Blogging Across Disciplines and Campuses
Amanda Hagood and Carmel Price
This volume speaks to contemporary debates about how best to integrate web tools into a critical element of the liberal arts curriculum: the theory and practice of writing. But any meaningful discussion of writing curriculum–regardless of the tools we use to teach it–ought to begin with an even more fundamental question: what do we expect of student writing?
All too often, the unexamined answer to that question is mastery. Traditional college writing assignments commonly ask students to demonstrate a command of both specific subject content and argumentation. (Perfect grammar would also be nice.) Multiply this expectation across the range of fields and writing assignments that a student is likely to encounter in her journey through higher education and you set a rather lofty goal: a student who can fluently speak the distinct dialects of half a dozen or more academic subjects, each with its distinct disciplinary vocabulary and grammar. This kind of expertise seems an appropriate goal for a student’s major and minor subjects, but is discipline-specific writing, with all its particularities and palimpsests, really the best way to introduce non-majors to our fields?
Another common answer regarding writing expectations is academic integrity. And although it is critical for students to learn how to research and appropriately acknowledge the scholarly conversation around their subject matter, the form in which they must typically do so—the scholarly paper—does not necessarily reflect the process by which their learning actually occurs. In other words, traditional writing assignments allow only limited ways in which to acknowledge the community of learners that support a single student’s intellectual development, privileging scholarly sources over the background of class discussions, Google searches, office hour chats, and study groups that helped to shape her ideas—especially in her early exposure to a subject. Moreover, when structured as a one-off assignment—to be viewed only by the instructor and perhaps a few peer reviewers—student writing also loses its potential value of making a meaningful contribution back to the learning community.
It is here—in the voice, the scope, and the process of student writing—that we believe class blogging presents a helpful way to rethink these goals, and the ways in which we might achieve them. As a collaborative class effort, intimately linked to the intellectual work we do in the classroom, a course blog can create a uniquely powerful learning community that invites students to learn through writing. Writing to a digitally-mediated audience of their peers allows students to re-articulate new ideas, test applications, link to related resources, and affirm or modify the ideas their peers bring forward. It allows them, in other words, to engage in the messy, immersive, referential, and uneven process of academic writing in a highly interactive environment. Through structured assignments, well integrated into classroom discussion, blogging can form a rich compliment to traditional writing assignments and, even more importantly, can help students become far more reflective about their learning.
How can blogs help us create more engaged and skillful student writers? Simply put, blogs can function as a staging ground for the practice of academic writing. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues, a blog is “not a form, but a platform—not a shape through which are extruded certain fixed kinds of material, but a stage on which material of many different varieties—different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation—might be performed.” Like the course journals many of us have long assigned, blogs can provide students with the time and space to work through the materials they encounter both inside and outside the classroom: primary readings, secondary sources, news events, class discussions, and the personal associations and experiences they bring to the topic. Blogging platforms also add the ability to link directly to many of these sources (and the intellectual exercise of judging how and when to link). And, unlike course journals, blogs provide a means for transforming this scholarly monologue into a dialog through the readership and commentary of peers and, in some cases, wider audiences. A particularly insightful or articulate observation will often be recognized and acknowledged by a student’s peers (or a watchful professor), and can even resurface in class discussion, as teachers and students connect the learning taking place in digital space to the progress of the course itself. At its best, a class blog models the critical functions of the academic community—providing new information and synthesizing it through peer review—in a way that traditional assignments, with their more limited audience and impact, cannot easily do.
Working Together: Two Models for Class Blogs
Our own experience with student blogging began as a larger experiment in which we placed students in Amanda Hagood’s environmental literature course at Hendrix College (Conway, AR) in conversation with students in Carmel Price’s environmental demography course at Furman University (Greenville, SC) via blogging and shared videoconference sessions. In creating two interconnected courses—“sister classes,” as we came to call them—our initial expectation was that students would use the relatively informal medium of blogging to discover and compare the very different approaches our two fields take to complex environmental issues. However, what we realized in watching their dialog unfold was that the exchange of content our class blogs facilitated was ultimately less important than the writing opportunity—the blogging itself—that the blogs presented.
We initially introduced the sister class concept to our students as part of a larger pedagogical mission as stated in the syllabus for both courses:
Academic inquiry takes place in a living, evolving, and interconnected world and, in order to be meaningful, it must engage with that world: looking around to understand what local environments can teach us, while listening carefully to what those outside our context can tell us.
