Friday, January 27, 2012

Blogs vs. Term Papers

Thank the gods it's Friday afternoon, which means a little respite from classes, at least once the afternoon rolls around. I often feel like I've just emerged from a threshing machine by Friday morning, and today was no different, but by the end of class I felt as I often do when I finish teaching, mentally and intellectually energized, and I even after some student meetings, capable of completing and launching a few new blogposts. So here goes!


Often these days I am late in coming to various interesting online conversations, so I only just stumbled over Matt Richtel's article in last week's New York Times, "Blogs vs. Term Papers," on how some faculty members are rethinking ways of sparking student interest in writing essays and critical thinking.  I won't restate his piece but he does explore some of the strategies and new tools, including blogs, categorized by some under the rubric of the "new literacy," that literature and other humanities faculty are using in place of or in addition to the standard short and long-form essays. Among his examples are Cathy Davidson at Duke University, who in the course he cites has jettisoned term papers for internal and external, extensive blogging, and Andrea Lunsford at Stanford University, who has second-year writing students produce a 15-page essay quickly, then expand it into a range of new media forms. As Richtel notes, the students connect well with these alternative forms but, in the case of Lunsford's course, also seek to revise their essay.

Richtel's piece got me thinking about my own use of blogs in a few courses; one of the most successful efforts, I think, was a few years back, in 2009, when I asked students in my aesthetic theory course to post their thoughts on a public blog, "Thinking Aesthetics," and, as you'll see, they often wrote quite thoughtful, sometimes very insightful short responses to the often difficult reading. (One student later told me that this was one of the most difficult courses he had ever taken at Northwestern, but he appreciated it tremendously.) These posts did not preclude essays, but I saw them as another way for the students to wrestle with the material outside of the class, and in preparation for their essays, and most really took to it. I tried from time to time to cite some of their comments in my in-class remarks, though I realize now I could have been more systematic about doing so to integrate these musings more completely.

Here's a snippet on an essay on horror, by one of my former students, George S.--this is an undergraduate writing, mind you:

The theory put forth by Kendall Walton and Alex Neill [in Berys Gaut's article "The Paradox of Horror"] on why people may enjoy horror films and other experiences which provoke negative emotions is absolutely fascinating. It essentially separates the emotion from what it is actually happening, thus it is not the emotion which is negative but occurrence which prompted it. In the case of the death of a loved one, it is not that we are sorrowful because we feel sorrow, but rather because we have lost someone close to us. “That is, it’s the situations rather than the emotions which are distasteful or undesirable, which we (metaphorically?) describe as painful or unpleasant.” (Gaut, 323) The idea of separation of emotion and event is interesting in that it inherently questions the meaning of any emotion. Perhaps we have been conditioned to feel certain ways after certain events, through witnessing other people go through them or simply through pop culture, but who is to say that the emotions of sadness or grief are objectively the correct emotions to feel after an event like the loss of a loved one?

I have also utilized blogs in my creative writing classes in the past, one time in lieu of the journals I ask the students to keep, and I learned this probably wasn't so good, because rather than these online journals being a place where the students really could put anything down--and be writing, by hand, or cutting and pasting things in, or drawing, or all sorts of things that weren't possible in the way they are now on touchscreens and tablet computers--they  became for some a public performance above all. I still do allow blogs and word-processed journals, but most students, I've found, like the physicality of bound paper, codex journals. They like the freedom and challenge of writing or doing whatever they want in them, and they realize that they're portable--and so they can repeat their "eavesdropping" exercise in a way they would have a harder time doing with a laptop, tablet or phone (without using a microphoned recording device).  Some of them, I hope, take up the habit permanently if they already have not.

In the introductory undergraduate creative writing classes I also use threaded conversations, divided up according to groups.  I have found that since the quarter class lengths often do not afford enough time for all the students to comment on the readings on technical and theoretical aspects of writing or by established writers, the threaded conversations offer another means for them to do this. With the graduate fiction students, I ask them to post annotations--short 1-2 page long commentaries--on the critical or creative texts we're reading, and again, I always come across wonderful insights they make as they're working through the texts; often they do cite these commentaries in our in-class discussions.  These annotations are a requirement of the MA/MFA program, and I think about how the online posting method means that not only I but their classmates will have an opportunity to peruse and comment on--or at least mull over--what they're writing and thinking about outside the workshop discussions.

In the fall of 2010, after repeatedly setting up and then not really being able to implement wiki-related projects for my classes, I had all the students in my African-American literature course sign up for Wikipedia in the first week of the course, and one of their requirements was to develop a new entry or revise an existing entry for a writer we discussed in the course or whose work, even if not discussed, would be germane to what we were exploring. They had to use scholarly sources from the library, and produce the citations, which they would then enter on the Wiki page. Nearly all the students produced real advances on the pages that existed, and I felt this was one of the most important projects they undertook given how readily people, even faculty colleagues, who were once disdainful or at least more skeptical, cite Wikipedia as the first and sometimes the final authority. (I have one good friend who frequently sends Wiki links in place of his own commentary; I always want to say, but you can't trust Wikipedia so fully, though I know that many people now do.)

With my current LGBTQ literature class I am requiring all of the undergraduate students (the graduate students have other projects underway) to undertake a Wiki revamp, but I also have assigned two short response papers (I am reading the first set this weekend, and they are quite strong) and a final term paper. Short response papers are to me a very good diagnostic in terms of gauging where students are, how thoroughly they're able to analyze and understand the material, and what sorts of larger inferences they can make based on what they've read. This is officially a theory course, satisfying the department's literature major theory course requirement, but I've also learned that in general, students find theory--and this course includes some exciting theoretical materials from the early post-Stonewall era to the contemporary "post-gay"/"post-Queer"--much more palatable when coupled with creative texts, so their response papers proceed from that pairing.

Lastly, as J's Theater readers know, I have incorporated my beloved Twitter into at least one class. I am always trying to think of more ways to use it, but thus far, I've only been able to slot it into the "Situation of Writing" course for senior-year majors. Their feed, @GetItWrite392: The Situation, runs throughout the length of the course.  This last time I gather from casual conversations that the students were not so impressed, but previous attempts have gone better, and it has provided a spur for the students to seek out  material on writing and publishing and promote it to the wider world, to contact writers they admire directly, and to start conversations with each other and their followers in a way they couldn't within the confines of the classroom or in a closed, Blackboard Course Management System-type space. Twitter makes nearly the entire world open to them. I am less of a fan of Facebook, which I see as having erected very clear walls around itself, so I have not undertaken any Facebook-related projects, but scholars like Jeff Nunokawa have, and they appear quite successful. Maybe I will try out Facebook, or perhaps Google+, which I'm on and which I notice has decided, creepily, to integrate everything in a more Facebook-like manner (to quantify those algorithms to sell to advertisers!), but which also offers the possibility of using Google Docs and Google Books in interesting ways.

In the end I don't think it's good to eschew critical essays, short or long, completely; they require modes of thinking and writing that are valuable to students for many reasons. I do grasp the need for other approaches, however, and as I continue to teach I'm going to continue to examine what others are doing and experiment in my own classes to learn what works and what doesn't so that my students will have the best learning experience I can make possible.

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