Assessing Weblogs in Writing Courses

I don't intend this post to be a response to Mike, but a recent post of his got me thinking about assessment of weblogs in writing pedagogy. I'm asked to give talks on the topic more and more often these days, and people always ask about assessment; I also get a good deal of questions about grading weblog posts in f2f conversation and via email. I'll make my argument for how best to assess weblogs a little later, but for now: What I say is, judging from the responses I get, not really what people want to hear, but I preface it by explaining that my method of assessment is specific to my goal for the weblog, which is primarily to enhance community in the classroom, but then they invariably end up learning a lot about audience and rhetorical practices by engaging in the conversation, too.

But to Mike's post. He points to a thread at MetaFilter about life-changing experiences, observes that the comments there are remarkably different from writing-course essays on life experience, and expresses what I think is a very important insight:

I mean, I look at some of the MetaFilter responses, and I look at the innocuous question with which Jeremias prompted such responses, and I’m floored – although the openness of the MetaFilter respondents and the closeness of first-year writing respondents really ought not to be surprising.

I wonder if this could be one of the ways in which blogging might change the pedagogical practices and written products of first-year comp.

Bingo. My own rather strong reservations about the personal essay aside, I can appreciate this, as Mike said, meta-moment as a statement on assessment of weblog posts. Given the way I use weblogs in my classes, the best method of assessment is to grade based on participation only: If you participate, you get full credit; if you don't, you don't get credit. Doing only the required posts will result in a grade of C; being more active, especially by leaving comments under other students' posts, will result in a better grade.

That means no rubrics, no criteria, and no grades on individual posts. I think giving each post a grade is akin to giving each comment a student makes in class discussion and question a student asks in class a grade.

What if MetaFilter, Crooked Timber, Pharyngula, and Feministe all of a sudden instituted the following criteria for those who wanted to leave comments: "Comments must be at least 500 words, must contain at least one link, must address and synthesize topics X, Y, and Z, etc. Comments will be assessed according to how well they met or exceeded these criteria." and so on. People would guffaw, I bet they'd get far fewer comments, and the comments they did get would have an overly self-conscious, forced blogging kind of character.

Another thing I don't like about criteria and rubrics for weblog posts is what strikes me as a lack of faith in students. It's almost like an assumption that students will write crap if the criteria and rubrics aren't in place. It's best to trust students to use their intuitive knowledge of rhetorical situations and let them learn from their interaction with the audience. They almost always take pride in their writing when there's an audience of readers who will respond. It's just a matter of trusting them to do so. People want to be perceived as thoughtful, intelligent, interesting, funny, well-read, etc., and they'll take pains to make sure their writing facilitates that perception. That's why I think class weblogs work best when the discourse is as unregulated as possible.


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weblog grading

Hi Clancy,
My name's Kirt LeBlanc, and I'm an instructor at Tulane. I teach a class called "Media and Their Messages," which explores media rhetoric and its implications for writers. I agree that setting grading criteria for blog posts can potentially defeat the whole idea of community writing and as an exercise in audience. We have a class blog called The Medium ( The students have to make a "substantial" contribution to the blog once a week, whether it be a new thread, or a response to an ongoing discussion. I also use the blog to discuss readings that we don't get to in class. I started the blog in place of old-school notebook journals, which I feel are completely obsolete in a class that emphasizes linking and social-constructionist rhetoric. So far, I'm very happy with the way it's working out.

blogging and writing

I'm about to do a presentation on blogging and writing classes. I haven't done one of these yet, but I have done some on using online discussion boards and I get two kinds of questions. One is--isn't this more work for me? and two, how do you grade it? I have a hard time arguing against the more work thing, though I usually tell people to drop something and replace it with the discussion (or blog, in this case), but most people who raise the question aren't interested in the answer really. They're just opposed to moving into an online environment altogether. I swear I get trolls in my workshops! As for grading, I usually say the same thing you do. It's considered class participation. And, actually easier to grade that remembering whether some particular student spoke a lot in class.

blog pedagogy

Clancy -- do you find there's wide variation in what kind of writing students are doing when they post? Also I'm curious about whether you give some guidelines for length of posts (you only mentioned comments above).