With the extraordinary flexibility of the blog form in terms of both subject and scope, finding specific parameters for our students’ writing was a challenge.
We took contrasting approaches to assigning and evaluating the blog posts. For her class, composed primarily of literature majors and environmental studies majors, Hagood chose to take a relatively regimented approach that included a minimum number of posts and comments from each student. Working singly or in pairs, her seventeen pupils signed up to complete one weekly blog post covering any aspect of that week’s course material. Students could choose whether to write a long essay-like post of at least 500 words, or a shorter discussion-oriented post that included carefully crafted questions for classmates to tackle as well as a closing synthesis of their colleagues’ responses. Each student was also required to make a minimum number of comments, either on her own blog or on the sister class’s blog, over the course of the semester. Posts and comments were evaluated for completeness and punctuality only, leaving each student free to make her own decisions about the style and content of her work. Students were also encouraged to make additional posts as they saw fit.
The resulting discussion was both surprisingly sophisticated and surprisingly varied (see Writing the Natural State course blog). Students in Hagood’s course typically chose the longer format for their posts and produced everything ranging from a lively critique of a film the class screened, to a debate about the social construction of the natural world, to a poignant reflection on searching for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Many also made excellent use of images, external links, and stylistic variations that gave their posts added interest and personality—a particularly impressive feat given that few in the class had ever previously engaged in any kind of web writing. What most impressed Hagood about this collective student writing, however, was the way in which it consistently practiced the method and lexicon of literary criticism—in this case, consistently offering close readings of lines or scenes drawn from course texts to explore the differences between tragic and comic modes, the construction of subjectivity, and above all the many different representations of “nature” our texts presented.
The commentary that emerged from these posts, and also in response to the sister class’s posts, was equally impressive. There were many instances of back-and-forth conversation between participants on several of the posts, suggesting that students were actively engaged in the intellectual interchange happening on the blog. Hagood also worked hard to integrate the blog through in-class discussion, both by highlighting especially interesting examples of student posts in class (and soliciting further comment from the group) and by adding her own comments to the blog when the conversation stalled or lost its way. Student assessments confirmed that blogging helped students to grasp and rearticulate new content, while giving them a greater sense of why their words matter. One student observed that the blog “provided a different type of environment” in which “more people participated [and] everyone was able to think through their thoughts,” and another student explained:
The blog, in a sense, made me feel like I was contributing to something instead of operating within the school system: write a paper, paper graded, paper handed back and filed. This (course blog) is something that people, other people, could go on and see what this class was about, and how we, as individuals, think about certain issues.
On the other hand, Price’s model for the assignment, which varied significantly from Hagood’s, encouraged students to take greater ownership over the content and pacing of their blog by pursuing topics of their own interest as the occasion arose. Because Price’s class was designed to appeal to a wide range of students (including sociology and environmental science majors, and those fulfilling a general education requirement), she needed a blogging structure that was both flexible and responsive to class discussions. At the beginning of the course, Price suggested that her class elect one of its fifteen members to serve as a webmaster who would design and maintain the blog throughout the semester, and set aside fifteen percent of the total course grade to account for participation in the blog (in lieu of a more traditional attendance/participation grade). The class then chose to set a minimum of ten blog entries per student for the semester, with the webmaster only required to complete five, and Price revised the syllabus accordingly. Halfway through the class, however, the students asked her if they could reduce this self-imposed minimum and, in the interest of nurturing their sense of autonomy over the project, she obliged. In contrast to Hagood’s guidelines, which confined students to a discussion of course readings for any given week, Price charged her students to write about any topics (relevant to the course) that provoked their interest, testing out the new sociological concepts and demographic skills they had learned against personal opinions, current events, and researched materials. In crafting their posts, they were encouraged to make use of data sets and other resources frequently drawn upon in sociological inquiry.
This arrangement allowed Price’s students to cover topics as varied as the social impact of farm-to-school programs, the media’s portrayal of human consumption and waste, and the FDA’s ban on blood donations from homosexual men (see Population and Environment course blog). Even more importantly, it allowed them to explore these topics in a low-stakes, interactive environment in which they were free to experiment with new concepts and draw in outside sources; many of the posts are well-researched with a list of works cited. Because these posts were issue-focused, rather than referencing particular moments in class discussion, students in Hagood’s class felt much more at ease jumping into the conversation with their own comments and reflections. (Indeed, the majority of the intercampus blogging tended in this direction.) In one instance, one of Hagood’s students even borrowed a resource discussed and linked on the sister class’s blog—the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory—to prepare a presentation about one of her own class readings.
