Should instructors incorporate blogging into their courses? Does it have any demonstrable value for learning?
This past semester, I integrated a WordPress blog into my section of Introduction to Writing about Literature at Hunter College. The goal: give students the opportunity to write for a wider audience that includes not only myself, but also their peers in the class (I made the blog private, viewable by course members only). I feel that writing in a (semi-)public forum, as well as reading classmates’ posts, can help to improve the caliber of each student’s work. Blogging allows students to work through ideas and practice thinking about literature in the ways I expect to see in formal paper assignments. I encourage students to write in their own voice (meaning they can be casual) as long as they are expressing themselves clearly. Many of the assignments aim to motivate students by offering them the opportunity to be creative and share a part of themselves with their classmates, something that often doesn’t happen under the time constraints of our regular class period.
In this post, I reflect upon the value of course blogs by considering the ways that the blogging assignments I give draw upon the principles I have learned as a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at Baruch and the pedagogical practices under discussion this semester at BLSCI staff meetings.
Scaffolding and Peer Review
Early in the semester, prior to starting work on the first paper (which is a thematic analysis), I give students the following blogging assignment. First, I have them identify a major theme in what we have read of Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, so far and use textual evidence to explain why it is significant. A week later, I put the students in pairs and have them comment upon their partner’s previous post and extend upon it by discussing how the theme develops as the plot thickens, or locating another instance of the theme in the play and providing analysis. This set of blogging assignments functions as scaffolding to develop the skills they will apply in peer-review workshops which we hold as part of the writing process for each paper. Because this assignment familiarizes students with how to provide feedback about another’s claim and make suggestions for extending that claim, they are better prepared to constructively engage with their partner’s draft during the first peer workshop.
Writing to Learn, Creative Writing to Learn
For one blogging assignment during our unit on poetry, I have my students write their own version of Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, “Girl.” This assignment serves to reinforce the skills of poetry analysis I impart in the classroom as we dissect texts because I ask students to reflect upon the interaction of form and content while using poetic techniques to compose their piece. The female students in the class draw upon their unique experiences of being a ‘girl’ and consider how the form of their poems might look similar to or different from that of Kincaid given the disparity in content. The male students explore what a ‘boy’ version of Kincaid’s poem would be like and whether the form and content would be altered radically due to a different gendered experience. The activity takes the WAC principle of writing to learn and applies it as creative writing to learn. While traditional writing to learn exercises are a valuable pedagogical tool for developing skills, students often aren’t motivated by them and consider the exercises to be just another prosaic chore in composition. When writing to learn becomes creative writing to learn, a surprising thing can happen: not only are learning goals met, but students demonstrate inspired thinking in and through the process.
Creating to Learn, Performances of Understanding
For an extra credit assignment, I ask my students to draw a picture, create a collage, pick or perform a song, etc. that is representative of a particular character in a novel we read together, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. The character, a web-footed hermaphrodite, defies realist narrative conventions and takes shape through metaphor and allusion rather than literal description. With this in mind, I have my students consider how they might render this character based on lines from the text such as, “Being with her was like pressing your eye to a particularly vivid kaleidoscope.” Or, how they would depict her as a representation of a certain kind of passion. The goal is for students to transfer a skill we have been honing all semester, that is, critical engagement with figurative language in texts and apply it to a creation of their own. Essentially, I want them to execute the kind of performances of understanding, or demonstrating learning by ‘doing’ in another context, we have been discussing in recent BLSCI staff meetings. The results of this exercise are beyond anything I expected. Several students posted stunning original drawings, along with a few sentences explaining their idea. Here’s one example:
Another (a music production major) even performed a song that he wrote using descriptions of the novel’s setting as a metaphor for the character in question and for passion itself. Talk about performative learning!