantage of allowing individuals
to easily publish texts that can be responded to by others to be sure,
but those texts are no more "collaborative" than texts published
in conventional print.
Posted by Steve | Top
aren't all bad: two "good" ideas for teaching with them
I don't want to conclude by giving the impression that I think blogs
have little use or value in teaching or that emailing lists are always
far superior to them. Far from it.
I like blogs. I read blogs frequently and I keep
a blog of my own. At the 2003 CCCCs in New York City, I gave a presentation
about how blogs could be a very useful tool for scholars to further
the discussion they began in other publications. In this scenario, blogs
could be a space for the writer to publish updates, reply to reader
commentaries, and point interested readers to other publications.
There are several ways to take advantage of the strengths of web logs
in the writing classroom, and in some ways, I believe some of the colleagues
I mention earlier in this essay are leading the way. I'd like to briefly
outline two other "good ideas," one that I've been using in
my own teaching after my blog failure, and one that I am planning
on using this coming school year.
The first approach is one I've been using in my sections of the class
"Writing, Style, and Technology,"
a 300 level writing class for English majors and minors at EMU. My students
are using blogs as part of a project where they examine two well-known
writing style manuals, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White's The
Elements of Style and Joseph Williams' Style: Lessons Toward
Clarity and Grace. My goal with this project is not to simply study
the "how to" advice in terms of "good writing" and
style in these books-- though both do offer advice that my students
find useful. Rather, the purpose of the project is to ask students to
look below the surface of the advice and to critically reflect
on the definitions of "style" these different books offer.
For example, we discuss in class some of the cultural assumptions apparent
in even the revised version of Strunk and White's book, and we discuss
how the fact that Williams is writing for an advanced audience is reflected
in the complexity of the examples and advice.
Blog writing enters into this project as we read and discuss the books.
In conjunction with the reading assignments, I ask students to respond
to several writing prompts in their blog
space. In spirit, the writing assignment is not unlike traditional "pen
and paper" writing journals. In practice, I think the blog spaces
have two significant advantages over paper. First, each posting is date-stamped
and immediately accessible to readers (including me, of course) as soon
as the writer publishes it. Second, the "public" and accessible
nature of the blogs means that it is extremely easy for students to
read each others' writing. One of the last blog writing prompts I've
used for this exercise asks students to visit, browse through, and write
about their colleagues' blog spaces.
Even though I routinely ask students to look at each others' writing
in peer review of rough drafts and on the class email discussion, the
response students have to each others' blog spaces has so far seemed
unique and, for lack of a better word, more "authentic" than
in some other forums. And in principle, this is the purpose and indeed
spirit of blogs: a space where individual writers can easily publish
texts that are easily accessed by interested readers.
The second approach is one I am trying for the first time during the
Fall 2004 semester in a graduate course I will be teaching, Computers
and Writing, Theory and Practice. The course is a required one for
students in our MA program in "The Teaching of Writing," and
while the title doesn't imply it, there is a pedagogical emphasis in
the course. As a part of the research/seminar project this semester,
I will be asking students to keep a "research blog" where
they will post information about their ongoing project. While there
will be due dates for certain posts (for example, students will need
to post an entry about the topic of their project by a certain date),
I am also hoping that students will come to see their class blog space
as a useful research and prewriting tool-- which is how I see my own
academic blog work.
Of course, I haven't experienced any of the results of this project
yet. But given what I've learned from when blogs go "bad"
and also when blogs can work, I am confident that this assignment will
Posted by Steve | Top
No question, blogs are an exciting writing tool, one of the most interesting
and potentially most useful to come to the writing classroom since email.
Blogs work well for writing projects like the two I just described,
where individual students publishing texts they own. But it's become
clear to me that blogs are not as useful as the relatively old-fashioned
technology of electronic mailing lists for writing that is interactive
and dynamic. How does the saying go? If it ain't broke...
Posted by Steve | Top
an "essay" or a "blog?" Your reading choices...
About this essay,
about this blog
Read as a blog (right
now, you are reading it as an essay)
Writing teachers using blogs
What this is all about
Beginnings of my "bad example"
Failure, Part I:Bad blog writing
Failure, Part II: Defining a
desire/need to write/blog
A "non-dynamic" failure
Turning point: discussion
and the class emailing list
Email as discussion space; Blogs
as publishing space
Deliver and publish; Discuss and
Blogs are "Individualistic"
rather than "Collaborative"
But Blogs aren't all bad: two
"good" ideas for teaching with them