On Public Course Blogs

Our recent Metagogy session – monthly reflections on the English Department’s pedagogical practices and aspirations – covered examples of digital pedagogy within and beyond the English Department. The public course blog and its sister space, the course website, was a particularly key topic. This post offers a summary of our thoughts, questions, and suggestions.

As Trevor Owens suggests in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” students’ blogging (alongside faculty) can have the potential to cross courses, transcend iterations of courses, and generate writing from interactions with assigned reading (the academic They Say, I Say conversation) that then becomes reading for other students present and future. Some of what we discovered/discussed:

1. Our blogging assessments demonstrate a variety in weighting and amount of instruction. Beth McCoy offers some really excellent wording on the need for regularity of blog posts which both helps students understand how they are being assessed and reminds them of the goals of the activity. Lytton Smith asks his students to post from a range of types of blog post, allowing them to pick those that best suit their current interests; he rewards commenting as well as posting. Steve West offers helpful, clear, and thorough instructions that combine the best of conventional targeted writing assignments with the possibilities of an online space.

2. The need to consider the public nature of these blogs is paramount. Beth McCoy draws her students’ attention to questions of privacy and students’ rights in her syllabus, using wording that is best practice for all of us. A post by Erin Koehler on the Contemporary Poem blog was recently reblogged by the children’s books/YA author, Tonia Allen Gould. It’s useful to remember that Google Alerts and other such tracking could lead students’ posts towards a public audience, in addition to interested parties actively finding course blogs.

3. The blog is not an end, but a means to an end: less a repository than a circulation library (or, if an archive, a living archive). Paul Schacht and Rob Doggett both offered ways to keep online postings in circulation, whether by tweeting out student work for attention beyond the course or by using student work from past courses as models for future courses.

4. The “course blog” might well transcend the course. One of the innovations of sunygeneseoenglish.org is the way blogs are attached to areas of study rather than restricted to individual courses, with titles such as Contemporary Poem, Nineteenth Century Studies, Nonfiction, Speculative Fiction, Digital Humanities. Over time, this means students are reading (and writing) alongside a wider range of peers. While this can present challenges in determining a reading audience, it offers exciting possibilities for inter-course and interdisciplinary work.

5. Course blogs are a specific technology which work best for specific practices and pedagogic goals. That is, non-public writing responses may at times be a better way to develop students’ ideas; private blogs, or sections of blogs, may allow for particular discussions (e.g. within groups); and Google Docs might offer an online, shared space which is not quite so public. We need to think about what sort of “public” we imagine when creating blogs and course websites, and how, why, and when we want our students within that public (or, more accurately, those publics).

References: Owens, Trevor. “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Matthew K. Gold (Ed.). Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Digital Pedagogy in the English Department

Following our last Metagogy discussion, I wanted to offer a survey of some of the ways we in the Department are using digital spaces, tools, and resources as part of our classrooms. Please reply to add activities missing from here, or to ask questions about the pedagogical reasons and logistical necessities involved with digital pedagogy.

Collaborative Reading Lists
Paul Schacht uses Zotero for a “group library” so that students can share the research process with one another. This allows research to happen visibly outside the classroom as well as cross into it, especially if Zotero is loaded in class from time to time.

Public Course Blogs
A number of class blogs are up and running, including by Beth McCoy, Lytton Smith, and Steve West; all of these are hosted at our sunygeneseoenglish.org site. Jess Fenn offers a slightly different version, having students post to the Medieval Studies blog as a way to showcase work in a particular minor. More details on the exact processes are explained in the companion post on Public Course Blogs, but it’s worth noting here that there are various ways to get students to talk among themselves or to talk to an imagined public audience; blog post requirements and assessment weightings can be more or less thorough, depending on their centrality to the course.

Course Websites
Paul Schacht takes blogs one step further: for both ENGL 340 and ENGL 458, the whole course exists on a webpage, designed not just for current enrolled students, but for future students to interact with past students. Part of the pedagogy here involves lessons about writing for a public audience, which of course involves thinking about the amount and types of information and sourcing to provide. One great example of some group work here.

Gandy Dancer
Gandy Dancer exists as SUNY-system-wide literary journal in print and online; the online space extends the work of Rachel Hall’s ENGL426/488: Editing and Production Workshops I and II, as can be seen from the content of the most recent issue. Alongside the use of Submittable, Twitter feeds, and Facebook, Gandy Dancer suggests a way for students to produce course-related content that is public-facing and yet not an assignment requirement in the conventional sense.

Student-generated websites/webspaces
In collaboration with Joe Cope in History, Rob Doggett has created assignments within Irish Studies courses in which students structure and create a webspace on a particular topic of relevance to a course: reading evidence, making arguments, and deciding how to organize their ideas while working in small groups. While students can get further support from the Digital Media Lab, WordPress makes it very possible to do everything they need to quite simply.

Class Wiki
Drawing on a model put into practice by Rob Doggett, Paul Schacht, and Caroline Woidat for ENGL170 (the old ENGL203), Lytton Smith used wiki pages for a section of ENGL203 in which students collaborated on close-readings and contextualizations of literary texts; as the semester progressed, students began to synthesize close readings with readings of critical articles. In so doing, they helped teach each other about effective strategies for literary analysis while learning a tiny bit of html. This space is a subset of the wider English Dept-generated “Annotated Literary Texts” project, also used by other department, including Languages & Literatures.

Interdisciplinary Research Grants
Ken Cooper is collaborating on an Innovative Instruction Technology Grant entitled “Developing a Common Online Mapping Platform for Interdisciplinary, Place-Based Undergraduate Research”; collaborators include C. Garrity (Geography) – PI; K. Cooper (English); E. Argentieri (Library); K. Hannam (Biology), and J. Easterly (Library).

Research Papers
Both Ken Cooper and Lytton Smith will deliver digital humanities-oriented research papers at NEMLA this year (Toronto, April 30-May 3). Cooper’s paper, about “bioregional archives” as exemplified by his Open Valley project, is on a panel called “D19: Pedagogical Approaches to Digital Nineteenth-century American Literature,” Friday May 1st, 1.15p.m. (also featuring SUNY Geneseo’s Liz Argentieri); Smith’s paper, about the interaction between poetry and digital media, is on a a panel called “Spineless: Slippery Virtual Literature,” Saturday, 1.30p.m.