At the semester’s end, we each felt that our class blogs had increased student engagement and enriched student learning, albeit in different ways. And although we both anticipated even more interaction between the class blogs than we actually found, the idea of sister classmates as a friendly but challenging audience was still a major motivating factor in our students’ writing. Our richest instances of interactive writing were, in the end, clustered around the teleconference meetings we had scheduled for the beginning, middle, and end of the semester, particularly as we found ways to use the blog as a tool to prepare our students for these discussions. In fact, the palpable excitement that can be detected in the blogs on and around the topics we discussed in teleconference—in passages either addressed to the sister class or merely referencing it to the home class—suggests that the telepresence of peers added an additional incentive for students to explore and experiment with course material. And although teleconferencing may not be appropriate for all class blogging situations, we did gain some useful insights in watching how it impacted our students’ performance. Our findings suggest that the social presence of other learners in digitally mediated environments is key to web writing’s power as a pedagogical tool.
The Next Step: From Learning to Teaching
When we first explored the idea of digitally linking our classes, we discovered a wonderful coincidence: we were both deeply influenced by the work of the great turn-of-the-century preservationist, John Muir. Price had learned of Muir’s career, and his pivotal role in founding the Sierra Club, while doing conservation work in California. She was particularly fond of an inspiring passage in his 1908 essay “The Hetch Hetchy Valley”—calling for the city of San Francisco to suspend its plans to dam a canyon in the Yosemite National Park—in which Muir declares:
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed in poor folks’ window-gardens made up of a few geranium slips in broken cups, as well as in the costly lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks.
Hagood, on the other hand, had often used Muir in her classes to teach about literary Transcendentalism and its powerful effect on American visions of wilderness and nature. Building on our mutual enthusiasm, we planned an additional element for our classes that would bring our student writers face-to-face: a teleconference session in which we would discuss Muir’s essay, considering both the rhetorical techniques employed in his argument and the sociological context in which he wrote. This live conversation, we reasoned, would allow us to explore the issues considered in “Hetch Hetchy” from two disciplinary angles, as well as strengthen the bonds of trust between our students.
At first the value of this conversation—particularly in this new digital context—was difficult for our students to grasp. Price’s class, which was organized around the three primary components of population change (fertility, migration, and mortality), found the connection between Muir’s essay and their study of populations unclear, while Hagood’s students lacked the resources to delineate the social context that made Muir’s words meaningful beyond their powerful rhetoric. However, these limitations began to erode as each class prepared for the meeting. Framing the Hetch Hetchy dam controversy in terms of population pressure from the growing city of San Francisco, Price had her students research census data from the turn of the century to share with their sister class. As they began to connect what they had learned about demographic transitions with the rapid growth of the population in California, the question of whether to build the dam became a great deal more complex—and a great deal more debatable. This was a turning point for the entire class. They began to realize that the demographic analysis skills they were learning could be connected to, and even shift their perceptions about, current and historic events, issues encountered in other courses, and even their personal experiences. What’s more, in preparing and presenting their findings to Hagood’s class, they got the chance to practice and demonstrate their new research skills, proving to be very capable teachers in the process.
Indeed the virtual discussion not only gave Hagood’s students a better sense for why the dam might have been needed—an argument which Muir only glancingly addresses in the essay—but also helped them to ask their own discipline-specific questions in much more nuanced ways. In a blog post responding to the teleconference, two of Hagood’s students noted that the strength of the essay lies in both the “rich, emotional imagery” that Muir employs to describe the Hetch Hetchy and the ruthless logic with which he attacks the opposition’s claims that damming the valley will create a lake roughly equivalent to the current landscape in beauty and recreational opportunity. The two students noted that each type of argument has its own strengths:
But, as the Furman class reminded us with their discussion of the demographic pressure of that era in the West, the intended audience was subject to a very different world-view than we have today. Which of Muir’s persuasive techniques do you think were most appropriate for his twentieth century audience? Which of these techniques was most effective for you? Is there a discrepancy between the two?
