Tag Archives: composition

Putting Students to Work: Guest hosting a “best blog” round-up

[Cross-posted from TECHStyle]

I had an “a-ha” moment in first-year composition class last week. I was preparing for a conference, writing job letters, preparing my classes, and trying to keep up with grading. In short, something had to give. But what? And then it hit me – Blog Post of the Week! Every week I go through all my students’ individual blogs (all 75 of them – 25 per class) and select one “Blog Post of the Week” from each section. I pull those three posts to the front page of the class blog (I use a “hub-and spoke” model for my class blogs – you can read more about how it works here and how I use my blog in the classroom here) and I write a few lines explaining what made those posts exemplary. “Blog Post of the Week” or “BPOTW” as we call it, gives me a chance to model to the students what makes a good blog post and what consitutes good writing. One of the main reasons I do this is that I simply don’t have time to grade each student’s blog every week, and this way we can have a conversation about communication issues related to content, argument, audience, style, and visual design. I also like to showcase the best blog posts as a way to inspire the students who are struggling to find topics to post on, or whose blog posts are just short pieces of texts with no links, images, or attention to visual design. As an added incentive, the winner of BPOTW gets 5 bonus participation points.  Students are encouraged to nominate their classmates for the award, and they can nominate themselves if they feel they have a BPOTW-worthy post (which many of them do).

I have done about eight BPOTW so far this semester and last week I was struggling to find the time. The idea popped into my head that I could ask a student to do it, perhaps a shy student who needed another outlet to help his or her participation grade. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Not only would it give me a break, it would give a student the chance to go through all the class blogs (about 25) and evaluate which ones were meeting and exceeding the critieria for blog posting (based on a rubric). I sent out a call for volunteers to “guest host” BPOTW and asked the students to sign up on our class wiki.  I made sure to specifiy that the opportunity was not for “extra credit” but that it would be considered as contributing to their overall participation grade. I asked the guest host to select the top five posts and to create a blog post with screen shots of the post and links to the nominated blogs as well as a brief commentary on what made the selected posts exemplary. When I received the guest posts, I put them on the class blog and then went in and picked a “winner” out of the five nominated posts to receive the 5 bonus points. In class, I showcased the guest-hosted BPOTW and asked the student to talk briefly about his or her selections.

In all the cases so far, the student has done a terrific job of choosing posts (although it is possible, of course, that I might have a student who chooses posts that are less than ideal to model to the class), but, perhaps more importantly, the students have all said what a good experience it was to be the guest host. They all commented that going through all the class blogs gave them a good sense of what the class as a whole was interested in and it also was a good lesson in what makes an interesting and visually interesting blog. They also pointed out that some of the blogs had very few posts and I think their incredulity at that fact was more motivating to the owners of the neglected blogs than any of my prodding for regular posting. All in all, what started out as a time-saving strategy has turned into a great pedagogical moment. I think it’s important that I was in charge of BPOTW for the first half of the semester and modeled what makes an exemplary blog post, but, by the second half of the semester, I think the students were ready to step into that role and apply those criteria themselves. As I see so often in peer review, students absorb principles more readily when they are put in the role of assessing and critiquing how others are applying those very principles. And, in doing so, they return to their own work with new eyes, ready to see how they can apply those principles themselves.  I now have a list of student volunteers that takes us to the end of the semester.  So I can sit back* and watch the students do the work of BPOTW and know that they’re learning something valuable in the process.

*as if!


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Blogging as Process Work in the Composition Classroom

[Cross-posted from TECHStyle]               

I’ve been using blogs for a long time in my classes as a place for informal writing and reflection.  I originally used the blogs as simply an online repository to store weekly response readings but the more I’ve used them, the more I find that the actual medium creates a particularly dynamic space for writing.  Not only does a blog feel personal — you can customize your blog by adding pictures, links, widgets, etc. — but it also opens up for interactive writing via the comments and through external linking.  It is an excellent way to have students think about audience when they know that other people, possibly even outside of our class, will be reading their posts.

