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March 2003 blog archive

Archives: March 2003 [source]

Mon Mar 31, 2003

Never having spoken in public

I’ve been looking at the first entries of various new and long-standing weblogs, some attached to college courses and some enjoying the natural liberty of the form. There are interesting things to notice about the rhetoric of first entries, the relative sophistication of some writers, the narrow range of argumentative strategies some writers rely on as they begin.

But with students whose weblogs are set up for an audience wider than the class I notice that some of the writers sound as though they have never had a public voice before. We may be raising a generation of individuals who, never having spoken in public, have little sense of what it means to sound like a citizen.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 31, 2003 | 2:05 pm

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Sun Mar 30, 2003

Essays and weblogs

Some of the things writers say about essays remind me of the traits of weblogs; some of the things writers say about weblogs remind me of the traits of essays. I’ll gather some quotations here to start to explore that. Maybe others will come to your mind, too?

Edward Hoagland, from his introduction to the 1999 edition of The Best American Essays:

Like you, an essayist struggles with the here and now, the world we have, with sore and smelly feet and humiliation, a freethinker but not especially rich or pretty, and quite earthbound, though at his post. (xix)

And the form of composition Montaigne gave a name to would not have lasted so long if it were not succinct, diverse, and supple, able to welcome ideas that are ahead of or behind the blurring spokes of their own time….[The essaysist] is an advocate for civilization…. Working in the present tense, with common sense as his currency, “This is what I think,” he tells the rest of us. (xiv-xv)

[Essayists] are not nihilists as a rule. They look for context. They feel out traction. They have a stake in society’s survival, breaking into the plot line of an anecdote to register a reservation about somebody’s behavior, for instance, in a manner most fiction writers would eschew, because an essayist’s opinions are central, part of the very protein that he gives us…. He has the job of finding coherence in the world. (xvii)

Theodor Adorno, from “The Essay as Form,” in Volume 1 of Notes to Literature:

[The] essay’s innermost formal law is heresy. Through violations of the orthodoxy of thought, something in the object becomes visible which it is orthodoxy’s secret and objective aim to keep invisible. (23)

Here is another translation of that:

The law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy. By transgressing the orthodoxy of thought, something becomes visible in the object which it is orthodoxy’s secret purpose to keep invisible. (171)

On the other hand, there are the feeble imitations of the real thing. Austrian writer Karl Kraus said that certain would-be essayists were merely “baking bread from bread crumbs.” I like Kraus’s provocation there. No doubt there’s more to think and say about the weaknesses of both genres.

And we’ll have to talk about gender someday, too.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 30, 2003 | 5:56 pm

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Sat Mar 29, 2003

Note-taking and revision

I’ve learned in the last week that I may have made a mistake as I chose among the optional features for this site. In particular, the site owner can choose between letting registered users compose in a small, stripped-down submission box, as I’ve done at the bottom of this site’s main page, or letting them compose at the larger, full-featured control panel located on its own web page. The stripped-down submission box works very well — my students have posted over 650 messages and comments on a class site since late January, with hardly a glitch. And when I am ready to comment on their small or large assignments, there they are, neatly arranged in the category listing by assignment. Very nice.

But students are using the software more as a bulletin board and forum, rather than as a full-blown weblog. In my own work on the site you are reading, though, I have in the last few days starting using some of the control panel features as an aid to note-taking, composing, and revising. I’ll want students to have the more powerful tools available to them when I assign full weblogs next semester.

I see from the ways I’ve been able to take advantage of the control panel’s features that I have been depriving users of the option of delaying the posting of a message. On pm achine, at the control panel, a writer can designate a post as Open, which makes it available for readers, or Closed, which holds it safely in the data base until the writer chooses to make it available. This option invites the writer to start a new message, take notes, assemble links to other web sites, sketch a draft, revise, and proofread, over the course of hours or days or even weeks, before opening the post to the audience. After I noticed this liberating feature of the software, I can modestly report that it only took me a few days to realize that I could and should have several closed messages stewing and developing, not just one, and so I do. I started this message two days ago with a couple of sentences; there are three others in developm ent right now, and the longer messages this week were written this way, too.

I know that a strength of weblogs is that they are often written on the run, but that is a weakness, too. I’m glad the software invites me, helps me, to write quickly as well as to write deliberately. I’ll probably reformat this site to allow other participants to use the control panel as soon as I can.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 29, 2003 | 5:50 pm

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Dipping into the debate

Since it’s 2003 rather than, say 1999, by now we can read the archived statements and the debates between some of the ground-breaking bloggers and web creators about the several possible natures of weblogging. It’s easy to find statements of optimism or high ideal. See founder Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of “Interactive Creativity…which means building things together on the Web,” for example. See also, though, his realism about the barriers to the ideals. #

Or more recently, in a series of comments about whether lawyers can afford to make public statements in blogs, writer Fred of Bureaucrat By Day says:

