Blogging: Authentic or Manufactured?

 

“Learning to Write Publicly: Promises and Pitfalls of Using Weblogs in the Composition Classroom” by John Benson and Jessica Reyman offered a study that was meant to inform college writing teachers the pros and cons of assigning blogs in and out of the composition classroom. For the purpose of their study, blogs were defined as a public Web 2.0 writing forum technology. They acknowledge that blogging can give students the valuable experience of writing publicly amongst people of varying backgrounds and education. Blogging as a composition activity or assignment prepares students for professionalism in the digital age, where interconnectivity and writing in public forums is an aspect of daily personal and professional lives. Their examination of the students’ preparation and content on four composition class blogs, a course entry and exit questionnaires, and interviews with composition instructors showed that instructors will face challenges fostering digital literacy by forcing blogging as an activity.

While Benson and Reyman found that blogging offered opportunities for learning about writing in a public space, instructors still encountered issues of protecting students privacy. Blogging does create a writing atmosphere that is public and open, but student writing still needs to be assessed and evaluated in a protected environment which is difficult to create online. The balance of creating a public blog space for composition students while maintaining a safe space for learning can be very difficult, as also seen in “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition” by Charles Tryon. Benson and Reyman concluded that writing course blogs have the potential to teach digital literacy and citizenship, if instructors are responsibly protecting the students privacy (which means that the space should not be entirely public). This balance means that for a successful blogging environment, teachers have to “manufacture” a public environment without it actually being public. As we see in Tyron’s article, students writing to an entirely public audience can subject students to a space that is not conducive for student writing. Benson and Reyman hope that despite the challenges of blogging, writing teachers will still use blogs a collaborative tool to help students engage with digital literacy and learn how to professionally interact with meaningful, public forums.

Tyron also held the same hope despite the difficulties his students encountered when engaging with a public audience. He thought that the students no longer passive spectators but instead contributors to larger conversation gave students the opportunity to be a part of something greater than what can transpire in the classroom alone. He also found that the opportunity to blog inspired students to participate in a meaningful social and political way. He found blogs as a successful and valuable way to get students grappling with rhetoric and audience while learning about citizenship, democracy, and digital literacy.

Struggling with the issues of digital literacy is an undertaking that all composition teachers should be discussing and working towards. Writing using public and social forums is a form of composition that also addresses the complexity of teaching students to write across the curriculum. Whether a student’s interest is sociology or chemistry, there are many people writing publicly about the current issues, questions, and problems the field is facing. Allowing students to engage with conversations occurring digitally and publicly, gives students the opportunity for a tangible writing experience. One that they can understand the meaning and importance of. While I understood the concerns of Benson and Reyman that we saw transpire early on in Tyron’s article, I also think it is important for students to experience public criticism of their writing. Personally, I think it would be fascinating to allow students to engage with a public, non-manufactured audience, and take the feedback or commentary from their readers and incorporate it in revision exercises. I think that any opportunity that allows students to engage with criticism and revision can be turned into a positive one, and in a blogging platform, it could be massively helpful in teaching students responsible digital citizenship. In my experience, students respond to authenticity more than manufactured scenarios. I think even if it is encountering and embracing criticism, the authenticity of keeping blogging public can truly inspire students to write and read content that they have a passion about.

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Information Commodification

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Johndon Johnson-Eilola’s article “The Database and the Essay” argues that postmodern definitions of writing have begun to be accepted and popularized by the general public. If we accept the general premise of postmodernism that ideas are formed in context and in social situations and don’t stem from individual genius, we are then faced with the issue of authorship and ownership. Johnson-Eilola points to intellectual property law and the erosion of fair use rights, arguing that language and text has become commodified within a capitalist system, “put into motion…forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly” (203).  This idea of breaking texts into fragmented parts so that they will fit within the avenues of capitalist circulation has quite serious implications for original ownership. When texts are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, allowing for easier commodification, and then continually repurposed into new forms, how can we define authorship and originality? The deconstruction of meaning from a single textual object into an interconnected web of linkage and in-text citation has not created a “communal web of shared experiences,” as Johnson-Eilola claims was originally predicted (204).  What has instead emerged is the commodification of intellect with the continual breaking down and reformulation of texts and ideas, each recombination generating profitable value.

