Reflections on Blogging

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Tekla Hawkins

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Like many of the instructors here in the DWRL, I ask my students to write blog posts throughout the semester, which means in the last year and a half, I’ve read about 180 thoughtful, carefully constructed responses to my own work. Although I added blogging to my rhetoric courses to benefit the students (after all, they meet so many rhetorical and composition questions: public & private writing, community building, visual rhetoric, low-stakes writing environments, etc.), I’ve decided this term that they might be more beneficial for me than for them. 

In part, this idea is prompted by the wide divergence of the types of responses I received in my two classes. 

For my RHE 306 courses last year, I asked the students to write about their research and/or their own research processes. Graded only on completion, the students had to include a minimum number of words, an image or video, and a title. More importantly, they had to comment in a substantive manner on the other blogs that were posted that day. Some students invested a lot into their blog in obvious ways, spending a lot of time finding just the right image, creating perfect transition sentences and so on.

Almost all of the students, though, found it a good outlet to talk about their worries and concerns about the course generally, and to think about some of the issues they were struggling with in class – how to do better research, how to re-organize their papers, and how to deal with issues like procrastination and anxiety. As the instructor, I rarely commented on these blogs online, but I talked about them frequently in class, and at least twice I scrapped our original plan for the day and we worked through some of the issues that were literally writ large on the screen, because I brought them up on the projector. As a group, the students for that course said they found the blogs valuable, and an important part of their development as writers.

In my RHE 309K class this term, the blog prompt was very slightly different, but the posts were dramatically different, and I’m still thinking through why this might be the case. The prompt for this course was to write six blog posts throughout the semester, which had to include a title, image, and a minimum word count, as well as responding to a certain number of other posts in a substantive way throughout the semester. The posts were to address either the readings for the week, or their own research (note: not the research process, but simply “research”). Like the 306 course, they were graded only on completion.

While some of the posts have been about the reading, most of the posts were a kind of preview or rough draft piece of something they planned on incorporating into one of their larger papers. A very few posts were about writing generally, or a kind of written response to a meeting with me about their work.

In the posts that are a re-hash of the meetings with me, or about writing, the responses tend to offer both sympathy and very concrete advice on how to address the issue. In these responses, I have the opportunity to see some of my own teaching techniques and even exact phrases echoed directly back at me. Sometimes this comes through in, “Well, Tekla said in class the other day…,” but sometimes the citation (iteration?) seems to be completely unintentional.

For the “preview” posts, however, although the students frequently asked directly for feedback, the responding students tended not to give the kind of feedback the original poster asked for, going off on questions of their own inspired by the question the OP worked from, or simply saying “good job,” even though this kind of response being explicitly forbidden in the prompt, and I know that they are very good peer reviewers.

Why is this? Since the students mimicked my own work in the process-based posts, why didn’t they in the “preview” posts? Why were they so reluctant to give the kind of feedback that would be invaluable to the other student?

Is it something about my teaching or the way I give comments on papers? Is it simply the fear of being critical in public? Is it because of the class dynamic? My 306 students were freshman, and had more obvious anxiety in general than my 309 group, who were sophomores and juniors. Was it something about the way I handled the course? The 309 group was less cohesive, a bit less friendly with each other than the 306 classes. Or was it simply, and perhaps most obviously, the prompt? Did the phrase “post about your own research,” indicate that the student’s own work was to be on display, a mini-performance? If my peer were “performing,” I would be reluctant to offer public, critical feedback, even if they asked me to.

In retrospect, I think it was probably a combination of all of these, and as I put together my syllabus for next semester, I’m thinking hard about how I can adjust the parameters of the prompt, and therefore the parameters of how my students think about the course, their classmates, and writing.

I love my student’s blog posts not only because they are smart, and funny, and show me things I would’ve never found otherwise, but because they show me my own teaching, and give me a chance to think critically about how and why I say/write/show/perform/demonstrate every action that has to do with them. They’re the best kind of mirror I could ask for.


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