In Clueless in Academe, English professor and former MLA president Gerald Graff emphasizes the idea of "inviting" students into academic discourse. This idea is fundamental to everything that I do as a college instructor. My teaching philosophy is driven by the need to invite and encourage students. The following forthcoming article fits into this invitation theme and deals directly with the kind of blogs that my students are writing.
In September, Computers and Education will publish "Using blogging to enhance the initiation of students into academic research" by Eddy K.M. Chong. I'd like to read this article right now, since so far I've struggled to find much writing on the idea of blogs as research tools. When I designed this assignment I had just this "initiation" in mind.
Juniors and seniors in college (like those enrolled in my Advanced Writing class) are not beyond initiation as it relates to topic selection, research, and using sources effectively. They're savvy thinkers and critics, yes. But they struggle to generate good research questions, navigate library databases, and to avoid plagiarism.
Still, I like to think of what I offer in my advanced writing courses as, well, advanced initiation. Perhaps an ongoing public "inquiry" blog could help with this initiation process?
In some ways, this blog project operates as a live journal of notes, or a live set of 3x5 note cards. And I (or other students) can observe these journals at leisure and even add comments with suggestions or encouragement. Cool. This tops the informal "bring your notes to class for 10 points and a quick look" that I've tried in the past toward research accountability.
(Plus, a blog requires the student to RESPOND, not just regurgitate or report. And it's this responding that students miss in research writing, and on their 3x5 cards. They've written down quotes that they like in their notes, but they've rarely followed the quote with a response.)
I see this kind of accountability especially important for a writing class, more so than in other classes that assign research papers. Why? Because it's my job to make sure that these students really know how to use their sources effectively as an essential part of writing effectively. I can't assume. I need to know!
As these blogs develop I'll be emphasizing the importance of effective summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting, as well as sophisticated argumentation moves as fleshed out by Joseph Harris in Rewriting: "Coming to terms," "forwarding," and "countering" sources adeptly toward the ultimate goal of "taking a new approach."
I want students to see research as something thinkers and writers do constantly. I want them to ground their ideas in what others have already said (another idea that Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein emphasize in They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing). Not because they don't have anything new to say, but exactly because they DO have something new to say.
So, I'm all for spying on my students' research processes.
One problem I've always faced when teaching research-based writing is how to ensure that students are engaged in an effective research process. How do I know that they're really reading articles and really engaging with their topics? Typically, I assign a proposal early in the semester, an annotated bibliography (and possibly progress report) midway through the semester, and finally a draft in the weeks prior to the due date for the final article (all of this alongside other un-related writing assignments like reviews, personal statements, press releases, etc.). So, that should be good enough, right?
No. Too often (as expected) students write their drafts at the end of the semester and admit to me during conferences that they still haven't thought enough about their topics to really know what it is that they want to say. Frequently they haven't read much of their research, and they've written hardly anything (on their topic) besides the required proposal and bibliography.
What if they had to write weekly about their topics in a blog, referring to sources along the way? I think this could work wonders.
And this isn't just about accountability. I want students to engage in writing for a real audience. I want them to write to be read. A blog can help with that, I think. A hard copy proposal goes into my hands, across my desk, and back into their folders. But a blog? A blog stays there... out there waiting for the possible reader. And that's what most of us writers want: at the very least, possible readers.