Even though I’m teaching the Ancient World instead of my usual US courses this semester, I’ve found that both my philosophy and general approach toward the survey course have remained consistent, despite the vast chronological and geographical distance. I remain committed to active learning approaches, though I find that occasional nuggets of expository lecture (5-6 minutes, tops) are more necessary this semester because of students’ lack of familiarity with much of this material. Primary sources, and helping students develop the analytical tools and habits of mind to critically interpret them, are a significant component of the coursework. Finally, and especially, I aim to have my students do as much writing, in as diverse an array of contexts, as I can. To that end, I’m utilizing one of my favorite course tools–a class blog.
Student blogging has been a key tool in my pedagogical toolbox for several years now, for a variety of reasons: I want my students to practice writing to a different audience than just the instructor; I want my students to have a forum where they be creative, and to integrate and synthesize and make connections with the course material and with one another; and I want students to see themselves as both creators of knowledge and members of a larger scholarly conversation–and for them to do so in a digital environment, which is crucially important, I think. At its root, though, my use of blogging is predicated on the simple truth that the best (and only) way to become a better writer is to write. The blog provides that space for my students. Whether they’re writing their own posts, or in the comment threads of their classmates’ posts, they’re writing. Moreover, they’re getting a sense of what it means to participate in the scholarly conversation, from marshaling evidence in support of an argument to framing and responding to peer criticism. Finally, because they’re required to incorporate outside source material–particularly external links, images, and other media–my students are practicing research and information literacy skills, as well as developing their awareness of proper citation, copyright, and fair use practices.
I have two variations of the semester-long blogging assignment. For my smaller upper-level courses, I have each of the students create their own blog on WordPress.com, which is a platform that balances ease of use with the ability to customize and integrate a wide variety of materials. Also, WordPress is the platform used by a majority of sites on the internet, and learning at least the basics of the platform can be an important asset for students down the road. Each student’s blog is centered around a particular theme within the larger purview of the course. For a Civil War course, for example, my students created blogs on such areas as Women and Gender, African Americans, Religion, and the larger international context. Then, I “chunk” the course into rough chronological units. For each unit, students are required to create at least two posts. For each post, I ask them to write at least a thousand words, incorporate external sources as well as draw upon class materials (everything properly cited, of course), and include at least three media items (also properly attributed). They are also asked to subscribe to each other’s blogs (and I keep a blogroll with all of the addresses on our course site), and when they receive a notice that their classmates have posted something, to read and comment on them. Throughout the semester, then, there’s a set of rolling conversations unfolding across a number of different areas underneath the broader thematic umbrella of the course, and it can richly inform students’ other writing, as well as our in-class conversations. Plus, by the end of the semester, they’ve produced around 12,000 words in this area of their work alone.
For larger classes, as well as my survey courses, I create one blog for the entire class. I create and customize the space before the semester, and put the link in the course syllabus. Then, for one of their first assignments, I have my students create an account for the platform we’re using (I move back and forth between Blogger and WordPress) if they don’t have one already, and then send them invitations to join the blog with author privileges. Then, I post a schedule where students sign up for a set number of weeks (usually four, but it can vary with the size of the class) where they will serve as a Lead Author. Those who signed up to be lead authors for a particular class week are required to have a post up by the end of the day on Friday. The lead author posts have a minimum word count (usually 500, but sometimes more for smaller classes), and similar requirements to those I discussed above in terms of external media and citation/attribution. Lead authors can write a synthesis of what we’ve covered in class for the week, they can focus in on a particular topic or source, they can discuss connections between something from that week and another course or a current event–I try to allow as much latitude as I can for students to engage and even play with the material. Each week, there are usually a handful of lead authors, so there is usually a nice range of approaches and topics that appear on the course blog each week. This semester, for my Ancient History course, I’ve already had students write posts on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the idea of godhood, sports and sporting culture in ancient Sumeria, and the importance of water for Mesopotamia and Egypt and the lessons it offers for our contemporary struggles with climate change. Students who are not serving as lead authors for the week are required to be in the comment threads responding to both the authors and one another; the comments close the Wednesday after lead author posts have gone up. (Their blogging grade for the semester comes from both their lead author work and their engagement in the comment threads.) A sort of rhythm develops for the course blog, with a range of posts appearing on Thursdays and Fridays, and then a multi-threaded discussion occurring in response to each of the posts. Some posts attract more conversation than others, but there’s usually engagement with all of them from the rest of the students.
Again, the key element is that my students are writing, and they’re writing regularly and abundantly. The blog environment, even with the expectations I’ve set, is still a comparatively low-stakes space; my students report that they have an easier time writing in this venue, and enjoy the flexibility and relative informality they have (especially compared with, say exams or research essays). Because I also have them write essays and take exams, I have a mix of low- and high-stakes writing, as well as tasks that have them engage different audiences, to help them grow as academic writers. What I particularly enjoy about the blogging work, though, is that I get to be in there with them, as part of the conversation in the comment threads and via the occasional lead post of my own. I think it’s important for me to regularly model the type of engagement I’m telling them is important, and I also think it’s a powerful way for me to illustrate something I’m repeatedly telling my students: we’re all colleagues in this scholarly enterprise, and by all of us engaging in the conversation around it, we make it better. I get to affirm students’ ideas and creativity, as well as encourage those who are still in the process of developing their strengths as historians and academic writers. I also learn something every week (as I definitely did two weeks ago from that really cool post on sports in ancient Sumeria), and I’m not shy about telling the authors when that’s happened.
Blogging has become a central element in my pedagogy for all of these reasons-it develops a range of skills and proficiencies for my students, it helps me model the type of scholarly conversation I want my students to be able to engage in, it weaves information literacy and writing throughout the entire course, and it creates a social presence and set of connections for all of us in the course. Even (and especially) in new-prep courses where I’m teaching out of my scholarly wheelhouse, such as this semester’s foray into ancient history, blogging has been an excellent tool to create conversations and help students build confidence as they’re situated within unfamiliar material. If you’re looking for ways to infuse writing and an element of stronger out-of-class interaction into your course, blogging may be the answer. I know there are lots of you who use blogs in your teaching as well–I’d love to see you in the comments below, and hear what you do and how it works for your courses.