If A Blog Gets Created And There’s No One To Read It, Does It Make A Sound?

With the use of blogs and wikis, students may reach unexpected audiences and collaborate at unexpected moments in contrast with traditional reading and writing experiences.

First in regards to audience, Charles Tryon advocates using blogs to help students gain an identity as global citizens in “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition.” The unlimited reach of blogs makes student writing available to a global audience. When students receive comments and feedback about their writing from the greater public, the writing they have done for the public sphere in the blog gains a more profound validity than classroom writing.

While blogging may open up student writing to a global audience, some dangers come with that level of access. In “Learning to Write Publicly,” a qualitative research study done by John Benson and Jessica Reyman, the authors note that only about one or two students out of sixty-seven, who were observed blogging in a first year composition class, had concerns about the public nature of blogging, and the other sixty-five viewed blogging as totally anonymous or like talking to a “close friend.” Despite the propensity of students to over-estimate the amount of personal information that can safely be shared (a phenomenon well known by now and mocked on websites such as Failblog or in this SNL sketch), the authors of the research study still note that the exercise in rhetorical awareness is hugely beneficial to students because even just going through the motions of having fellow students comment on their work (albeit required comments by the teacher) expands a student’s notions of audience.

Coming from more of a K-12 perspective, Will Richardson proposes many methods for limiting the audience of student blogs, so that students can practice writing for a larger audience (even if it’s just the whole class) without risks of allowing students to overshare or discover unsavory content. Richardson sees the blog as more of a pedagogical tool that should be managed so that students can use new media tools more effectively outside of the classroom. Richardson’s perspective, that of the private class blog, is training wheels for real-world blogging. I, in any many instances think it’s more appropriate for the classroom to be a safe space, but many students will learn the harsh lessons of over-sharing outside of the classroom one way or another.

Take me for example, long ago (2005), I e-mailed a letter to the editor of SF Weekly about iPods. The newspaper had run a story about how podcasts were a “medium for dissent.” I received notice that they were going to print my letter and I became excited. I eagerly waited for the next edition of the weekly to come out, and when I raced to the page where the “Letters to The Editor” were, I discovered that my letter had been saddled with a sarcastic title “Manifesto from the Outer Sunset.” My glee turned to disappointment as I realized the editors were making fun of my letter, one containing a few too many Marxist sounding words (common man, upper classes, dissent).

Long story short, it has taken YEARS for that letter to the editor to stop showing up in the top 10 results when you Google my name (and yes I know that by linking to it in this post, I am counteracting that effect). The lesson I learned from all of this is that—the internet follows you. I’m sad to say this is not the only lesson I learned about discretion in regards to the internet and new media, but it was a valuable learning experience, and in retrospect, a shareable blunder.

Students are invariably going to make mistakes when trying to take part in civic discourse, and eventually we do have to take off the training wheels and let them ride their internet bikes into ditches. Especially nowadays, there is more recourse for internet blunders (privacy settings, delete functions) so most of the time students will bounce back unless they do something as profoundly shocking as UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posting a YouTube video containing a racist rant about Asians in the UCLA library. Wallace had to publicly apologize and withdrew from UCLA, but I think cases like hers are an extreme example.

Extreme examples aside, students must get used to the fact that when they write online, audience changes. Wikis provide an intermediate experience, and one distinctly different than blogs. With wikis, students collaborate on a document or web resource. While the wiki can be changed by anyone, the wiki retains a history of all changes made so that the wiki can be reverted back to previous versions. A student will experience a different type of audience on the wiki, not that of commenters, but of authorial discussions about the nature of the content on the wiki. Students must feel bold in changing the work of others, but also be comfortable with the fact that their writing will most likely be edited and/or deleted. The notion of authorship and audience completely changes on the wiki: from singular to shared authorship, and simultaneously an unlimited audience (on the internet) and a limited audience (fellow authors of the wiki). In “Erasing “Property Lines”: A Collaborative Notion of Authorship and Textual Ownership on a Fan Wiki,” Rik Hunter observes these phenomenons regarding audience and authorship in the context of a World of Warcraft Wiki, WOWWIKI.