In the end, each of us must make an individual judgment about the how much of a public face we’re willing to make. For a private attorney, without certain speech restrictions, I would advocate going to the mat: blogs are the essence of participatory democracy; the new broadsheets. If you can’t speak your mind here, you’ll never do it. #

The tensions between real and ideal were part of the blogging conversation quite early. In her September 7, 2000 essay, “weblogs: a history and perspective,” Rebecca Blood drew on the work of Greg Ruggerio to link the challenges bloggers face to a fundamental trait of big corporate media:

But this type of [web-editing, web-filtering] weblog is important for another reason, I think. In Douglas Rushkoff’s Media Virus, Greg Ruggerio of the Immediast Underground is quoted as saying, “Media is a corporate possession…You cannot participate in the media. Bringing that into the foreground is the first step. The second step is to define the difference between public and audience. An audience is passive; a public is participatory. We need a definition of media that is public in its orientation.” #

Educators who have looked into the work of Paulo Freire recognize the problem well. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in a chapter called “The Banking Concept of Education,” he argues that many teachers simply narrate to their listening students, attempting to “fill” them with alienated and alienating knowledge. Freire’s alternative to filling up students as if they were a savings bank is “problem-posing education.”

For apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, men cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, with each other.

Similar in spirit to Ruggerio, Freire says that education should be a “practice of freedom” rather than a series of “transfers of information.”

Several tensions come to mind immediately, though, for teachers and students using weblogs. We bring to weblog assignments the traditional forms of authority in the classroom and in the academic field. We are charged with passing on a tradition to our students, and with evaluating their work. Many of our students may be very comfortable in the often relatively passive roles of American student and American consumer. We may be more comfortable with students in passive roles than we know or like to admit. Is there really room for the feisty rhetoric of the political blog in most American classrooms? Will the distinctly un-academic models provided by some prominent bloggers help academics think about changing our ways?

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 29, 2003 | 1:40 am

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Thu Mar 27, 2003

On the evening news

Today, when I came home from work, I found in this week’s New Yorker a Talk of the Town piece on what may be the only blog being written by a native and resident of war-disrupted Iraq. And Dan Rather closed the evening news with a segment on warblogs and offered millions of Americans links to many of them on the network’s web site. Earlier today I ran across a March 19 notice that the Heritage Foundation was soliciting prominent bloggers to open their email to H. F. press releases. # How about that?

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 27, 2003 | 11:29 pm

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I edit the Net

The title comes from the footer on a July, 4, 1999 message from Jorn Barger about creating the comprehensive one-layer web reference pages that he calls portals. # On his own web site a few months later he made this prediction:

I expect that in a few years, many schools will have discovered that building such synoptic sites is an ideal class activity, so every topic will be covered by dozens or hundreds of different, well-maintained sites. #

I agree that the task of gathering, sorting, evaluating, and presenting the web resources on a topic is a promising assignment. He calls for a serious commitment to the needs of readers, saying that the links should go to the content pages themselves, rather than to the entry points of their web sites. He says a portal should be “ONE page that links directly to every relevant webpage, bypassing all the navigation trees inbetween” — an ambitious project calling for thoroughness, judgment, and organization. His portals are wonders of compression, aided by a clear, thoughtful vocabulary of categories that quickly show a reader the kinds of broad editorial judgments that have been made.

He offers two versions of his James Joyce site to clarify the concept of portal:

[1] Old unabridged Joyce-links page:
http://www.robotwisdom.com/jaj/jajweb.html
[2] New-style one-layer Joyce ‘portal’:

http://www.robotwisdom.com/jaj/portal.html

While I imagine that a teacher might lead a group of students to create something less severe than the Joyce portal, something less reserved about revealing the editor’s particular judgments of the contents, the portal still shows much more shaping of the content than the older version and implies a knowledge of the history of the topic that would be a substantial accomplishment in many classes. While teachers may come to assign students to create portals based on Barger’s model, a cross between the portal and a more traditional annotated bibliography might be as useful for the students who create the site and readers who later use it.

He might agree, judging by his later plan for another generation of reference pages:

Gradually, though, I’ve grown dissatisfied with the extreme degree of compression here, because it locks out some newcomers, so I’m planning another generation that moves back a step or two towards the original ‘overview’ model. #

Writing the annotations and then grouping the sources into a coherent set of categories would take students far into their field, I think. In fact, the task reminds me of the kinds of questions one has to answer in a comprehensive exam for a M. A. degree, say — where you have to be able to tell the story of your subject over its history and also orient yourself to the particulars at key moments of that history. The broad pattern and its particulars, each known in light of the other.

Seen this way, editing the Net is a high level task. Seen this way, writing a weblog becomes a serious form of inquiry, with substantial obligations to readers and to the scholars who have gone before. Those obligations imply a respect for others — for tomorrow’s reader, for yesterday’s writer — that requires commitment.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 27, 2003 | 12:28 am

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Wed Mar 26, 2003

What I marked in the text

I thought I would try a different sort of entry today. I read much of Biz Stone’s book, Blogging, recently, and now I’ve gone back to take a second look at some of the passages I marked on the first reading. I’ll enter a few here, perhaps with a comment or two.

