Thursday, August 25, 2011

Teaching with Blogs - Gale Kenny Joins Us

This post comes from our friend Gale Kenny, the author of a tremendous book on American abolitionists in Jamaica, one of the incredible graduates from Rice University's history department, and an American Council of Learned Society New Faculty Fellow at Barnard College. We hope to hear a lot more about this class.

As I was working on a syllabus one Saturday morning in August, an idea flashed across my mind: what if I had each student create and maintain their own blog? My second thought was that this is probably the caffeine talking because tracking and evaluating as many as twenty individual blogs could rapidly descend into a semester-long nightmare. Worse, what if the students didn't participate beyond the bare minimum requirements? After mulling it over for a few days and discussing the idea with colleagues, my inclination toward pedagogical experiments overcame my doubts. I should note that I have regularly used class blogs (in seminars as well as in lecture courses with 70+ students), so I am not new to the world of teaching with technology. This experiment, however, requires much more from the students than merely posting a weekly comment on a class blog. My sense is that students tend to perceive class blogs as "my space" in which they are merely temporary visitors. When required to create their own blogs, they will have to claim responsibility for design and content, and I hope this will ultimately increase their engagement with the class more generally. While I wouldn't try this for any course, I think it will work in this instance because:

First, the course in question, Religion and Humanitarianism in the 1800s, is an weekly seminar of no more than 20 students. The topic attracts students with a personal stake in humanitarian activism, and, if past experience is any guide (a tenuous assumption, I know), the course's students were highly motivated and very engaged in the seminar. In fact, since some of them have gone on to do humanitarian work (Teach for America, the Jewish Service Corps, AVODAH), I emailed them to see if they would periodically check in and comment on the class's blogs, and several enthusiastically agreed.

Second, the class includes common readings focused on nineteenth-century Anglo-American abolitionists, missionaries, and women's rights activists, but students also conduct ongoing independent research on contemporary humanitarian groups, and much of the research begins with the Internet: organizational mission statements, appeals for donations, current missionaries' blogs, newspaper and magazine articles. The blogs will allow students to link to their sources. Also, the class's themes frequently intersect with current events and the students' own activities, and I think the blogs will provide a way for students to write about these connections. For example, last semester, students regularly emailed me newspaper articles and campus events related to the class, and one student who saw The Book of Mormon prompted an ongoing discussion of the musical's representations of missionaries and race.

Logistically, each student will set up a blog on Wordpress, and I will link to her blog on the course's webpage. ( I recommended that the students opt to "hide" their blogs from search engines, so only those who know the exact address will be able to access them. Each week, students will write two posts, and one must be on the class's common readings. They also will comment on at least three other blogs and respond to any comments on their own blogs. In terms of evaluation, I have borrowed a colleague's idea to rate each students' blog on a scale of 1-4. While I will visit all of the blogs regularly, I will only evaluate 2-3 each week, on a rolling schedule. I also plan to send periodic emails to students to update them on their current standing and ways they might improve, if needed. The blog will count for 30% of their grade, and the rest will come from hard copies of papers (three short papers and a longer final paper).

The advantages:
Unlike having a common class blog or even a class wiki, the individual blogs give students a sense of ownership over their own writing. They will also learn how to create and maintain a blog. I think this will prove to be a valuable experience since so many academics, lawyers, political pundits, and humanitarians participate in online network, and those who plan to go on to graduate school will get a taste for the digital humanities. Students will also have a chance to keep a journal, of sorts, of their independent research, effectively building pre-writing and a writing process into the semester.

Because I am requiring them to comment on their classmates' blogs, they will also be members of a community. I am interested to see if the blog community will become a modern-day approximation of the nineteenth-century activist communities we study in class. After all, Garrison, Douglass, Stanton and Anthony, and all of the Protestant mission boards published newspapers in which they wrote their own articles and reprinted pieces from their friends' (and enemies') newspapers. My hope is that the students will see their blogs as a kind of newspaper, and they will use them to "narrate, curate, and share," to borrow from W. Gardner Campbell.

The questions and possible drawbacks:
Will students care enough to build a blog community? The success of the experiment depends entirely on the students' interest and willingness to participate.
Will I be able to monitor all of these blogs and contribute to them? Will the students be able to keep up with each other? (Fingers crossed!)
How will the students deal with competition if some blogs have many more visitors than others?
How will the discussions on the blogs transfer to our weekly seminar meetings? Will they say all that they want to say online?

Since I can't predict how this will work, it is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Fortunately, one of my colleagues is doing something similar in his course on Islam in the post-colonial world, so we will be able to compare notes (and possibly despair) as the semester progresses. I plan on submitting updates here throughout the semester, and I might ask for students to comment on their experiences, too. If anyone has tried something similar, I'd appreciate any suggestions!


  1. I think this is such a great way to have dynamic conversation. I've never done it, but will try in the future for my smaller classes. I think also highlighting a few blog entries in class would be a great way to set off a discussion or lecture.
    I hope some of your folks will look into Laura Towne's life and writings. She's a hero in my book. I recall getting to her gravestone in South Carolina and marveling at all she did during Reconstruction. I always mention her in my Reconstruction lecture for the survey.

  2. I'll be curious to hear how your experiment goes. I've considered doing something similar but hesitate due to the prospect of having to constantly monitor 20 student blogs. Will you allow "looser" writing on the blogs than you will on the formal papers? I can see pluses and minuses in allowing students more latitude...

  3. Wow, Gale,
    this seems like a lot of work, but it may prove to be quite rewarding for you and the students. Your use of technology makes me seem like I'm living in a different age. When I taught a survey course (on American Religious history) at Florida State University some years ago, because the class rooms were so sophisticated and equipped with new technology, I was much more open innovative ways of teaching. One basic tool of assessment--student responses of a page or two each week to the main reading-- turned out to be quite interesting (in my view--not sure how most students felt about this). They blogged or posted on the course webpage each week and I reminded them that I was going to read all of their postings and would, from time to time, project them before the entire class for discussion (during our class hour for discussion of the readings). This class started with about 55 students, but I had only about 35 or more before it ended. I would read a few postings before the class (as they appeared projected), ask the student who wrote it for any additional comment or clarification, and open it up for class discussion. Some students were a little nervous, but most of them were happy to see their own words projected before the class (and to know that I had read them and thought them worthy of comment) and thus took ownership of them. This experience may have prompted some of them to be more careful about what they posted and their grammar, though it did not always work. I was much more open to images, limited use of power point, and such things when I was at FSU, but my sense is that decisions of this kind can be affected by "simple" matters such as how well equipped technologically one's school is and how user friendly the classroom is.

    Good luck with your class, Gale. You will have to tell us how it works out.

  4. I find discussino works best when students have already written out their thoughts, and the blog is a very public way to force clarity. When I just try to start a discussion from cold questions in class, usually everyone sits quietly, waits for someone else to talk, etc. Another idea could be have the students chat with a partner about what they 'blogged about' then share insights with the class. This gets the chatter going.

  5. Thanks for the responses! I still have over a week before class starts, so it all remains theoretical.

    Curtis: the idea of using a student's post in class is a great idea. Even if it makes them uncomfortable, it is valuable for them to get some experience sharing their writing for a semi-public audience since it is likely they'll have to do this in their post-college lives.

    Joshua - Yes, I am okay with less formal writing on the blogs, as long as they are citing/linking to their sources. I suspect that a kind of "survival of the fittest" might happen, and the better written blogs get more comments. If one or two students raise the bar, I think the rest will follow.