Blog as Writing Course: Lessons Learned

After stepping down from my position as Writing Center Director in 2010, I have been teaching full time in the English Department for almost two years. Before I became a Writing Center Director, I had made my living teaching Freshman Composition, and over the years I probably taught more than a hundred sections. However, when I stepped down from my administrative position it had been years since I had actually taught a writing course. I was surprised to find that I felt that I did not know how to teach writing, or even what it was to teach writing. The traditional course with assigned readings, a handbook, four or five essay assignments in response to the readings, maybe a researched paper, some class discussions, drafts submitted for feedback, final drafts submitted for a grade, all that seemed less than adequate and not to the point. That sort of course is just going through the motions. The writing is just an exercise designed to prepare students for real writing. The audience is a fiction, the purpose a pretense, the genre–the college essay–a pedagogical artifact. I didn’t want to teach that course anymore.

However, the department wanted me to teach English 303 “Advanced Expository Writing.” It is a core course. Every English major has to take it. Somebody has to teach it. I am a writing specialist. There was no way to say no. I had to design a course that I could teach, that would avoid the problems noted above. I wanted a course in real, not pretend, writing. I thought about this Guitarsophist blog, and my own blogging experience.

I get about five hits a day on this blog, mostly from search engines looking for information on the “Roland Ready Stratocaster” guitar or, more recently, the “Tama Silverstar Metro Jam” drum kit. Those are review/opinion pieces on musical gear that is not well-covered in traditional sources, and readers seem to find those articles useful. Five hits a day is nothing. My daughter has a simple crochet pattern up on her blog that sometimes gets thousands of hits a day. However, even five hits a day means that I have readers, and having actual readers means that I have to think of my audience, a real audience, when I write. Even the potential for readers who may not actually show up influences my writing. Students in a traditional writing course, no matter how much we talk about audience analysis and do read-arounds, peer editing, and all of those audience-building tricks, know that they only have one important reader, the instructor, and that the instructor reads it to grade it, not to use it for any actual purpose. If student writing were posted to a blog, there would be a potential outside audience for it, and that potential might make the writing task more real.

Student blogs, therefore, might be a good pedagogical tool. However, that means that part of the course has to be about creating, designing, and managing a blog. I had been blogging for a while. If I did this, I would have to figure out how to teach students these skills.  As it turned out, this was a problem for some students, especially since I did not have a smart classroom equipped with a computer and a projector.

If a public audience is going to access the writing, the writing has to serve some purpose for that audience. It has to inform, or entertain, or comfort, or inspire, or do something for that audience that makes them want to read it. That meant that the assignments had to be something other than college essays. I would also have to design assignments that would live comfortably on the web, that would make sense as blog posts. That required some thought.

I also considered the fact that most writing these days is published on the web rather than in print, and that email has become the primary mode of business correspondence. Electronic texts are real writing!

I created six assignments:

  • Reflective piece: How I became the Writer I Am Today
  • Business Letter, Plus How to Write a Business Letter
  • Informative piece: A Review of Something
  • A Rhetorical Analysis
  • A Research Report for a Decision Maker
  • An Op-Ed piece
  • Revisiting the Reflective Piece: How I Have Changed as a Writer

They also had to do weekly posts to a “commonplace page” which were quotations from things that they were reading for this class or other purposes to which they would respond.  Posting a business letter to a blog didn’t make sense, so I had them do some web searches on “How to write a business letter,” choose the two best sources and the one worst that they found, write some explanatory material, and then post their own efforts as examples.  This was a bit awkward, but they reported that they learned lot from doing it.  The assignment that was most awkward in the context of the blog was probably the rhetorical analysis.  Here is how one student began:

Welcome, welcome masses of the Internet! Today I decided to try and mix something old with something a little new and by old I mean rhetorical analysis (and for those thinking “hey I learned that in school, I know all about that” quiet, daddy’s talking) and by new I mean I’m going to apply it (or more specifically the Aristotelian appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos) to something found in today’s world. –K. Deushane

Talk about creating an ethos!

I decided that for this course most of the texts we read would also be online, but I found two books that I thought would be useful:

  • Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2006.
  • Holcomb, Chris and M. Jimmie Killingsworth. Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.