Blogs are wellsprings of experience, personality, and tacit knowledge. (165)

That reminds me of the personal essay, a genre I admire. Good essays get their authority from the inquiring mind of the writer rather than from a professional certification or academic perspective. There’s a better chance for knowledge to remain open and widely dispersed if some of the knowledge-workers are working the ways essayists work.

[Blogs are an] automated method of independent publishing. (3)

The independence suits the essayistic writer well.

The blog is very much a writer’s medium…usually made up of brief, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically….a blog usually takes on the character of the person or persons that contribute to it because it is so simple to update. This ease of use leads to frequent posting, which creates a fluid, ongoing “conversation” with an audience that helps to bring out the nature of the person “behind the screen.” (9)

But the essayistic writer thrives on a rich relationship with an audience, with the wider world, one way or another.

Blogs feed off the web, digest it, recycle it, and infuse it with new life. Created by feisty, intelligent, opinionated, subversive people — sometimes small groups — blogs are the future of personal publishing. (10)

Again, I like the active relationship to the web and other texts, to knowledge, and to community here.

It’s not so much the content that makes a blog a blog — it’s the structure. (160)

It’s a way of regularly getting to work in language — what could be better?

Blogs contain links…the classic blog format is very simple: links with attached commentary. the original bloggers were like self-appointed editors of the web. (195)

For this reason, good weblogs are dynamic and critical.

Template management allows web designers to separate web content from site design and then give non-technical users access to the site so that they can edit the content themselves. (225)

Templates allow the dog to wag the tail and not the other way around. Does that mean that essayists and writers of weblogs are dogs? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 26, 2003 | 1:29 am

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Mon Mar 24, 2003

Adding value to links

In The Weblog Handbook, Rebecca Blood praises Jorn Barger’s 1999 list of ways to “add value to your links.” Barger suggests that we do more than point to another site — that we precisely describe, evaluate, and even interpret the site for readers before urging them to spend their time visiting. He asks that we link to the best page on a site, not the first page; that we sample interesting graphics; that we save readers time by linking to printer-friendly versions of a site; that we offer a lively and representative quotation from a site. Barger also offers links to other reflections on how to prepare stronger web pages.

His list of ways to add value to links is, implicitly, also an aid to invention and interpretation. The list should be useful to teachers as they give structure to weblog assignments and to students as they find ways to create more complex work on their weblogs.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 24, 2003 | 11:02 am

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Sun Mar 23, 2003

Praising Athens

In an earlier comment Kate Egerton said that on the web, even if you are a well-meaning person, you will often still “end up conversing with copies of yourself” rather than encountering diverse perspectives and broadening your view of an issue. The fact that some commonplace phrases describe this problem indicates how common the problem is. We know that writers sometimes end up “preaching to the choir,” and long ago one great scholar of rhetoric talked about the intellectually lazy act of praising Athens to an audience of Athenians.

I had a famous teacher once, a master rhetorician, who often began class by giving a definition of an important concept and leading a discussion of its implications. I noticed after a few weeks, though, that very often he would turn the conversation about 1/3 of the way through the class by quietly providing a contrasting definition. As we worked through the implications of the second definition, we often were able to use the final 1/3 of the class to think about the significance of these conflicting definitions. We were practicing a form of discourse that valued 1) the act of guided inquiry, rather than 2) the assertion of authority or the act of persuasion.

He never pointed out this strategy, but I noticed it one day and confirmed it in later classes. This remains for me a clue to the powerful ethical differences between different modes of writing and speaking. I suspect students often come to our classes knowing the second of those forms of discourse implicitly and perhaps even having some skills in it, but with a less well-developed sense of the first form. Yet the first form is more interesting to me as a teacher.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 23, 2003 | 11:29 pm

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Sat Mar 22, 2003

Don’t hide the moves

When I get a chance to spend a few minutes looking at newish weblogs written by students, I see that some of them, of course, start off at a very basic level, and I wonder if some of the writers have noticed the room to move that a good weblog assignment has given them or the techniques that they will need to explore their topic skillfully. Seeing these hints about where some of the writers are in their developm ent, I am reminded of a very nice lecture Christine Farris of Indiana University (Bloomington) gave here in South Bend a few years ago. One point she made was that we shouldn’t hide the moves — we should name the goals of an assignment very clearly and tell as much as we can about the steps one should take to achieve those goals and the elements of the finished produce we will be using for evaluation.

She said that many teachers she had worked with were able, when asked or even pressed, to say much more about the goals and elements of their assignments than they had offered students in assignment sheets or oral descriptions. We sometimes take too much for granted about what students know and end up unintentionally hiding the moves from the students who most need to learn them.