I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it is beneficial and possible crucial to teach students how to use these tools critically. We might not save them from a few badly written letters to the editor, but we might save them from life altering viral video status if they are a little more aware of the power of these tools. We can show them how to use a tricycle and maybe someday, they will build something like this.


3 comments on “If A Blog Gets Created And There’s No One To Read It, Does It Make A Sound?

  1. “When students receive comments and feedback about their writing from the greater public, the writing they have done for the public sphere in the blog gains a more profound validity than classroom writing.”

    It’s not that I am disagreeing with the point above made in your blog, however, I wonder how it works when the students work is not well written? (For example, it has no “validity”) In English 700 last semester, we spent many different class sessions talking about writer confidence in the classroom. There seemed to be an overwhelming emphasis on helping them find voice, while at the same time maintaining an academic standard, and their level of confidence. This scenario changes a bit in the blogsphere, and I question whether or not having the public leave comments on student writing is healthy. What if some of the comments are irrationally negative and have no bearing on what the student could improve?! Then, you have a student whose confidence is shaken by the negativity, and no longer wants to write because they think, “I am a bad writer.”

    Everyone has seen that knuckle head who insists on demeaning others because there is a screen between them and the author. It is an unfortunate way to interact, but prevalent. How do we help the student “recover” if this takes place? What tools do we use to help them regain their confidence? Do we have enough time in one semester to accomplish this?

    I know I am asking alot of questions. Partially I am just thinking out loud and hoping to bounce these ideas off of you. Your blog was well written and I found my self chasing new ideas down several rabbit holes!

  2. This notion of “shutdown” in students is something I am very interested in, so I hear what you are saying! Initial negative experiences can affect some students profoundly (especially if the negative experience happens in the process of mastery).

    Expecting well-written rhetorically aware posts from students is one thing and expecting students to be ready to a) disregard knuckleheads or b) argue with knuckle heads is taking it to another level of unreasonable-ness. I really *like* a lot of the methods (closed to the public blogs, teacher vetting of posts) that Will Richardson talks about, and I would probably use them in my class. In terms of grammar, I have a policy of not grading students on what I haven’t taught them. Why wouldn’t I apply the same expectations to blogging if students hadn’t experienced it before?

    What I do like about some of these readings is the idea that we do our students a great service by preparing them for the world that they will face, by preparing them to make critical statements, by preparing them to use digital tools, and by preparing them to write in a genre that may seem oh so very far away from expository writing.

    I’m not sure the in-class new media setting will prepare students to deal with the randomness and senselessness that internet knuckleheads can produce, but a conversation about this could be had in the classroom that might be very productive, and I bet that most students would have an interesting story or two to share.

  3. Your post addresses some pertinent issues facing students in a digital age: Awareness of audience, practicing writing with an audience in mind, and receiving responses – welcome and unwelcome- from that audience . In an age of blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, students can practice inside and outside of the classroom with an assortment of writings that highlights an attention to audience. I feel that student writing that includes practice with writing with an audience in mind is beneficial to the student. It broadens the student’s scope from just thinking in terms of themselves and the evaluator, to begin thinking in terms of their voice in conversation with others, so I agree more with Benson and Reymon’s research and assessments.

    Your post also aptly addresses the difference between blog and Wiki response and authorship. I really liked how you clarified that the Wiki is a shared authorial experience, in which “you” the author can be corrected and even deleted by your fellow community of scholars / experts. This is a distinct difference from blogging in which the blogger has dominion over their opinions, and in some cases, should they desire, they can silence responses to their posts by filtering responses. Equally important in this digital debate is making students aware that their writing can stay within the public sphere for a very, very long time, especially with Google Search; your story was a good one to bring to mind for impassioned student’s to bear in mind.

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