This issue can be viewed in terms of the broader debate over what is writing and what is mere compilation. We generally define writing as involving a creative process that results in the formation of a unique text containing original thought. This is taught in academic settings and grounds most writing pedagogy. However new competing definitions of writing that lean toward postmodernism argue that language is a continual social construction, so is completely arbitrary and that this applies to texts as well. There is a marked shift from thinking of texts as discrete objects to now viewing them as unpredictable, fragmented elements that are constantly reconfigured and reconnected. Johnson-Eilola argues that this shift is important because it “opens a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a work– as a relatively extended, coherent whole– and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks” (209).  By viewing any type of text within these financially geared terms, issues of ownership become problematic. If texts and ideas are continually reformulated, who holds proprietary rights?

Attempts at answering this question have become more urgent and relevant as blogs and linking further complicate the idea of ownership. Traditionally citation and reference within texts is considered necessary and socially valuable and has always been free, but now companies claim that linking within a website destroys their economic model of users moving “top-down” through the site viewing advertisements along the way. If users are linked to a page deep within the site, they miss relevant advertising and the company is not paid. The contrast between the academic argument that information should be free and the economic model claiming that information should circulate and thus earn money can be reduced to the rather difficult issue of information commodity. On one side we have academics arguing that knowledge and texts reside outside of the economic sphere while simultaneously constructing institutions that collect money in exchange for knowledge. And on the other side we have the postmodernists and corporations that fragment and circulate texts, profiting from this continual exchange of information. Though these sides claim to be in constant and bitter debate, their practices are incredibly similar. Does this then de-value the argument? Aren’t both institutions essentially attempting to control the same thing?

 

 

Using New Literacies as Quick Fixes: Blog it! Wiki it!

I feel that blogs have become the Band-Aid to the myriad of problems in freshman composition. Students not motivated? Use blogs! Students not grasping audience? Use blogs! Students not interested in what you’re assigning them? Use blogs! Because of this reliance and potential over enthusiasm for blogs, I myself have grown skeptical.

I valued Richardson’s (2010) detailed explanation of Blogs in the classroom because he’s right – blogs can be very powerful when used in the right way. As a new teacher, I find myself struggling to have students write for authentic and real audiences, besides myself. Writing individual papers only aimed at me makes them both boring and stagnant. Blogs seem like a good alternative.

If we use blogs, though, like any type of new literacy, we, as instructors, have to be careful about how we introduce it in the classroom. Benson & Reyman’s (2009) exploration of blogs in the classroom showed me the many pitfalls of using blogs. I think one of the best reasons to use blogs is because of its direct connection to audience. As Richardson comments, “the relevance of student work no longer ends at the classroom door” (27). Students are no longer just writing for each other and the teacher – the audience is now potentially the whole Internet world. With this larger audience comes a new responsibility for students. Their writing now has both purpose (since it’s actually being read) and responsibility (if people are going to read it, I should try). Blogs work for the type of meaningful writing we want students to do and for the way we want them to approach, anticipate, and write for an audience. However, as Benson & Reyman (2009) comment, “understanding of audience does not necessarily lead to a strong sense of the potential consequences for their public writing” (16).  I’ve been a part of many class blogs, have created my own class blog, and have worked with students on their blogs here at SF State. They all have very few hits. My own blog has had 156 visitors from the US and 21 from Russia and then 20 from Latvia. I would say my blog is pretty representative of the kinds of blogs that students will write. I didn’t do much connective writing, so maybe that had an effective on views to my site. However, when I Google some terms I talked about like race, class, gender, my blog does come.