[Indeed, Brian Croxall‘s “Intro to the Digital Humanities” students over at Emory have had wonderful conversations about the articles they are reading with the actual authors of those articles who have come to comment on their blogs.  See some great discussions going on between student and author in the comments on posts here and here.]

I’ve also found that the students feel less pressure writing in a digital space in contrast to the intimidating blankness of a Word document. And students generally like the fact that they can vary their posts to include both serious reflections on the reading and more informal posts with links to related content or personal musings on current events.  My assignment calls for them to write at least one substantial post a week, but once they have done that, they can post as often as they like.

However, one thing I’ve found to be especially effective in the composition classroom is using student blogs as a place to develop longer essays.  This semester my students developed formal “literary analysis” papers on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year by beginning with informal brainstorming and writing assignments on their blogs.  The full assignment is here, but basically the students moved from a “first impressions” blog post where they could do a free-write or brainstorming on their first reactions to the novel, through two “close-reading” posts where they selected passages to analyze, to an outline and tentative thesis statement as they honed their argument. At the end of the process, many chose to post their rough drafts on their blogs as well.  With each step, the students gave and received feedback via the comments (in addition to a session in the T-Square chatroom with their group members) and used peer-feedback to shape their initial ideas into arguments with supporting evidence.

I asked the students to write about their experience using the blogs to develop their papers and their comments were insightful.  One student, Anna, wrote that blogging the early stages of the paper led her to rethink the order of the writing process.  As she describes:  ”I’ve always been taught to write my thesis first and then collect evidence.  In this paper, I gathered material I found interesting and then shaped a thesis based on this information.  This was a different experience for me and I feel it broadened my writing process.”

Another student described how the format and the commenting helped her develop her writing.  She wrote that “the blog allowed me to see my work in print, which helped me recognize and revise errors or incongruities in my writing.  Posting my work to a blog also gave me feedback from my peers, and their comments helped me tremendously in shaping and focusing my paper.”

Some students found the constructive criticism of their peers helped them see things in their writing that they couldn’t see themselves. As Matt wrote:  ”After several blog postings on my specific topic, I became too comfortable with the material I had written making it difficult for me to realize that few others could understand my logic and thus I was less open to criticism. However, thanks to a particularly constructive review from Susan I had a small epiphany that although my writing and logic makes perfect sense in my mind, on paper (or in this case on a blog), most everyone else perceives my writing as simply an unclear, unorganized mess.”

Many were surprised by how dramatically their original blog posts differed from their final drafts, perhaps because they were used to thinking of a topic first and then working from that point towards a final paper.  Matthew observed that, “[w]ithout a doubt my rough draft and final draft differed immensely from the Literary Analysis blog 1 and 2.  However I think this fact is a very good sign because it shows that the blogging actually worked. It shows that by blogging I was able to transform a horribly mediocre bunch of nothing in particular into a well written literary analysis paper.  So I believe that if there are significant changes then that is a good sign of a successful paper.”

As I think these comments show, using the blog as a space for brainstorming and early writing freed the students up to focus on the ideas they had about the novel and then to work on gathering more evidence and shaping their ideas into arguments.  Posting these stages in a public forum meant that they had more stake in what they wrote (yet, interestingly, many said that they felt freer to write whatever they wanted in that space) and the feedback from their peers was often probing and insightful.  This is not to say, of course, that all students embraced the possibilities of the blog space; few of them actually posted links to external content or used images or other media to supplement their posts, but that wasn’t really the focus of the exercise.  The focus was on writing and on process, and for those things, the blog space worked really well.

To look at some of my students’ posts, check out our course blog here.  You can access the individual student blogs from the section tabs at the top.

Id love to hear in the comments how you use blogs in the composition classroom – what other uses have you found for blogging?

