Pedagogy of the Eclectic

Pedagogy of the Eclectic

My thoughts about the utility of weblogs in education shifted dramatically the moment I began to incorporate them in the classroom. This displacement was not due to any real modification of my firm belief that writing in the electronic environment is a useful pedagogical tool, but because of the nature of the subject I am trying to teach, and the environment I am teaching it in.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is one of a handful of schools in the US which has a completely separate and autonomous Rhetoric department. It is not merely a subdivision of the English Department, but instead a key emphasis in the core curriculum. For mainstream undergraduates, the core course of World Literature is optional; two courses in writing are required. The reasoning behind this began with a crisis in standards around ten years ago, when it was found that people were able to exit the university without adequate writing skills. The department is largely focused on the practical, rather than the creative, side of writing. Creative writing courses still reside in the English department. The schism between the departments was both practical and political, and I straddled this great divide as an undergraduate, majoring in both.

I chose to take this separation seriously. The two required composition courses should, at least in my estimation, have different goals. The first course is focused in expressive writing and mechanical skills. Taking its cues from the Speech Communications department, the pedagogy involved straddles the divide between the expressivist and social constructivist views. However, expressivist pedagogy is generally frowned upon in compositionist circles, so group activity is always emphasized, oxymoronically, to build individual confidence. An underlying goal of the class is to prepare students adequately for a writing proficiency examination, where they must write a timed 500 word essay on cue. I haven’t taught this one yet; my desire was to develop a strategy for the final, more advanced writing class.

When I took it as an undergraduate, it was hardly differentiated from the first class. Students produced one (inadequate) research paper with five sources. The rest of the papers were largely expressive essays in a continuation of the first writing class. To me, this is at odds with the pragmatic nature of the program because it makes writing purely associated with creative writing, which is the province of the English department on our campus. Writing research papers is a skill. I developed that skill to a far greater degree in a core course for English majors called Approaches to Literature, which taught writing along with an introduction to critical theory and canon formation.

I saw a need to put the research and critical thinking portions of that class into the context of a lower level class in writing. I see writing research papers as an essential college survival skill. I chose to believe that one class in writing a coherent personal essay is more than enough to pass the writing proficiency exam, and that to dwell on it was superfluous and a waste of the students time. I think that Composition II should be more of a stretch.

So, what does this have to do with weblogs and electronic teaching tools? A lot. As Scott Rogers recently expressed, just because a technology is there, it doesn’t automatically mean that it must be used, or is immediately useful as a pedagogical tool. I have been involved in several classes where these tools have been useful, and several where they have not. The primary, now almost low-tech tool, is email. Our campus automatically sets up listserv distribution lists for every course in the catalogue. Few teachers use them, however. The majority don’t even know they are there.

In upper level seminars in the English department, one of my instructors used them as a version of the well accepted practice of learning journals. Each student was required to submit a 500 word journal on each weeks reading to the listserv. At least 75% of the time, this practice resulted in the development of social community outside the confines of the classroom, where discussion occurred. However, it wasn’t perfect. I began to postulate at that time that certain “cuing strategies” might be helpful to stimulate discussion in that environment. In this instance, the classroom environment was conventional.

On the negative side, in one Rhetoric course taught in an electronic classroom, I found myself really offended at the suggestion that I email the teacher from my terminal when we were both standing in the same room. There’s a dark side to this technology as well. In this case, the electronic communication was always point to point, person to person, rather than any sort of group activity. It seemed isolationist outside the group context. There was no learning journal requirement here, other than occasional requests for brief emails.

Shortly after this experience, I discovered blogging. I began to wonder about the difference between the forced networking of email lists, and the voluntary networking of web logs. Which might be more useful? I decided to do a little preliminary testing, to see if I might be able to construct a study of learning journal behaviors. I was inspired by a study I read of math-science educators in a graduate program who had asked for listserv sharing, rather than conventional print journal requirements in a particular class. These students felt that the electronic environment was more useful than the conventional personal learning journal.

I find myself resistant to social constructivist theory. It seems to me that the arbitrary construction of online communities is just as oppressive as Friere’s “banking model of education.” I wanted to give students a choice, rather than force them into an experimental model of community building. It seems well accepted that learning journals are an essential part of the assimilation of material, however, is this assimilation improved by group interactions? I suspect it is, and yet, I’m not ready to leap at that conclusion.

I offered three journaling options: a conventional paper journal, submission to the email listserv, or starting a web log. I did offer extra credit for the web log option, because I knew that it might be an intimidating for some. The results, speaking halfway through the term, have surprised me only slightly. While I haven’t tabulated things carefully as of yet, my initial estimate is that 30% of the students have ignored the requirement entirely (including about a 10% drop rate), 20% are submitting sporadic print journals, and at least half took the web log option. No one chose the public submission of journals to the listserv. This was the primary surprise, in stark contrast with the study that I read of the upper level students. I attribute it to an uncertainty about the technology, and greater shyness of first year students.

Of those taking the web log option, about 40% are updating regularly, about 30% do it in fits and jerks, and 30% didn’t make it past the first few weeks. Only two or three students appear to be reading each others logs. These figures might appear to be disappointing, but they aren’t to me. My primary concern is that the students learn the skills taught in the class, and so far they are all progressing nicely. Journaling is a small part of a much larger picture. I wanted to see what would happen with journaling in an atmosphere relatively free of social coercion. Yes, it’s a part of their grade. But it’s not the focus of my praxis.

Outside of the journaling activities, the listserv has been central to social interaction within the classes. I refrained from answering questions posed there immediately, to see if the other students would volunteer to help each other out. They did, in spades
. Research tips flew back and forth, questions of requirements, and general business. At least 90% of both classes successfully signed on, and use this resource. Email works. The students that use these electronic tools the most are the best writers in the class, but I feel it is important not to leave anyone behind due to technological anxiety.

At this point, in my view, it is an optional enrichment activity. I’m trying to improve writing, not train people to be geeks. However, there is a central opposition involved in getting people to move from the expressive level of first year writing into the more critical argumentative skills of writing research papers. I think web logs can help. The dismay that people expressed at my assignment of a dispassionate bibliographic essay pretty much says it all:

You mean I can’t express my opinion?

No you can’t. You have to relate the facts first, before you can form an intelligent opinion.

Blogs (or learning journals) are nothing, if they are not a place to freely express opinions. What happens with a paper based journal is that it passes from student to teacher; the student relinquishes ownership of that piece of writing to be judged by a teacher. With a blog, it remains a personal space. It can be edited, updated, revised, and shifted. The student remains in complete control of what they write. As students are forced to give up control over their expression to conform to academic standards, expression must have a place to go. I think a blog represents an important step towards channeling those expressions into a venue which remains completely owned by the writer.

I’m not so interested in the social phenomena involved with networking just yet. I just want to give the students a place they can own, as they move through the classrooms where they must conform to expectation. This is the primary function of web logs in my pedagogy, at this point. I think listserv environments are better suited to the closed sort of networking dictated by specific study environment. They are simple, direct, and a neatly forced version of a network. Some of my students have chosen to join larger networks with their blogs, through linking. But those concerns are outside the classroom that I teach in, a classroom where writing is the subject, not networking.

A blog is simply a space to write in. A space the student owns. I feel like I don’t want to meddle in that, just yet.