The point of this example is to show that, really, people are not reading my blog.

Students in the Benson & Reyman class discussed how they really felt that they could say anything they wanted to on a blog because they “had a perceived sense of a private, exclusive audience when writing to the class blogs” (18). While the potential audience is potentially massive, the actual audience seems to be fairly small for these blogs. And the students perceive that, negating the value of writing for an audience that blogs encourage.

If students don’t think anyone read the blogs, are we promoting audience awareness? Or are we just assuming there is a wider audience and turning a blind eye?

Because of my jaded view of blogs, I was intrigued by the discussion of Wikis. My knowledge of Wikipedia was cursory before these readings. I use it all the time and I frequently encourage students to do so as well, but I didn’t get how it works. I believe writing can be powerful when it is a collaborative, social, and constantly in flux. So, in other words, when it mirrors Wikipedia. Students who “purposeful[ly] work [at] negotiating and creating truth” understand that their writing has to be valued to be kept on the Wiki – it has to have purpose, be articulate, add something to the conversation, synthesize material (57). In essence, what some of the core values of freshman composition are.

I am intrigued by the idea of having students work on creating a document together. This could be revising and reworking our notions of genre through the semester, or adding to a list on good thesis statements. Either way having a place where everyone can add, and everyone has agency to change, what we are discussing. iLearn has a pretty user friendly version of Wiki’s built in and I’m trying this out next week in my class.

If Compositionists have been so struck by blogs why have Wikis been given the wayside? Blogs provide a platform to publish and write to an (imagined) audience. Wikis also provide a platform to write to an imagined audience but also encourage collective revision.

I think part of it is our reluctance to let go of authorship in the classroom. Blogs maintain this because each student writes their own blogs. With wikis, collaborative writing and learning takes place meaningfully and thoughtfully. While we can track who adds what, the goal of the Wiki is for information to be revised and rethought together, not for everyone to have their own independent voice. As Hunter (2011) suggests in his study of World of Warcraft Wikis, wikis both “erase a sense of authorship” (45) and “individual contributions are deemphasized” (54). This is very interesting to our notions of how we teach writing in the classroom: as a very individualized, independent, and frequently isolated activity.

            Wikipedia has always been scorned in the classroom for its unreliability. But more people have access to making it reliable than something written by one person from the The Times or Wired. I think part of our hesitancy with Wikis is the lack of authority, specifically in regards to assessment. We typically assign each student a prompt, to be completed independently. When we assess, through feedback and/or a grade, we are responding to that specific student. We know they wrote the essay. With Wiki’s then, this individual writer becomes problematize. How do I evaluate a Wiki that every one adds to? What about individual grades? What if nobody adds anything to the Wiki because it is already pretty good? I foresee problems arising when students post something in a wiki because they have to, not because it furthers the discussion. With these questions aside, I do think that Wiki’s add a new dimension to the classroom that values collaboration and revision.

As I hop off the blog bandwagon, I hop on the Wiki bandwagon. Students don’t collaborate? Wiki it! Students don’t see their revisions as purposeful? Wiki it! Students aren’t grasping the exigency of writing? Wiki it!

Taking advantage of tools and bewaring of false promises

In “Blinded by the Letter Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else!” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola address two myths that are associated with discussions of “literacy,” one, that literacy is always a tool of liberation for oppressed peoples, and two, that literacy will improve an individual’s sense of self and moral character. I have often had a bad taste in my mouth when reading academic discussions of literacy in the sense that academic efforts to offer literacy to oppressed peoples are like wealthy philanthropy—rich people donate money because it makes them feel good, but more often than not, not because it will really create substantial change. I’m not saying that efforts to share literacies are not worthwhile and effective, but I don’t think teaching someone to read and write is the panacea that will dissolve class inequity. Literacy is just a piece of the puzzle. The Wysocki and Johnson-Eiolola article was refreshing to me. This quote from Ruth Finnegan words it well, “So, when people might want, for example, houses or jobs or economic reform, they arc instead given literacy programs. (41)” 