Working with weblogs will bring this problem back for most of us, since we will probably not be quite sure what we think weblogs can accomplish in a semester and what steps are necessary along the way. When it comes to writing on the web, what are the moves?

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 22, 2003 | 11:02 pm

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Fri Mar 21, 2003

Strengths that are weaknesses / Creating a sense of audience

I notice from the last two weeks of work that one of the strengths of writing nearly every day and having the new material posted at the top of the main page is a growing sense of fluency or ease as a writer. Most days it is not very hard to explore a new aspect of the topic, especially if there is time to do a bit of reading and thinking. If I have a bit of an idea that I can keep in mind and think about as I walk to work, say, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to develop the idea in a writing session sometime that day.

But that easy can be too easy; that word fluency reminds me of the word flow that students often struggle with, since it offers only a vague sense of how ideas build through composing and revising. “I’ll know it when I see it,” some of them tend to say, but I’m not sure that is always correct. Fluency is an early goal, not the final goal, for writers in college courses. And that message that appears and then slides down the column and slips into the archive may testify to little more than fluency, if other goals aren’t achieved as well. It helps me to get some clues from other readers and writers on the site; I find it easier to press myself to go beyond fluency as my sense of audience increases. Students will probably need the same assistance.

When students are writing their early entries in a course-related weblog, they probably won’t have enough material to attract a wide audience. While they’re working on fluency and stretching to address other course goals, they’ll need classmates to help provide a sense of audience. A “comments” feature of some kind seems essential, then, for building a useful and writerly sense of weblog audience. We’ll need to build into the early weeks of the course, and perhaps the entire course, opportunities and obligations for students to read and comment on each other’s work.

We’ll want to figure out how to teach good commenting. In class last week I asked students to talk about which comments they had been given on a recent paper draft were most helpful, and why. We created an informal guide to useful commenting for everyone to use on the next writing project, and I’ll be posting this guide on that class’s web site. We can also update it, or at least check to see that it is still on target, in a couple of weeks. This way, students help name their own needs as writers and their obligations as writers of feedback for others. So far so good….

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 21, 2003 | 10:33 pm

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Thu Mar 20, 2003

Wish list #1

I would like to invite folks to use the “comments” link, below, to make brief suggestions about the things the perfect weblog software for higher education should be able to do. As the list grows, it may be of use to colleagues making a decision about software or even to a passing software developer thinking about the next version of a product.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 20, 2003 | 7:44 pm

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Wed Mar 19, 2003

The distinctive traits of weblogs

Chris Ashley of the Interactive University Project wrote an excellent two-part article describing many of the elements of weblog software and practice that are of most interest to educators. Both sections of the article include links to two to three dozen other discussions of weblogs or illustrative sites.

The first section of the article describes the most common traits of this “writing space.” Ashley includes thoughtful introductions to the dynamic or unfolding nature of weblog content and the role a community of interested readers and fellow weblog writers play in creating a cultural or rhetorical context for the writing. Berkeley Computing & Communications, Volume 11, Number 4 (Fall 2001).

The second section considers the degree to which weblogs can be used to organize information, create communities, create new forms of journalism, support active and collaborative approaches to teaching, and replace more intricate course management systems. Berkeley Computing & Communications, Volume 12, Number 1 (Winter 2002).

Chris Ashley has provided an excellent introduction.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 19, 2003 | 3:25 pm

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Syndicating weblogs

I considered a moment of silence today, given the grave danger of war, but we might also learn what we can from the times we live in. Back to work, then. Blogs are a flexible tool for following the daily and hourly developm ents around the threat of war or other very dynamic subject. I can imagine classes putting blogs to very good use in an election year, for example, studying the political process, assembling information for voters, or researching and testing the claims of candidates, say.

You can sample the work of writers who stay close to the frightening news in many blogs devoted to international politics; if you find one or two, you can use their collections of links to find another dozen. I’ll somewhat arbitrarily mention the last one I found, as a example: Back to Iraq 2.0 — the work of reporter Christopher Allbritton. You notice the attractive layout and graphics, the detailed reports, the strongly held political perspective, the search engine, the links to related sites, and other standard features. Not quite so common is that he offers a discussion forum attached to each post, and he categorizes each post at the end, in order to make the site more useful. You sense the energy involved, and created, in trying to keep up with the complexity of his unfolding subject matter.

And a dazzling further step — syndication. Properly set up, the data base that supports a weblog can be syndicated to other weblogs. Allbritton has made his content available for another weblog, Warblogs:cc, a site that is composed mainly of syndicated clippings from six blogs and a handful of major news services. This kind of team effort, made possible by syndication, could produce a more varied and substantial web publication. It seems to me that students could unite in a group project of real use to one community or another using syndication to combine individual or small group efforts into something quite substantial. Take that idea, above, about researching and testing the claims of candidates. Teams of students could handle different topics of interest in a particular election, or different races, or different planks in party platforms. Working at their own pace, the groups would publish pieces as they were ready, and the syndication page that assembled the different strands would be dynamic, often changing and growing. The students might gain a real audience with a page like that. Building a site that syndicates, organizes, and then evaluates the work of other organizations could also make a powerful assignment.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 19, 2003 | 1:20 am

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Mon Mar 17, 2003

A grand experiment / by Craig W.