[Creative commons licensed image from Flickr user Kristina B]

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Salman Rushdie, StoryCorps, and SMARTech: Adventures in Digital Archiving

[Cross-posted from TECHStyle]

My class this semester revolved around the idea of people, material artifacts, and information that are “born digital.”  As my class blurb explains, “for people, this means that they are born into, and have only ever known, a world that prioritizes all forms of digitization; for materials and information, it means that they only exist in digital form.”  After spending the first part of the semester discussing “Digital Natives” and how these “born digital” people navigate the digital world, we turned in the second unit to the concept of digital archiving.  My inspiration for this class came in part from the Salman Rushdie exhibit at Emory University this fall, which showcased highlights from the Booker-prize winning author’s archive (housed at Emory), with a particular focus on the “born digital” aspects of his work.  My students visited the exhibit and I used their experience to get them thinking about and discussing the changes being wrought on institutions and people who work on processing, storing, and displaying information that only exists in digital form.

As my students discovered at the Rushdie exhibit, archiving the work of writers who have composed the majority of their drafts on a computer leads to a different type of preservation effort, one that involves retrieving and parsing through the data on the author’s computer, creating visual maps of the files and organization of the writer’s documents, protecting any private information, and figuring out how to give researchers and scholars access to the digital data.  In the exhibit, a section entitled ” Born Digital Rushdie” discussed the various challenges of creating a digital archive, and my students were interested in the ways that digital archives transform traditional notions of preservation and display. (You can read more about how Emory’s MARBL handled the challenge of processing one of the first literary digital archives here and watch videos describing how the archivists worked alongside computer experts to create a new methodology for preserving Rushdie’s digital materials here.)

The assignment to visit Rushdie’s archives laid the groundwork for a series of assignments that culminated in the students creating their own digital archives.  Using the “StoryCorps” model of interviewing a friend or family member to create an “oral history,” the assignment asked students to find a person at Georgia Tech or someone from the local Atlanta community who had an interesting and unique story to share (you can read the detailed assignment here).  In groups, students conducted interviews with people including the current Georgia Tech Student Body President, the first woman elected sheriff in Georgia (a student’s great-grandmother), a Hurricane Katrina survivor, a campus legend, a fourth-generation Tech student, several Deans and Tech alumni, and a star Georgia Tech football player. The students researched their subject, developed questions, and conducted twenty minute interviews.  They then edited those interviews down to 5-7 minute excerpts to create a distinct and concise central narrative (like the StoryCorps segments that air on NPR).  Finally, the students uploaded the interviews to Georgia Tech’s digital archiving program SMARTech (Scholarly Materials and Research at Tech).  You can go and listen to them here!

While this assignment was designed to get students thinking about the ramifications of digital archiving (and the commensurate loss of materiality), it also challenged them to use communication skills that they don’t get much opportunity to practice – crafting thoughtful questions, steering and controlling the direction and pace of an interview, and editing an oral history to create a focused narrative while ethically representing the actual words and intention of the speaker.  Interestingly, the students seemed divided on how they found the experience of working in a primarily oral/aural mode.  Some said they found that editing and listening to the interviews forcing them to focus more intently on the words and made them realize how much they usually seek out a visual accompaniment.  Others said that they felt like the interviews would have been enhanced by including a visual element, and, indeed, some groups opted to video the interview and then extract the audio track later.  One student posted a blog entry about his desire to include the visual element of the interview, writing that “I viewed everything he [the interviewee] spoke to us about in my head as pictures we could flash up on a screen when he said this or that.”

The project, then, had some unexpected results, pushing students to think about their tendency as digital natives to depend on visual media to communicate and receive a message.  But perhaps most significantly, students were asked to reflect on the value of oral histories and the potential of digital archiving to preserve and make available the narratives of ordinary people who have extraordinary stories to tell.  And, in doing so, the students have left their own permanent digital legacy at Georgia Tech.

Please go and listen to some of their stories and let me know what you think!

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Filed under Digital Humanities, Teaching