CCCC, Day 1, Session 1
Finally getting around to blogging some notes about sessions I've attended. I don't know if the overall quality of the conference has improved or if I just really know how to pick 'em, but all the sessions I've attended so far have been great. The first session I attended was "Evaluating Academic Weblogs: Using Empirical Data to Assess Pedagogy and Student Achievement."
First was Bradley Bleck's presentation, "What's Learning Got to Do With It? Students on Blogging." In it, Bradley discussed his students' blogging in an American literature course. He stated at the outset that the weblog participation was one-seventh of the course grade, the students were required to post and comment, and they got extra points for posting reading responses before class. His objective in having them blog was for the weblog to be like a daily reading journal, but not something that's so ephemeral -- sheets of paper handed (only) to the instructor for a quick check, check +, or check -, along with a few scribbled comments. To which I say, word. I've wondered for years now, doesn't it strike anyone as strange to call informal response papers submitted to the instructor on discrete sheets of paper (as opposed to sheets of paper that stay together in a notebook) a "journal"? Anyway, Bradley distributed surveys to the students to assess the use of weblogs. He asked demographic questions as well as detailed questions about the students' prior experience using computers and everyday computing practices. He pointed out at a couple of points during the presentation that he didn't exactly believe some of the responses (for example, more students than he expected said they used gaming software for learning, and he didn't know any teachers at his university who were using gaming in their pedagogy). I thought, and should have mentioned during the Q&A period, that Bradley was right to be skeptical of some of the responses, and it should be noted that surveys only actually measure self-perception. Some of his findings related to the weblog were: Students' reactions to the weblog were, not surprisingly, mixed. Students who preferred a lecture/test model of teaching tended not to like the weblog. Bradley said he didn't get the level of interaction he'd hoped to get, that there was no strong correlation indicating that weblogs contributed to an improvement in other writing tasks, and that there was a tendency for students who didn't do the assigned reading to read others' reading responses in lieu of doing the reading. The downside of making student writing available to the whole class as an audience, I suppose. :-) My guess is that this tendency has also been noted in assessments of Blackboard and WebCT discussion board use. At any rate, it was a fine presentation; this is some of the first empirical assessment of using weblogs in pedagogy, and I hope Bradley continues using weblogs in his teaching.
Next was Derek Mueller's presentation, "Ping! Re-Addressing Audience in the Blogosphere." I hate to play favorites here, but I must admit I was particularly impressed with this one. I'll never do it justice here, so I hope Derek posts his paper or some notes based on it. He used to powerful effect his eloquence and creativity (see posts like this one) to make a really sharp and much-needed intervention into Walter Ong's "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction." He began by citing Ong along with Charles Moran, who asks if public audience will inhibit the personal. Noting the complex dynamics of the blogosphere, Derek asked: How do weblogs complicate the injunction to "know your audience"? He reviewed three different ways bloggers can find out about and interact with their audiences: unidirectional, citational linking, like this link to Berne Christiansen's thoughts about weblogs and audience, bidirectional linking (trackbacks), and pings and server data. Simple linking, Derek said, enables a course of reading. It's a kind of empirical proof that fashions a discursive trail. They afford the audience a kind of textual agency (the power to go instantly to the writer's sources?). Then Derek compared bidirectional linking to the practice of saying "con permiso" when excusing oneself in physical space. "Grant me a share of this space," a trackback says. "Let me be here with you." A trackback is permissive linking, a reference made by the reader, not the writer. A beckoning, a reference of uptake, a gesture of with-ness. (It should be clear to most of you which words are Derek's here and which are mine.) Pings are an appraisal of action, Derek pointed out. One web server to another, cataloguing users' online action (number of page loads, referrers, search queries, etc.). The distance between writer and audience -- and, I would add, the mystification between writer and audience that would lead Ong to claim that the audience is a fiction -- is collapsed. In this light, with this concrete, empirical data about actual weblog readers (of which there are 32 million, Derek pointed out), we need to re-address Ong. Like I said, I haven't done the presentation justice. Mike called it a tour de force, and I agree. Send it to a journal now, Derek!
Next was Anne Jones's presentation, "Closing Doors and Opening Windows: An Empirical Study of Teachers Teaching Blogging at the University of South Florida." I didn't have a lot of notes on this one (not that I mean to give it short shrift). Basically, Anne did a comprehensive empirical study of the first-year composition courses at the University of South Florida. USF, as you might know, has Writingblog.org and is one of the only universities to implement blogging across the whole writing program (first-year composition, anyway). Eighty-one percent of the instructors, Anne said, require their students to blog. Anne said she got a one-third return on her survey, so I don't know if that's 81% of that third or 81% of the total number of writing instructors. Anyway, what I thought was the most significant point in Anne's presentation -- and I'm glad she said it -- was that if instructors aren't well-versed in the genre and medium, don't blog themselves, they end up not really knowing what they're doing. It results in frustration on the part of both the students and teachers. Anne also noted a tendency to be bound by a narrow definition of what a blog is (strictly a journal).
Last was Dennis Jerz, whose presentation, "Discovering Metrics for Evaluating an Academic Weblog Community," was a kind of case study of the weblogs associated with New Media Journalism@Seton Hill. Dennis talked a lot about how he uses weblogs in the classroom, pointing to features of the weblog that facilitate community-building, like the recent comments block on the sidebar, the sitewide recent entries block, etc. He gave some tips on how to emphasize blogging as a valuable activity (let students blog in class sometimes, ask students to read from their posts in class). In my teaching, I've done these things as well as allude to students' posts myself in class. This lets them know that I'm reading the blog, which they really need to know. I leave comments under my students' posts sometimes, but not every day, and I've noticed that while the fact that the other students in the class as well as some outside readers read the blog, the students still want to be assured that I'm reading it every day. Dennis laid out some "presumptive classroom benefits" to blogging: First, there's a core of students who feed off each other's enthusiasm. This is both good and bad, because it can create an A-list of the most active bloggers. The most motivated students blog more and more, way more than is required. This is, of course, good in a lot of ways, but then these students can find in-class discussion redundant, as they've already done so much prior engagement with the material on their weblogs. Also, the other students can be overwhelmed and perhaps intimidated by the most active bloggers. Second, the blogosphere's practice of meticulous citation is good practice for research papers. Third, the informal blogged reading responses make up a useful (for the instructor) preview of the class's attitude toward the reading.
Please, presenters, if I've misinterpreted anything you've said, say so in the comments!