Late last year, a colleague introduced me to weblogs. I surfed the Net a bit, read a wonderful book by Rebecca Blood (The Weblog Handbook, Perseus Publishing, 2002), and discovered a layer of the Web that I hadn’t even known existed. After giving it some thought, I decided to incorporate a weblog assignment into the latest incarnation of my Internet Politics course. The assignment would replace one from previous semesters, which required students to create a website in lieu of a standard term paper (with mixed results).

As such, rather than a “model major course assignment,” I tend to think of this as a sort of “grand experiment.” The results aren’t in yet, of course, but it’s been an interesting experience so far. On the whole, students have responded positively to the assignment; and some seem to be putting a good deal of thought into their entries.

One of the major pedagogical hurdles for me, unfamiliar as I was with blogging, was figuring out how to connect the weblog assignment to my course. In previous semesters, I had required students to create a website on an issue that was explicitly political. For this assignment, I decided to regard blogging itself as a political act, since the “online communities” that develop around interlinked weblogs are informed by particular ideologies or political perspectives. To reinforce this notion, throughout the semester, I’ve tried to highlight these connections and political perspectives in class.

Again, I’ll have to see how this all turns out; but I think the assignment will work well enough that, perhaps with some minor adjustments, I can use it in future semesters and/or for other courses.

Posted by Craig W on Mar 17, 2003 | 3:47 pm

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Indexing as interpretation

I’m oddly fond of the feature of this software that appears in the left column of the main page, under the ARCHIVE SUMMARY heading. It’s the second one, the “View by Category” link. Now that there are a number of entries in this site, the page you see when you click on “View by Category” is starting to fill up. The categories are threads built into the structure of this weblog (others can be added in a moment, if we think of new threads we’d like to explore) and represent a sort of self-indexing, on the run, during the everyday work on the weblog.

That “Category” page seems handy to me because it starts to give some intellectual structure to the work. I think it would be good, no matter what software one is using, to ask students to prepare a web page category index or else a print version, as a step in reflecting on his or her accomplishment in writing a weblog for a course. Another step might be to write a guide to the index, an overview of the contents of the categories. A further step might be to write an intellectual chronology of the categories, interpreting the movement of ideas for a visitor. As you can guess, I’m looking for ways to help students toward the complexity that the most powerful weblogs achieve, and as a teacher I’m looking for assignment structures to help that happen. Other paths, though?

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 17, 2003 | 12:39 pm

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Sun Mar 16, 2003

Aiming for academic discourse

Robert M. Holland, Jr.’s article (see the end of this post) also provides some language that can help us think about the shape of weblog assignments, if we believe in assignments (I do). Here is one of his overviews:

A scholar teachers what he knows; inquires, through dialectic, into what he does not know; and not only submits to but seeks the best interrogation, refutation, or criticism that may be developed by other scholars. Academic discourse, at its best, is both dialectic and didactic. (72-73)

Earlier in the article Holland says that academic discourse is

a search for truth through questions and answers designed to rectify, using logic, the evidence of observed data with the assertions of theory. Academic discourse is, then, both Aristotelian and Platonic: Aristotelian in its empiricism and its appeal to logical relationships claimed between particular instances and general truths; Platonic in its commitment to an intersubjective search for truth through dialectic. (72)

While this might seem to give an emphasis to collective weblogs or weblogs with discussion or comment areas, a conscientious writer can use questioning strategies to carry out these goals in a one-person site.

This reminds me of a story I heard about the scholar Hans-Georg Gadamer giving a lecture when he was deep in his nineties, an age at which he needed to be helped to the stage. At the end, still holding himself upright with the help of the podium, he asked the audience for refutations to his talk. When no one rose to speak, he said, “Very well, I shall refute myself,” and he proceeded to interrogate the points he had just made in his speech. That’s a wonderful image of commitment to academic discourse.

Robert M. Holland, Jr.’s article, “Discovering the Forms of Academic Discourse,” appeared in Audits of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of Ann E. Berthoff, edited by Louise Z. Smith, pages 71-79. Boynton/Cook (Portsmouth, NH) published the book in 1988.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 16, 2003 | 8:58 pm

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Sat Mar 15, 2003

Teaching students about invention

Classical rhetoricians studied invention, the skill of creating material for one’s speeches and writing. Students today usually don’t know this sense of the word, but they benefit from learning invention strategies that can serve them as writers in college and in their working lives. The central invention strategies for bloggers seem to be:

1. linking to web sites and quoting from them, and
2. talking about the sites and the quotations.

