Technology and Pedagogy: The Forum and Form of Blog Posting

Comic with Shakespeare at a computer asking To blog or not to blog?


Matt Reilly

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According to legend, the Athenian orator, Demosthenes, overcome a speech impediment and a weak delivery through a practice of filling his mouth with stones and speaking through them. One might argue that Demosthenes was ahead of the curve in his use of technology. Others might suggest that my example is perverse, since 1.) the stones impede his natural ability to speak, and 2.) they were removed when he spoke in public. But what if we compare Demosthenes’ stones to our current use of loudspeakers, microphones, and PA systems, which achieve a similar end as long as the electricity is running. The individual speaker, however, experiences no benefit from these technologies once they no longer have access to them. To put it another way: instead of thinking about how technology expands our capacity to perform specific tasks, I’m trying to think about technology as an interface that actually develops a proficiency to do something we could not do before (amplifying the voice, in Demosthenes’ case). Blogs, for instance, might be thought of (on one hand) as a forum for advertising our day-to-day thoughts and activities to an audience that isn't immediately present. Blogs might also be thought of, however, as a means of improving our formal academic writing. I argue that the "form" of blogs might benefit writers at every level if we think of their formal demands. While a majority of the population treats blogs as a more “natural” form than the critical essays, many English teachers have a unique perspective into the blog's technical and stylistic demands. 

I should make two points about what I’m not interested in here. First, I am not trying to pose questions about whether we should expect students to devote their limited time to one task or another (as in, should they express their ideas in twitter posts versus five-paragraph essays). Instead, I’d like to ask how a semi-trained academic writer might improve his or her craft by means of a blog. I’m less concerned here with the concept of feedback and sharing ideas than I am invested in questions of individual writing style. Second, I am not questioning whether new technology makes specific tasks easier (it obviously does in so many cases). It is more than likely that new waves of technology will continue to be promoted and implemented as long as we continue to teach. What I’ve been thinking about is the potential for a new technology to help us re-think (and not replace) old ones. I’m also addressing a subsection of literature teachers who may be ambivalent about this constant stream of technology (and what it does to the future of their book-based pedagogy). Below, I’ve posted a video that demonstrates one gross abuse of technology as a replacement for “old” models of instruction. Watch from 4.30–6.00 min., and scoff at Tim Pawlenty’s proposal for “i-College” (a downloadable app.): “[TP:] Do you really think in twenty years, somebody is going to put on their backpack, drive a half-hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keester across campus and listen to some boring person drone on about Spanish or Econ 101? [JS:] “Isn’t that what college is supposed to be, sir?” When Pawlenty talks about how “technology can help a lot,” we can seriously question his priorities and motives. I raise this example not to stoke quasi-Luddite/real economic anxiety, but to point out a pitfall in thinking about technology. Although I would have classed myself as a sort of Luddite in the past (and somewhat still in the present), I can attest to having had a positive experience when in my recent use of the new forum and form of “blog” writing. 

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When I first encountered blogs as a contributor to the DWRL's viz., I did not feel liberated by the interface or form of online writing. Many people think this is an “easier” form than that of academic essays, but I did not. I contacted my sister, Meghan (who had already worked as a blogger for ONEin3 Boston), and asked her for advice. She taught me the basics of the blog “form,” and urged me to think about how I might develop a rapport with a hypothetical audience of readers. This is Rhetorical Appeals 101, but in an unknown world without clear boundaries or editorial policies. How to enjoy (and respect) my own blog posts and still appeal to some normative impartial spectator? My sister had expressed that it is important to come across as a “natural” writer and likeable person, who could be trusted for regular/readable updates. The idea is that, in blog posts, one really has to aim for clarity (somewhat more faithfully than in “academic” writing). Many blogs also seem to shift the emphasis from specialist expertise to a criteria based on approachability. I interpreted the undertaking as one in which I might experiment with different combinations of style. As it turns out, I have come to the decision that “academic” and online writing share about as much DNA as a great ape and a human do. Depending on how one looks at it, they share almost everything and nothing in common. The crossover between the two, however, produces interesting hybrid effects. For example, I decided that any research I introduced into my blog would need some veneer of storytelling, mystique, or performance. At the same time, I would need to write direct and honest statements, which might be read by someone with no idea about my topic or interest. The practice of shifting between registers of storytelling and personal clarity has benefitted my “academic” writing, and I have a will continue to have a good impression of blog-form even if the forum were to disappear tomorrow. I hope it doesn't, because blogging has become an exercise that I very much enjoy. Thanks for the helpful advice, Meghan. Check out her posts at ONEin3 Boston!



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