About guidelines

I guess I didn't communicate my thoughts on guidelines very clearly, but what I intended to say was that I don't think there should be any rubrics or criteria (guidelines in the word-count sense), not for posts or comments. I think the writing on weblogs for writing courses should be as unregulated as possible so as not to impede the conversation. It's great to provide prompts in the form of suggested topics (not required topics, though -- students should have the freedom to write about they're interested in and what's important to them), but I eschew guidelines that impose too many constraints and make the writing stilted, teacher-centered, and pro forma.

It just seemed like you were

It just seemed like you were making a distinction between comments and posts when you were talking about guidelines. But still, even if there's a minimum number of posts, that's a guideline. I guess I'm just thinking like a student here... I'm someone who's blogged regularly for a couple years now, and yet I doubt that if it had been part of a class I would have done anything more than the very minimum.

Good point

Yeah, you're right, a required number of posts is a guideline, definitely. I guess I've been looking at it as someone who has worked with a lot of teachers in many disciplines about using blogging in classes, and most people think the best way to do it is to have very specific criteria, rubrics, required prompts, etc.

So what's the distinction for you, Paul? I can see that you're an avid, frequent blogger. Is it that if the blogging is for a class, it's no longer fun? What if someone writes a really thought-provoking post that generates a lot of comments? Would you participate in the discussion then, thereby doing more than what is required? I ask because this is what I'm trying to get at: In my experience, if it's not so regulated, it frees up the space for more genuine discussion that people want to participate in, like in the MetaFilter thread Mike cited. I'd greatly appreciate your thoughts on this.

Well, first off I should clar

Well, first off I should clarify that I agree with you about the approach -- I don't think setting up a bunch of hoops to jump through is going to be all that helpful overall, because people need to be engaged on their own terms. But I also think you're going to lose some students this way... surely you've experienced this. Me, I was one of those lazy students who never did anything he didn't have to. And blogging, for me it has this element of outsider publishing (although maybe it's slowly losing this) that wouldn't be there in a class setting; also an element of discipline, but self discipline. Maybe I'm just one of those people who works against things rather than with them (?)

what do weblogs do?

I'd been meaning to respond to this for a while, Clancy, but in and around reading Wayne Booth and not having fully sorted out my own thoughts on student weblogging, well, I couldn't quite figure out what I actually thought about what you're saying.

It seems you're making two major points: first, what you think the weblog should do, "which is primarily to enhance community in the classroom, but then they invariably end up learning a lot about audience and rhetorical practices by engaging in the conversation, too." Second, how you evaluate that -- and it sounds like you're arguing that your grading policy (essentially, just participate) places primary importance on the community-enhancement function, and the latter part -- what they learn about rhetoric by engaging in that participation -- will come naturally out of the first and needs/bears no evaluation of its own. Is that fair?

When I've had students keep weblogs, I actually did institute an informal length requirement, and required a certain number of posts and comments by the end of the semester. Since I teach in a computer lab, I'd sometimes have students do some informal in-class writing on a certain topic, so that blog entries were categorized as open topic, optional topic, or required topic. In that sense, the weblog entries went beyond community-building, and constituted a public space where students could see one another performing the daily writing of the course that would contribute to their essays. And I'll point out that sometimes there were many students who'd say about an open topic entry, "I don't know what to write about," and ask me to give them topics. Still, this lessened as the semester progressed.

In his book, Wayne Booth claims the subjectivity-producing qualities of dialectic under the banner of rhetoric, and I think that's how I would categorize most student weblog entries, and your community-building function, as either dialectic, or as epideictic rhetoric. But in my course, I didn't see student weblog entries undertaking the sort of forensic rhetoric we associate with the contributions weblogs made to the downfall of Eason Jordan and Trent Lott, and I didn't see student weblog entries undertaking the sort of deliberative rhetoric we associate with the weblogs of Brad DeLong and Richard Posner. This isn't a critique, just an observation.

But what strikes me is that many rhet-comp folk talk about the value of making writing matter by making writing public (Nancy Welch's article in the new CCC is a good example), and what they're saying is that it has value in its public-civic-democratic exigency that extends beyond the community-sustaining and subjectivity-producing function of dialectic. And as much as I enjoyed seeing the work my students did on their weblogs, and as much as many of them seemed to relish the work, I didn't really see that public-civic-democratic exigency in the weblog entries they made.

Which makes me wonder: are weblogs showing us a way in which composition's theoretically professed values might not line up with its practices?

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