The second myth taken up by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola is that the book, and the book alone, offers people the necessary self-reflection to become more self realized and moral individuals. A book or literacy for that matter does not by default make you a moral person. I hear this in the tone of people’s voices when they react to discovering that another individual has never read a book or only plays video games. Yes, reading does open you up to considering moral ideas, but it does not inherently make you moral. The cultural expectation to read can be oppressive. This Portlandia sketch sums up this myth pretty well to me.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola continue their argument by applying their discussion of literacy myths to computers, urging readers to consider the use of the term “literacy” when applying it to computers—for fear that we might apply the same assumptions and myths to computer literacy. Efforts by the Clinton administration to put a computer in every classroom seem to be tangential to this idea of applying the same myths of literacy to computers. Computers in every classroom did not save students, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt them either.  

The second assumed promise of literacy that the authors warn us to consider carefully is this idea of improving the self, the bildungsroman of literacy. A bildungsroman is a literary term for a coming of age story. Computers are very much tied to self-improvement and authoritative self-identity. We can see these myths embodied in rags to riches stories like that of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, all wunderkinds whose abilities and destinies were unleashed because of computers.

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We cannot assume that people are missing out on the good life if they don’t know how to work an iPod.

But to completely dismiss computers and computer literacy because it brings along some myths of overzealous promise is unwise.

Computers can be powerful tools for discovering identities and understanding how power is negotiated. InColin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s article, “’New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice,” the authors analyze “‘new’ literacies” (which at the time of the article’s publication are new but today are more broadly accepted as commonplace)

in the form of blogs, online fan fiction and “synchronous online communities (this appears to be a precursor to things like World of Warcraft).

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It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea that each online community represents a separate discourse community, thereby offering an individual the ability to become literate within that discourse community.

Each community: fan fiction fans, synchronous online community members, and bloggers, all three of these discourses offered community members avenues for re-imagining their identities and expressing themselves in ways that conventional media and reading and writing outlets had not.

Lankshear and Knobel classify communication through fan fiction and online synchronous communities as “relationship technology” rather than “information technology” (while blogs seem to stand in both categories), and they argue that awareness of these literacies can be applied in the classroom. I would rephrase this suggestion as “know your population. ”

Framing curriculum in formats that are personally compelling for students is beneficial in terms of engagement for the students. Students can have “authority” over their school assignments in ways that traditional research papers may not allow, capitalizing on the “relationship technology” that youth are so adept at navigating.

An article in A New Literacies Sampler continues along similar lines as Lankshear and Knobel. In “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy” by Jennifer Stone, Stone explores how popular websites used by teenagers support literacy practices encouraged in schools (a la Robert Brooke’s “Underlife and Writing Instruction” wherein the transgressive activities of students in class actually reinforce classroom goals). In Stone’s research she observes youth using the rhetorical skills that complement classroom practices. Stone suggests that schools can help students to “begin addressing the convergence of genres, modalities, and inter-textuality to promote consumption” (61) that is inherent in many popular websites.

In conclusion, it may be beneficial to use technological literacy in the classroom as a tool for empowerment and self-realization, but it is necessary not to overstate what our claim of “literacy” offers students. We are offering them tools, but we are not necessarily offering liberation or morality. It is also important to note that the tools benefit not just the students, but also, us, as teachers in our ability to engage our students.

These are a Few of My Favorite Posts (Part II)

As I continue my synthesis of ideas from the class blog , I should mention that you all have written lots of great stuff about many subjects including games, podcasting, multimedia and so on, but I will ignore all that for now in favor of what supports, expands or challenges the ideas I have been developing about my own teaching methods which seem particularly relevant to teaching a face to face, textually based writing class with online support.

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