These questions, and the conversation that followed them, imply that with their sister class’s assistance, Hagood’s students were able to move beyond the fundamental question of how a text delivers its meaning and into higher levels of cultural analysis. Armed with the new perspective gained from their peers, they began to understand the important principle that words have different meanings in different social and historical contexts.
One fascinating characteristic of the blogosphere, even on the small scale in which we worked, is that topics will continue to resonate through posts, comments, and links, even as they filter down to the unrecorded spaces of everyday classroom conversation. In just such a way, our early conversation about Muir and the Hetch Hetchy Valley continued to make an impact. Muir resurfaced in Price’s class during the unit on immigration, when the Sierra Club’s deeply divided position on U.S. immigration policy became a subject for discussion. Following the principles Muir drafted in essays like “The Hetch Hetchy Valley,” the club has long favored public policies that protect the integrity of natural systems, which, given the important relationship between the physical environment and human population, has lead to much pressure on the Sierra Club to assume a stance on immigration. This debate provided Price an opportunity to take her class back to Muir’s essay, this time looking closely for rhetorical clues that help to shed some light on what Muir might have said about population and immigration issues. Using the literary analysis skills gleaned from their sister class, her students were able to complete this exercise and to understand how Muir’s rhetoric continues to influence the Sierra Club immigration issue.
Although our approaches to forging these intercampus connections varied with each classroom, our students showed a consistent desire for the intellectual community of their sister classes, suggesting that web writing, with its rich potential for collaborative learning, has an important role to play in improving learning outcomes for today’s students. It is important to note that the idea of the network also powerfully shapes the demands of the business world and the practices of citizenship that our students will soon be called upon to fulfill. Teaching them to become responsible and valuable members of the learning community created by an interconnected class blog can play a small but significant part in preparing them for the challenges they will face after graduation, even as it creates a stimulating, supportive—and, dare we say, fun?—environment in which to learn and write.
Even as we discovered that the extended range and reciprocity of web writing makes it a wonderful tool for helping students learn the fundamentals of our fields, we also found ourselves, after the fact, wondering what we might have done to build on these capacities. Both of our courses, for instance, required more conventional, discipline specific writing assignments, including a literary analysis and a media analysis; one untapped possibility would have been to interlink our sister class project with the drafting and revision processes for these assignments. In some cases, there was a clear thematic or topical link between the writing students produced for blogs and their formal assignments, suggesting that blogging played an important role in preparing students to assume the critical perspective these assignments required. But bringing these connections into the open—by having students, for instance, exchange a draft of a key assignment with students in their sister class—might help them further interrogate the disciplinary assumptions that structure what scholarship looks like in each field. A similar exchange could be facilitated via the videoconference platform, too, if students in each class were required to discuss a given topic—say, for instance, environmental justice—with their sister class students by preparing and delivering a lesson on a key concept or method needed to understand that topic.
In the end, perhaps one of the most fascinating and productive dimensions that the blogs added to our courses, both separately and collectively, was a new sense of awareness. As witnessed by their evaluations, our students truly began to think of themselves as a learning community reflected in, and enriched by, the virtual environments of our own tiny blogosphere. One student recounted:
I feel that our discussions online usually took conversation beyond that of the classroom. Further, it provided a different type of environment in which to express ideas…more people participated, and everyone was able to think through their thoughts, resulting in well-articulated comments.
As gratifying as it may be to hear students conceding that their own learning was positively effected by a new assignment, what is truly striking about this reflection is that the writer’s observations focus mainly on group behaviors—capacities to think, articulate, and participate that have been enhanced by the availability of this relatively free writing platform—suggesting that the student has begun to understand herself as functioning within a diverse community of learners. As one student so eloquently stated in her anonymous evaluation: “It was especially interesting in that the other class brought perspectives rooted in English/Literature, while we held sociological mindsets, but in the end we were all approaching similar conclusions through different lenses.”
About the authors: Amanda Hagood directs the Blended Learning Initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South. Carmel Price is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. They created the project described above while serving as Mellon Environmental Fellows at Hendrix College and Furman University respectively, 2011-2013.
How to cite this chapter:
Amanda Hagood and Carmel Price, “Sister Classrooms: Blogging Across Disciplines and Classrooms,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/hagood-price.
