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The Rhetoric of Blogging 2.0: Anticipating “Curriculum Next”

October 19, 2010

Welcome back, SACS-satiaters .  Once again, I’ve been asked to talk about blogging and its relationship to the new general education curriculum at the University of Kentucky.  Is there any strategy better than going meta and writing a blog post about blogging?  Probably not.

It’s official now.  The Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media (formerly known as the Writing Program, now WRDM) and the College of Communications and Information Studies will collectively spearhead a major curricular shift and create a combined course sequence in composition and communication, which will ultimately ask students to participate in new media technologies.  Eventually, new courses designed specifically to teach students how to write on and for the Web will be offered.  As instructors of writing (and other forms of communication), we will have to become more aware of how communication is changing.

There will be more sessions on the intersection between writing and new media forms (photography, video, audio recording, video casting, and blogging).  For now, we’ve decided that blogs are the baseline tool that allow students and instructors to explore converging communication patterns.  Without blogs, we’ll be unable to circulate much of the multi-media work (podcasts, essays, photojournalism, audio files, documentaries, videocasts, etc.) that we do and that we’ll ask our students to do.

Beginnings

One of the major goals of the new curriculum, or at least I hope it’s one of the major goals, is to equip students with communication skills that transcend two timeworn genres that are often practiced and preached in college:  the 5-page composition essay and the 5-minute in class speech.  As our hammering colleague Colleen Glenn so eloquently puts it in an Arts & Sciences publicity article,

We live in an age of communication. From writing to speaking to texting to social networking, we are constantly communicating with others. The way that we communicate — the words that we use, the style with which we deliver them, and the mode of delivery — determines the impact and effectiveness of our messages.

We all assume that our students are tech savvy, and some of us might feel like the students should be teaching us how to blog, podcast, and videocast.  However, it’s been my experience that our students are generally less prepared to communicate effectively with new media and social networking technologies than we might imagine.  Students are typically great consumers of Web 2.0 content, but they often don’t know how to produce it.

Ostensibly, one major reason why we want to bring students up to speed with social networking and communicating on Web platforms is that doing so would provide students with a chance to become engaged in their communities.  I urge everyone to read Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article, which argues that “the revolution” won’t be tweeted.  Social networks, blogs, Twitter, and other avenues only fragment knowledge and information, Gladwell says, and such activities could constitute a kind of false consciousness-style community activism (for a great local example of Gladwell’s argument, see ProgressLex).

The question of whether or not blogging and online communication is effective activism has also compelled other large universities, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to make curricular changes.  The University of Michigan, which has formed a Digital Environments cluster in its faculty and is moving toward offering a major in this field, asks similar questions:

Social networking, viral marketing, data mash-ups, hypertext, collective intelligence, “googling” –the new coinages heard in conversations across the campus and on blogs across the nation attest to the digital revolution’s transformation of social identity, work, education, politics, the economy, and the most foundational interactions of everyday life. We increasingly live in and through a variety of capacious and dynamic digital environments, and this revolution has already made a host of practices, from academic research to journalism to establishing new forms of community, easier, more collaborative and more inclusive. And yet this revolution also poses serious, fundamental problems for the university, society and world affairs. How do we know what information is credible and reliable? In virtual environments with often unknown, unseen participants, how can we assess expertise? Who and what should we trust? At the same time that information has proliferated as never before, there has emerged a crisis in accountability, authority, intelligibility — indeed, in epistemology itself. Our students and the general public have not yet developed the critical literacies to negotiate these new environments for information, communication, ethical exchange, and social identities. They and we have not adequately explored the implications of digital environments for the production and dissemination of knowledge. (Source:  University of Michigan)

As we begin to think about teaching writing and communication in this brave new world, we need to consider ways that we can map out the landscape for our students so they can evaluate information, aggregate it, and participate in public conversations.

The Rhetoric of Blogging

Blogs shift the way we read, understand, and disseminate information.  Calling attention to the transience and immediacy of information, blogs change the way we consume information, and they even changing the way we write, as an early forum on blogging argued.  Furthermore, blogs are replete with software technologies that are designed to link to other information sources, and these technologies are being refined and improved daily.  Here are some examples of new writing conventions:

Embedding links in post:  This is in effect a new way of citation that serves a dual purpose (and even encourages writers to place themselves in dialogue with other voices and perspectives).  It is a way of acknowledging other ideas and helping people see your own engagement with those ideas.