I can imagine studying links, quotations, and the accompanying talk, and creating a taxonomy of these strategies, perhaps informed by Bloom’s taxonomy. Some of the options are:

1. naming a site or author
2. linking to a site or author
3. quoting from a site or author

And further:

4. offering no evaluation of a site or author
5. offering a global evaluation of a general character of a site or author
6. offering a more particular evaluation of a site or author
7. offering a summary of a site or author

And further still:

8. quoting a particular section of a site or author
9. quoting and summarizing the quotation

10. quoting and supporting the quotation
11. quoting and evaluating the quotation
12. illustrating and testing a quotation against other evidence or examples
13. discussing a quotation from one site or author in light of a quotation from another site or author

And further:

14. discussing a quotation in light of a body of ideas and examples from a profession or academic field
15. illustrating and discussing the significance of the comments made while carrying out any of the above items

And so forth. As we go down the very rough list, we head toward something most people would probably call critical thinking. If we shape weblog assignments sufficiently (if we believe that they need to be shaped as assigments, rather than left to take on their own character without our guidance), then we can help students proceed down the list toward writing and thinking of greater complexity and skill. I would be curious to know if this rough list seems at least suggestive to others.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 15, 2003 | 8:21 pm

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Make me care

Over two years ago Michael Stillwell described the growing impatience with a kind of weblog writing:

I lost interest in weblogs. They were never a great passion; over the last year or so they’ve become much less interesting, and much more, well, precious. Make me care about you and your weblog; don’t assume that I do. Junk the “mystery” links, the cutesy lines, the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. #

I like the urgency of that middle sentence: “Make me care about you and your weblog; don’t assume that I do.” Assuming that a reader will care about the little adventures of the letter I is arrogant; a writer has an ethical obligation to engage with others, to risk an encounter with their concerns, their perspectives, their arguments. Even though I am a big fan of the genre of the personal essay, I think Stillwell is right that good writing is more than a transcript of one’s day, a catalog of the commonplace notions that pass through one’s mind, a chart of one’s emotions. If you work to understand the specificity of someone else’s ideas and experiences, you may be more ready to think and write interestingly about your own. From the point of view of a teacher, this is an argument for structured assignments, for asking students to do something they might not have imagined asking themselves.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 15, 2003 | 12:50 am

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Thu Mar 13, 2003

A substantial guide

The Web Tools Newsletter has a special issue devoted to weblogs in education, surveying web sites and articles and discussing several major strands in the developlent of “edublogs.” Though they offer to “survey briefly,” they’ve accomplished much more than that. See also their issues on blogs and weblogs — subtle distinction….

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 13, 2003 | 6:03 pm

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Wed Mar 12, 2003

Product and process

It may be useful to think about both the process and the product of a student’s work on a weblog. Writing teachers have used these two terms to help think about the ways we have set up courses and assignments — as a way of understanding, in part, what it is we are trying to teach when we give a particular sort of assignment. To make two very quick examples, if you require and, by asking content-related questions, respond to rough drafts before students hand in a final draft, your greater emphasis on an extended process of writing may help students build more reflection and critical thinking into their writing practices. If you only mark papers for sentence correctness, you might be telling students to think of writing in terms of a very particular and narrow sort of product.

Why, then, are weblogs worth giving as class assignments?

1. Is the process itself valuable enough to justify using the finite resources of a course? If so, what are the virtues we see in the process? How can they be drawn out or amplified?

2. Is the process valuable if it is done a certain way, using certain concepts or techniques? If so, what are those concepts or techniques? What are the virtues we see in them? How can they be drawn out or amplified?

3. Is there a product other than the process that has some value? Is that product the completed weblog entries or the whole website? It that produce something that can be abstracted from the weblog?

For the sake of conversation, let me propose tentative answers to the three questions.

1. Just as a conversation or lecture held in a classroom is not necessarily a pedagogical event (a successful one, anyway), a weblog completed for a course assignment isn’t necessarily a pedagogical event either. It might be true that in ten years everyone will be composing weblogs, but the basics of making one are so simple that we cannot give college credit, I would say, just because a student has let us impose a weblog on him or her.

2. A weblog can be a pedagogical tool if it involves inquiry and reflection, the risk of encountering some complexity, the experience of doing so using the tools of some academic field or profession, the responsibility for thinking through something over time. A person who does these things is making new knowledge for herself, for himself, and if a college course has helped that happen more strategically then there is a skilled teacher at work. We need more discussion of the structures of an assignment, as it influences the structures and practices of a weblog, in order to know more about how this can work.

3. One way to accomplish the things I’ve said in my answer to #2 might be to ask students to use the process of blogging in order to prepare the content they need in order to make a useful product, such as a web site addressing a question in the field. This web site might be dynamic, might be a weblog, but the thinking and gathering that allows an individual or a team of students to be ready to address the question could also be carried out and recorded in a weblog. So one or more student weblogs, sites of a process of inquiry, could lead to one weblog that offers a body of resources addressing the question they’ve chosen.

