A few weeks ago, Keri requested that I write an entry about everything I've learned while using blogs to teach literature. Having used blogs only twice (ok, thrice) in literature classes, my experience is limited, and so I've been a little hesitant. But after she posted a whole load of new blog entries, I thought the least I could do is try, in honor of her renewed blogging.
I'm not primarily a literature teacher, of course, but I do have a pretty broad background in literary studies, so I teach a lower-level lit class from time to time. Here at MU I taught Intro to Women's Lit, a sophomore level class, last spring and summer, and I used blogs both times, but in completely different ways. (I also just remembered as I was beginning this entry that I used blogs in the last class I taught at SIU, an intro to literary studies class, in July 2004. But I seem to have deleted that blog and don't have strong memories of it--perhaps because I was packing up at the same time--so I won't say much about it.)
So last spring, I asked each student to keep a blog, and primarily the blog was a place for posting an individual response to the reading for the day before class. I encouraged them to read each other's blogs, but mostly they didn't. I required them to comment on each other's blog once later in the semester (when it was all too clear that they weren't otherwise cross-reading), so most of them read some other blogs then. So except for that one time, the blogs were functioning not much differently from a paper journal.
Now, why did I do it this way? It's sometimes hard to reconstruct my thinking, but I'll try. For one thing, the class had over 20 students, so I didn't think a group blog would work unless I divided up the responsibilities for blogging, and I didn't want to do that. (I could also have opted to have a couple of group blogs and divided students up into a couple of groups, but I wasn't so happy with my one other attempt at using two group blogs, so I decided against that course of action, as well. Now I'm thinking I should give the two group blogs idea another chance sometime.) I wanted everyone blogging before class, not just a select few. Being required to write about a text tends to be a good motivator to actually read the text, and many of my students reported to me that they appreciated keeping the blog for precisely that reason. It prompted them to do the reading.
But of course I wanted the blog to function as more than a stick. I wanted it to be a place for them to think, to generate ideas. And while it did function that way for a few students, for most it did not. Most of the blog entries were fairly perfunctory, and at times I suspected that they *might* have been reading each other's blogs, only because some of the perfunctory entries sounded so similar. (But, in retrospect, I think it could just as well be chalked up to the similarity of generalizations in general, if you know what I mean.)
Not having much cross-reading contributed, I think, to this perfunctoriness. Even while many of them reported appreciating the blog-stick phenomenon, it's easy to feel uninspired by sticks, even if they do get us moving in some fashion. If they had really been reading (and commenting) on each other's blogs, I believe the entries would have gained some momentum. (And why did I *not* require commenting most of the semester, you might ask. Well, I was also using a wiki for the first time, and the wiki software I was using had a discussion option on each page. I decided to try this complicated task of having students add links and stuff to the wiki *and*--on a group rotation--post topics to the appropriate page and reply to the discussion. Yeah. I could hardly keep up with it myself. Anyway, I thought all the rich discussion would happen on the wiki, so I thought requiring discussion on the blogs would have been overkill. And it would have been. But what I really should have done was required commenting on the blogs and gotten over my hypnotic fascination with the admittedly crude discussion capabilities of the wiki.)
Anyway, one thing I knew I wanted to do differently when I taught the class over the summer was to make sure they read and responded to each other's blog entries. And because the class was somewhat smaller (14), I thought I would risk using just the one group blog. And it worked really beautifully. With no prompting at all, students were telling me that they loved the blog. (A couple of people complained a bit because they had unreliable or no internet access at home. I understand the complaint, but can't see much of a way around it. I'm not going to stop using blogs.) One thing they seemed to love was the chance to hear other's reactions to the readings. Most of the students were not English majors, and many of them felt uncertain of their ability to make sense of the readings. So the chance to read each other's ideas did a number of things: (1) it gave them new ways of thinking about a given text, (2) it gave them confidence in their own ideas (especially when others commented on their entries), and (3) it prompted them to talk more in class. In other words, it seemed to "equalize" things so that everyone knew ahead of time (more or less) than everyone had different ideas about the text, and that that was ok. There wasn't just one "answer" that I was looking for when I asked questions. There were, instead, a host of reactions, and part of our task in class was to process those reactions, to go back to the text and see what the evidence supported and complicated, but to also consider how reactions get formed (how social/cultural/personal backgrounds, etc. always inform our readings).
And I also used the wiki differently. Mainly, it was a management system, a place to explain assignments (on my part) and to post them (on their part). I had them post their two collage assignments there and to comment on each other's collages. I thought that worked well, though when I do that again I want to have them comment *before* the final submission so that they'll have a chance to incorporate ideas generated in the comments in their final submissions. I also had them post their class portfolios on the wiki.
This is getting long, and so I think I'll close. And what I'm thinking of really isn't about blogging; it's about visual learning. I've been thinking about that ever since Collin put that tag cloud of the last 11 years of CCC on his blog. I've always thought I wasn't a visual thinker, and now I'm realizing how very silly such a thought is. And how that's influencing my teaching but also my thinking in general.
But that will have to be a blog entry for another time.