- Our project was generously supported by two Blended Teaching and Learning grants from the Associated Colleges of the South. For more information about the project, you may access our final grant reports on their Blended Learning Initiative webpage, Winter 2012, http://www.colleges.org/blended_learning/funded_proposals.html#w2012. ↵
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, "Networking the Field," Planned Obsolescence blog, January 10, 2012, http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/networking-the-field/. ↵
- The momentum a class blog can create derives in part from the fact that it reinforces the social structures that are inherently a part of learning in a class. Participants in student blogs will often substitute interpersonal behaviors such as nodding or raising eyebrows with verbal equivalents such as “I agree with [Sandy]’s comment” or “I think [Mark] is making a different point.” Students will also use inclusive language, for instance “As we’ve already discussed,” to keep track of or redirect the discussion, suggesting a shared learning experience, a shared endeavor. Garrison suggests that, “Reaching beyond transmission of information and establishing a collaborative community of inquiry is essential if students are to make any sense of the often incomprehensible avalanche of information characterizing much of the educational process and society today.” D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer, “Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education,” The Internet and Higher Education 2:2-3 (2000): 95, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6. ↵
- Joint statement in course syllabi by Amanda Hagood, "English 395: Writing the Natural State: Exploring the Literature and Landscapes of Arkansas," Hendrix College, Fall 2012, http://naturalstate.edublogs.org/syllabus/; Carmel Price, "Sociology 222: Population and Environment," Furman University, Fall 2012, http://popandev.edublogs.org/. ↵
- We chose Edublogs to host our class blogs because it provides generous storage space for course materials and media, easy-to-build pages that can be connected to the blog, and a wide range of page styles and widgets that can be incorporated into the blog for a truly pleasing appearance. Moreover, once we had created Edublog identities for each of our students, it was very simple for them to log in and contribute to one another’s blogs. Another advantage of using this education-oriented blog service here is that it allows you to track the number of comments and posts made by each of your student users. ↵
- A particularly fine example of student writing is Rachel Thomas's "Thinking about Brinkley and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," Writing The Natural State course blog, August 31, 2012, http://naturalstate.edublogs.org/tag/ivory-billed-woodpecker/, which was especially meaningful for the many Arkansans in the class. The Ivory-Bill, which was long believed to be extinct, was allegedly sighted in the Big Woods of Arkansas in 2004, generating national attention for the state. See James Gorman, “Is Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Alive? A Debate Emerges,” The New York Times, March 16, 2006, sec. Science, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/16/science/16cnd-bird.html. ↵
- We conducted pre- and post-assessments to evaluate the unique components of our project; readers may access the assessments in their entirety through Hagood's and Price's respective final grant reports for the Associated Colleges of the South, http://www.colleges.org/blended_learning/funded_proposals.html#w2012. ↵
- Anonymous student assessment, Writing the Natural State, Hendrix College, Fall 2012. ↵
- "Population and Environment" course blog, Furman University, http://popandev.edublogs.org/. ↵
- U.S. Department of Environmental Protection, "Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program," http://www2.epa.gov/toxics-release-inventory-tri-program. ↵
- Some online audiences, however, can be challenging in unproductive ways. While there is always a danger that student work will attract negative attention or even abusive commentary from a public audience, this risk can be translated into a useful opportunity to teach students about privacy concerns and strategies. We were transparent with our classes about the precautions we had taken in framing the assignment--such as creating usernames that partially disguised students' identities and using an "unlisted" privacy setting for our course blogs--and we tried to help students understand the possible implications of publishing any material online. Conversations about personal privacy and FERPA policies need to be a part of any student blogging project, and we recommend that educators provide multiple opportunities for students to "opt out" of publicly publishing their work, keeping suitable alternatives at the ready. ↵
- Garrison, "Critical Inquiry," p. 89, believes that this social presence—which he defines as “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people’”—is a key factor in the creation of successful online learning communities, along with the “cognitive presence” of individual students and the “teaching presence” of the instructor. ↵
- John Muir, “The Hetch Hetchy Valley,” Sierra Club Bulletin 6:4 (January 1908), http://www.sierraclub.org/ca/hetchhetchy/hetch_hetchy_muir_scb_1908.html. ↵
- "Persuasion Through the Ages," Writing the Natural State course blog, September 6, 2012, http://naturalstate.edublogs.org/2012/09/06/persuasion-through-the-ages/. ↵
- Hagood and Price, "Sister Classrooms: Blogging Across Disciplines and Campuses," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/communities/hagood-price-2013/. ↵