For example, the web site called Good News India. This is not a student weblog, but it addresses a problem — the need for a resource bank of creative solutions to a range of social problems in India. In doing so, it tries to be a resource for others. Robert M.Holland, Jr., proposed some years ago that students stop writing the usual (often problematic) research papers, which can sometimes be little more than loose cut-and-paste jobs, and start creating guides to the literature on a particular question. He worked with librarians to help students create these guides, and later they were contributed to the college library’s collection. In both cases, the product is meant to be of service to others, and that probably stimulates the writers to produce something that addresses serious questions, is informed by the best thinking in the field, and so forth. If there is a product that comes out of a weblog assignment, we might be able to help students achieve the goals in question 2 more readily. Perhaps we can give assignments, however, in which the process is structured so well that the process is product enough.

More on Holland in this post. Robert M. Holland, Jr.’s article, “Discovering the Forms of Academic Discourse,” appeared in Audits of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of Ann E. Berthoff, edited by Louise Z. Smith, pages 71-79. Boynton/Cook (Portsmouth, NH) published the book in 1988.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 12, 2003 | 5:53 pm

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The rewards of a writerly discipline

Almost immediately I noticed a few things about the experience of writing this weblog. As I tried to make at least one contribution a day, I noticed that I was thinking informally about the topic fairly often during the day, while walking to the coffee machine or heading over to the cafeteria for lunch, and making small steps forward in my thinking even when I wasn’t sitting at the keyboard. I remember Ernest Hemingway talking about how writers recharge themselves for the next day’s writing, and I think students, who so often write only just before a deadline, may never discover how thinking about something every day can tap a part of the brain’s power that otherwise may remain dormant. With a properly structured weblog assignment, I think we can help them have a new experience of the rewards of a writerly discipline.

I also have noticed that it is liberating to know that I only need to write a small piece each day. That builds confidence and keeps me involved, keeps me from the writer’s block that can arise under more high pressure circumstances. I recall a summer school course I took in graduate school where a short paper was due every day. By the middle of the term I had a new feeling that I could think and write any time. I believe that weblog assignments can give a similar experience to students.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 12, 2003 | 1:08 am

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Tue Mar 11, 2003

Toward a dynamic page

I decided to buy some software instead of using the free weblog software available at places like Blogger because I wanted to learn more of the options that are available with these data-base-and-template-driven tools. One thing my guide from the IT department at Saint Louis University, Andrew Wimmer, pointed out immediately was the goal of having a dynamic rather than static web page / web site. How many times can a person usefully visit a static site? How can the web be a place for creativity, collaboration, democratic exchange, if most of the sites are dead? I think these are fair questions. Similarly, having students post their homework on the web is not always more interesting or dynamic than having them hand in a paper copy or pass a copy or two around in class.

Luckily, weblogs are dynamic by virtue of the frequent entries by one or more writers, each new one traditionally placed at the top of the main page for easy access. But other kinds of shape-shifting and content-shifting can be accomplished with some weblog software. For example, this software, pm achine, offers something called pBlocks, and I have placed a small example of that in the bottom left column of the site’s main page.

I set up a pBlock by giving it a name and creating two entries that belong to it, though I could have created many more. These entries can be images or text or other page elements. Then I write a simple line of code into the page calling for the particular pBlock to function. Then when your browser creates this page, it inserts one of the entries in the right spot. If you hit refresh or if you return to the site tomorrow, you will probably see a different entry, as the pBlock cycles through them or selects them randomly, whichever I choose. In this way I can offer students quotations from important figures in our field, for example, each time they load the page, or I could even ask them to populate the pBlock themselves and add this layer of dynamism to our class site.

I am curious to know how people imagine using a feature like this. In a class on prose style I have used the feature to offer a variety of models in different styles and tones, for example, each time students come to the site. A teacher of art history might put slides of important works into a pBlock to give some visual energy to the site while also reminding students of the course content. Your thoughts?

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 11, 2003 | 12:31 am

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Mon Mar 10, 2003

A model major course assignment

A friend passed along a link to Craig Warkentin’s course called Internet Politics. Taught at SUNY-Oswego, POL 330 includes a major weblog assignment worth 20% of the course grade. Dr. Warkentin publishes a detailed description of this thoughtfully-prepared assignment on his web site, and he includes links to his own blog and those written by his students. I will invite him to talk about his course here in the days ahead.

PS. He joined the conversation with this post.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 10, 2003 | 12:14 am

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Learning from bad examples?

It may be useful to think about diary weblogs. Without discussing the role that sort of public disclosure plays in society or in the life of the writer, it seems easy to conclude that many of these are probably a poor model for pedagogical blogging. The diaries wander in the wilderness of the individual life, they have no allegiance to the critical tools of a field or profession, they glance off the events, emotions, and ideas of their days. From the point of view of a teacher, I would say that while they offer some of the pleasures of writing and reading, they aren’t serious.

