In this dissertation, I propose to examine the practice of blogging in writing courses. I define blogging, as many frequent bloggers do, as both the act of writing in a blog and of reading other blog writing and responding to it. Both activities are important components of blogging as a successful practice in a writing classroom. Though blogging has been around for almost ten years, no one has yet fully placed blogging within a theoretical context as it relates to the teaching of writing. Using a writing course I taught that fully incorporated blogging into its curriculum, I will situate blogging within several theories of teaching writing: cognitive, epistemic, and the writing/reading connection. Further I will examine blogging in the context of broader, but related, educational theories such as constructivism, emergent pedagogy, and connectivism. Since blogging has evolved from other forms of online communication and publishing that composition teachers have implemented in their teaching practices, I will examine the extent to which some of these practices have been successful in achieving the curricular goals of writing classes. In addition, I hope to explore future possibilities and practical applications of blogging in writing classrooms and as a tool for writing in the disciplines. It is my contention that blogging can facilitate the kinds of learning expected in a writing class not just because it involves writing, but also because it can encourage the kinds of processing, thinking, analyzing and critiquing required of student writers.
History and Nature of Blogging
In order to fully understand the impact that blogging can have on a writing class, it is important to understand a bit about the history of blogging and to examine the nature of blogging as it exists now, especially the way connections are formed and the communities that emerge around blogs. It is imporant to understand that blogging did not spring fully formed out of the ether (or ethernet). It has predecessors in personal web pages, forums, and online news sites. Knowing these predecessors can help teachers and students explore the many possibilities of blogging and understand more fully the potential it has for improving writing skills. And it is equally important to understand the relationship blogging has between other types of online communication. Students will be eminently familiar with email, instant messaging, text messaging, and perhaps forums; therefore, one must help them distinguish between these types of communication and blogging. It will increasingly be a challenge to get students to take online writing seriously as online communication continues to proliferate among young people, but armed with a little knowledge and building on the online skills students already may possess, a writing teacher can successfully use blogging to help students learn to write more proficiently and move away from their typical forms of online communication.
The term web log was coined in 1997 by John Barger, proprietor of Robot Wisdom, essentially a literal web log, a log of links to sites he found interesting (Blood, 7). Other sites began adding commentary to the links, a practice that has as its predecessor Slashdot and other news sites that commented on events of the day. Most of these early web logs, like Robot Wisdom, were maintained manually using straight html coding. New items were time-date stamped and placed at the top of the page. Eventually this practice became one of the key defining characteristics of blogs (Blood, 8). In this regard, blogs are distinctly different from the static web sites of the early web which only offered basic information and rarely changed. In addition, blogs allow commentary and feedback in a similar fashion to email lists and forums, but with one key difference. Typically, blogs are run by a single person (though group blogs exist and are growing), creating a kind of one-to-many atmosphere versus a many-to-many atmosphere. As I like to describe it, a blog is a benevolent dictatorship while an email list or forum is a democracy. Thus a blogger's words are the key focus of any particular feedback while in a forum, many people's words may be circulating around for discussion, and in fact, the words may become disembodied from the person who wrote them quite quickly.
At the same time that blogs were evolving from static web sites and online communication, online journalling was gaining a foothold. Unlike blogs, journals were personal diaries or reflections and usually do not involve links of any kind. In 1996, Xanga, a web-based interface for creating online journals began. A few years later, other blog and online journal tools began to appear. In 1999, both LiveJournal and Blogger launched. Both tools made it easy for people to start and maintain what was now simply becoming called a blog, regardless of its specific format.
The technology behind these blog tools is important for several reasons. One, it allowed people without html skills to publish on the web. Two, most blog tools generated RSS feeds, a technology that allowed blog posts to be picked up by readers or included in other web sites, facilitating quick distrubtion of blog content. Third, these tools, especially LiveJournal and Xanga, allowed communities to be created by allowing bloggers to list links to friends' journals and blogs. All this combined to create highly networked content.
From the very early days of blogging, then, bloggers have connected to each other. So while I offer the benevolent dictatorship as a metaphor for an individual blog site, the entire blog world, or blogosphere, leans more toward the democratic1. Early bloggers created lists of other bloggers. Since there weren't that many of them, this usually was a list of all known bloggers. (Blood, page ?). Currently, however, with 14 million blogs and counting, individual bloggers usually connect only to blogs they actually read, or as Blood puts it "the tribe to which they wish to belong." Bloggers make these connections in two ways: 1) by linking to individual posts by a particular blogger that they like or 2) by adding them to a list of links along the sidebar, what has become known as a blogroll. There are two important things about this practice in terms of writing. First, linking is a way of obtaining an audience. Generally when a blogger discovers they've been linked to, she will at the very least visit and comment on the post where the link occurs. In addition, she may send her readers to read what the linking blogger has written. This drives visitors to the site who might provide additional feedback on the blogger's writing. The second important aspect of linking, specifically blogrolling, is that it helps establish the community the blog is situated in; it creates an ethos of sorts for the blog.
These characteristics of blogging create an environment in which student writers participate in an authentic writing experience. Unlike a forum where their voices may be lost, the blog gives them an opportunity to develop that voice. Through the connective nature of the blog, they can receive feedback on their writing and soon gain a better awareness of what it means to write for a real audience and in an authentic rhetorical situation. There are other aspects of the composing process that blogging lends itself to. One important one is the framing of a question or discovery of the rhetorical situation. At first, students may struggle to figure out what kinds of questions work, but through feedback from readers, they quickly learn what topics and questions are more interesting than others. Because we asked students to use their blog posts as rough drafts, the blog also contributed to the revision process. More than half the students, according to an end of the semester survey, used the comments on their posts to help them revise. I will look more closely at the results of this process in the full project, but I can say that the results look encouraging so far.
Writing Pedagogies and their connection to blogging
Separating writing pedagogical theories and practices from more general ones is a somewhat artificial endeavor since many of the trends in the teaching of writing have emerged from those more general educational theories. Having said this, however, there are some specific strategies that blogging seems to have the most potential for exploiting. In the sixties, writing teachers began implementing strategies that took into account a student's cognitive development. This lead them to focus on writing as a whole process rather than as simply a product that could simply be corrected. Thus, the teaching of writing now involves ways of improving the process at all stages. For example, Flower and Hayes in "The Cognition of Discovery" examine the differences in the way that expert writers construct a rhetorical situation versus novice writers. Flower and Hayes note that "poor writers were concerned primarily with the features and conventions of a written text" (99). The implications for the writer teacher is that he or she needs to find a way to help students get beyond the simple conventions of a writing assignment and to construct a more complex rhetorical situation. I will argue that blogging can help achieve that goal. Other goals put forth by a cognitive-developmental theory of teaching writing include dealing with audience awareness and egocentrism, seeing other points of view, distinguising between speaking and writing, planning and goal-setting. There are ways in which blogging can be used to assist students with these steps along the cognitive developmental scale.
Related to cognitive model of teaching writing is the relationship of writing to thinking and knowledge more generally, sometimes called the epistemic model of writing pedagogy.
1 I say this a bit cautiously as there are many arguments out there about the power laws that obtain in the blogosphere. (See, for example, Clay Shirky's "Power Laws in the Blogosphere"). However, for the purposes of class blogging, I think it's important to emphasize as least the potential for an equal playing field.