Nestling photos and videos:  It’s become extremely easy to engage with commercials, television clips, shows, or any other visual medium.  Having the clip nestled within the writing should help student move away from summary and description and toward analysis.

Polls:  User interaction is one  hallmark of the Web 2.0 experience. WordPress has followed Facebook and other sites by making the action of “liking” and responding an integral part of the reading experience.  Now, one doesn’t even have to formulate a coherent thought to interact with online media (this was always the policy on the Herald-Leader comments section).

 

 

Immediacy:  Timestamps and instant publication make it possible for students and writers to get an audience before anyone else, including mainstream news sources.

Intertextuality:  Via linking, blog writers can make connections to knowledge and situation themselves within a community of ideas and information.

Self-Reflexivity:  Blog writers can connect their own ideas to earlier explorations of a similar topic.  For example, I already hosted one PDS on blogging last fall.  This one is better.

Content is King:  Preparing Students to Blog

It used to be the case that many people had good ideas for programming, but not many people had the money, time, or expertise to circulate their ideas.  Now, the opposite may be true.  It’s very easy to circulate ideas.  The way to ensure an audience is to develop and maintain good content.  This is an important part of the process.  In order for students to conceptualize a web presence, they need to be aware of what other voices already exist.  Then, they need to find a way to access those voices regularly and quickly.  Here are some ideas to get this process started:

Choose a theme:  Have a vision for a project or blog that foresees what might happen in the future.  Think about the niche your blog can have in the public audience.  Will you eventually expand your content?  Does your format provide space to do that?

Develop a strong RSS subscription list:  Find efficient ways to know which blogs are influential and to whom.  I suggest Google Reader, but there are other RSS readers out there.  This can be used for all media, including podcasts and video.

Get on Twitter and make lists for yourself:   Use the list feature on Twitter to keep tabs on emergent conversations.  You can save searches and keep tabs on these as well.

Success Stories

I believe that as we begin to present our students with the possibilities of participating in our information revolution, we need to show them some success stories.  How have people with the technologies and knowledge that is comparable to theirs generated an audience?  In short, students would be encouraged by proof that good writing can lead to an audience and maybe even a job.

Christian Lander was a graduate school dropout who started a satire blog on WordPress called Stuff White People Like.  Within a few months, the site went viral, and Lander was offered a $3o0,000 advance from Random House to essentially publish the contents of his blog in book form.  Jeanne Devon was a concerned citizen in Alaska who wrote about local politics.  Her blog, The Mudflats, exploded in the fall of 2008, when the world wanted to know just how crazy Sarah Palin is.  Devin Rossiter, an avid sports fan, budding sports broadcaster, and graduate of Northwestern University, decided that he’s fed up with our gladiatorial obsession with football, NFL and college.  In protest, he vowed to go one year without watching football or following it in any capacity, and he documents his experiences on A Year Without Football, one of many “year-long experiment” blogs to gain a substantial audience.  Another is the Julie/Julia project, the account of one disaffected twenty-something who decides to cook one recipe from Julia Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking each day.  The blog earned Julie Powell a book, a movie deal, and bitter disdain from Childs (who died in 2004).  A few local fratboy jackasses started a WordPress blog called Kentucky Sports Radio.  The site has launched its writers into national fame, and their podcast became the number one download on iTunes last fall.

Uses

The second step is to catalog the ways that blogs can be used.  Here are a few ideas:

Pedagogy:  As instructors, we can use blogs for class discussion, participation, announcements.  See, for example, The New Testament as Literature, a blog for my current class.

Writing:  Traditional writing, experimental writing, aggregating links, surveying cultural landscapes, commenting, or whatever.

Photo blogging or photo journalism:  Disposable Words

Video journalism or citizen journalism

Podcast or audio project hosting:  Et in Arcadia Ego.  WordPress has extensive podcasting features available on the WordPress 3.0 platform.  It costs $10 per year, or somewhere around there. But don’t students spend more than this on textbooks?

Ideally, blogging can become a forum in which students integrate multiple manifestations of their web presence.

Strategies for Broadening an Audience

Tags v. Categories

Social bookmarking services

Pingback/trackback

Twitter

Link

Like

Comment

Good Examples

Pigs in the Parlor: Note the work done with photographs.

Lowell’s blog analysis of CentrePoint proposal

The Well Wrought Urn:  By linking to other major news sources, writers can insert themselves in a public conversation about situations that matter.

Fix Buffalo Today

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