The premise of the Harris book is that all academic writing is essentially rewriting other texts for new purposes.  I’ll let one of the students describe the approach:

The terms were: forwarding, countering, taking an approach, and revising. I felt that I learned the most from the forwarding and countering parts of the book as Harris presents a way for writers to use other writer’s writings in their own words. That is, Harris outlines how to use other writers to back up my own writing without merely regurgitating their words. The part on countering was also helpful as it describes how to rebuke other author’s writings without simply disagreeing or showing research or evidence that contradicts them. Some terms that Harris uses in describing countering are: arguing the other sides, uncovering values, and dissenting. I found these terms and explanations to be especially useful because they taught me how to effectively counter claims by other authors. I did this by highlighting the strengths of other writers and then showing how they do not go far enough in their claims and assertions. Additionally, I highlighted ideas that other writers had argued and countered by showing problems from those ideas; I wrote about concepts that writers had not effectively defined, and I wrote about the limits of ideas of other writers. All of the concepts from Rewriting were addressed and discussed in class and this was instrumental in helping me develop as a writer. –D.J. Hernandez

That is a lot to learn from one book.  The Holcomb and Killingsworth book also elicited positive comments:

Performing Prose was the one of the two that really stuck to me.  The content of this book is golden. I always wondered what a college level writing textbook would be like, and this basically met all of my expectations. It’s easy to read, makes loads of sense, leans toward the technical side which I like, and doesn’t sound overly preachy and boring. –A. Heng

However, the books did not get rave reviews from every student, and I think that I could have integrated them better with the course.

I created a WordPress blog called “Writing in the Web World. ”  I made it private, so students had to request permission to read it.  I posted all of the assignments there, and I put links to all of the student blogs in the blogroll, so my blog was a portal to all of the other course blogs. It took a while to sort all of this out.  Most of the students made their blogs public to the whole world.  A few made theirs private, so we had to request access.

Several students reported that submitting papers as blog posts made them somewhat casual about deadlines.  Here are comments from a couple of students:

One issue I had with the blog however was that it doesn’t provide much of a sense of urgency. This phenomena might be limited to just me, but something about having to post up my work online as opposed to turning in a solid copy of work fill me with less of desire to work than turning in a hard copy. –A. Heng

Some issues I had with the writing assignments being posted on a blog, was keeping track of what I had to do and when assignments were due. Since I was not turning in hard copies of my work, I was often confused of what I have turned in and what I have not. I fell behind on my assignments quickly, and it was much more difficult to catch up. I also admit that I did not comment much on other people’s posts and I fell behind on my commonplace. –A. Morales

I must admit this was true for me as well.  It was harder to determine what I had read and what I hadn’t, and if I didn’t read right at the deadline, it was harder to determine when something had been completed.  It was also harder to respond.  I was using the WordPress comment feature, so if I wanted to refer to a particular sentence I had to copy and paste it into the comment window.  I usually made general comments first and then created a section of the response called “picky stuff” in which I suggested sentence-level changes.

Even with these problems, I will do something similar when I teach 303 again in the spring.  This student pretty much summarizes what I was trying to accomplish:

What I’ve learned from creating this blog is that there is an entire new audience out there for me to write for. No longer is writing in class just for the professor or the occasional student, but for someone completely new to my writing. There is feedback from not just one person, but feedback from the entire world, or just anyone who is able to access my blog. Before I would write what I had to just to get an A on my paper, which meant writing something I know the professor would like. In previous writing classes, I would sit in class to learn what kind of person the professor was, and through that, I was able to write something in an essay they wanted; I would write something that would catch their attention, something they would like that would get me on their good side, which meant getting a higher grade. Honestly, I was manipulating them, I did not put all my effort into the writing assignments because I knew the right thing to say that would make them happy or make them laugh just so I could get a good grade. Now, writing on a blog, I’m not just writing for one person, I’m writing for the world and because of that, I am able to give my honest opinion on something. I am now able to write whatever I feel like I want to write because I don’t know the world personally. Here, I can be my real self, not having to worry about getting graded by people who read my blog. –I. Chu

A couple of student posts attracted comments from outsiders:

From my own blog, my review of the Zeiss 50mm lens garnered attention from a blogger from Florida. It was a definite eye opener for me. There were people out there reading that I had never seen or heard of, that review put one of them at my electronic doorstep. –J. Colwell

When the other students heard about this, they were both inspired and a bit fearful.  Their writing really was out there for people to read.

Teaching the course this way was a lot more work than the traditional way, and there were numerous glitches and problems.  All things considered, however, I think university writing courses need to go in this direction.  Students at this level need to learn to do real writing for real people, not just academic exercises.  Even though it was more work, it felt like it was more productive work.  I will do it again.

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About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
This entry was posted in Rhetoric and teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Blog as Writing Course: Lessons Learned

  1. Hannah says:

    I think writing for an audience requires a certain amount of vulnerability even if it’s not personal. So props to your students! I think it’s a good idea to incorporate blogging in your teaching. For me, having an anticipating audience forces me to write when I can. I fell off the wagon for 6 months because I was crazy busy but I am back! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Writing Advice for New Freshman | Teaching Text Rhetorically

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