Yet weblogs are clearly useful for tracing and developing the thoughts that follow unfolding events, and some diaries are wonderful for that work. Political blogs can be both of the moment, personal, yet informed by theory and historical context. All fields unfold, some as often, as quickly, as a wire service posts a news story and some as slowly as the editing, printing, and mailing of a quarterly journal. A student could compose a weblog by following the unfolding of some portion of a field, noting what the student-writer sees as the vital issues and the representative events and facts, and using those to illustrate and test the (traditional and unfolding) guiding ideas of the field.

I will say more tomorrow about how my teacher, Gene Krupa, asked students to surround an issue with their research, seeking all the main perspectives available, and then to position themselves in relation to those different voices. I will talk about Robert M. Holland, Jr.’s article about replacing traditional research assignments (that lead very often to weak cut-and-paste plagiarism) with projects that ask students to compose a guide to the literature on a particular subject.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 10, 2003 | 12:07 am

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Sat Mar 08, 2003

Some starting points

While the main article addresses the gender dynamics of the blogging community, author Lisa Guernsey provides a sidebar introducing two books and five software providers for beginning bloggers: “Telling All Online: It’s a Man’s World [Isn’t It?],” in the Circuits section of the Thursday, November 28, 2002 New York Times, pages E1, E7.

Conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan described the weblog phenomenon in the February 24, 2002 London Times and continues to offer this article as A Blogger Manifesto in his own blog’s Culture section. Without raising the price of his article a cent, he includes a dose of free-style media-bashing near the end just because it was building up in his system, I guess.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 08, 2003 | 1:08 pm

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Let me know if you run into trouble

Most of the features of this software are very easy to use, but if you have a problem, please click on the “comment” link, below, and leave a message there, or use the contact link located in the lower left part of the main page. Thanks.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 08, 2003 | 11:00 am

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The heart of the matter

The pedagogy discussion should be the heart of the matter for this weblog, so why not start now? Are there questions or principles or problems you would like to bring up?

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 08, 2003 | 10:05 am

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Loss of instructional time

With weblogs and with all the earlier software we’ve used in college writing classes, I’ve had two concerns:

1. As appealing as holding class in a computer lab can be, we sometimes use computers for types of assignments students used to do as homework, and as a result, we can lose instructional time when we use computers.

2. And when faculty members spend time learning new software and then handling the dozens or hundreds of messages and files students produce, we often spend much more time teaching each course than we used to do.

At first glance, is seems very easy for computers to reduce the quality of a course and of a teacher’s working life. Nevertheless, here I am, learning a new kind of software.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 08, 2003 | 10:02 am

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Sharing ideas about particular software tools

I hope that visitors to the site will occasionally share interesting traits of the software packages they are using. For example, this site is “powered by pm achine,” as their logo says, and that means that I can easily offer several categories for our posts (“Topics” in the left column of the main page). It takes no more than a minute for me to set up a new category, if we find that we need one to make our work go more smoothly, and then contributors can sort their new posts into the appropriate category, for the convenience of their readers.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 08, 2003 | 9:15 am

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Setting up work groups

If users of this site find that they would like to create new threads to address particular topics or bring colleagues together in other ways, I will be glad to set up work groups. Leave a suggestion by clicking on “comment” below, or email me through the contact information in the left column of the main page.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 08, 2003 | 9:00 am

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Fri Mar 07, 2003

Harvard University certifies* the future of education weblogs

By giving a fellowship to blogging innovator Dave Winer, Harvard University points* higher education in the direction of the on-the-run web collaboration and publishing known as blogging. A blog or weblog is a web page containing frequently-updated entries on a topic, usually posted in a column with the newest entry on top. The software supporting weblogs allows single writers or teams of collaborators to prepare and post new entries to the web very quickly, without writing html or other code required by older forms of web page. Other materials, such as a space for readers to comment or a list of web links to related web sites, are common elements of a weblog.

A news story and interview with Winer announces the university’s commitment to “the Internet’s hottest new trend,” which, says Winer, is “going to be a basic skill like e-mail or using a word processor.” # Educators are just starting to explore the pedagogical value of this new technology.

Elsewhere, on his History of Weblogs site, Winer offers this definition:

Weblogs are often-updated sites that point to articles elsewhere on the web, often with comments, and to on-site articles. A weblog is kind of a continual tour, with a human guide who you get to know. There are many guides to choose from, each develops an audience, and there’s also comraderie and politics between the people who run weblogs, they point to each other, in all kinds of structures, graphs, loops, etc. #

“Blogging comes to Harvard” by Paul Festa, CNET News, February 25, 2003.

Note:

*I look back on the rhetoric of my message with a bit of a shudder, knowing more clearly now how much work has already been done in this field by interesting people who have shared many ideas and examples in sites of their own. I would probably set up this message differently now, since some readers might be pleased to let me know that they didn’t need any *certifying or *pointing to get to work. Addendum by KS, 3/20/03.

Posted by Ken Smith on Mar 07, 2003 | 1:20 pm

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