Laurie McNeill from English and Arts Studies uses scholarly blogs
Learning to blog at the same time that students are learning academic writing also reinforces the idea that all writing is situated and has particular practices, and all writers have to navigate expectations for different genres.
–Laurie McNeill, English Instructor and Co-Chair of the Coordinated Arts Program
I have been using UBC Blogs in my Arts Studies 100 (academic writing and literature) and English literature curricula since 2013. I require students to produce scholarly blogs, with posts of 300-500 words, 5-6 times over the semester. Students must also comment on and read peer blogs and, in some cases, write blog responses.
I incorporated blogs to provide opportunities for students to write and develop ideas related to the course, and create another venue for student discussion. The assignment has exceeded my expectations: blogs do a lot of effective learning and teaching work!
How did you use blogs in your course and what made you decide to do this?
In my Arts Studies (ASTU) class, I’ve found that blogging is an excellent complement to teaching academic writing and research, in particular ideas about entering a scholarly conversation and citing other voices in that conversation. Learning to blog at the same time that students are learning academic writing also reinforces the idea that all writing is situated and has particular practices, and all writers have to navigate expectations for different genres. Bloggers in both English and ASTU courses connect our discussions to new materials, expanding the context of our conversations, and fostering mastery of course concepts. Students often become quite adept in their posts at making cross-course connections that explore multidisciplinary approaches or different theoretical frameworks to our topics. These connections did not happen as organically or consistently before the blogs.
Bloggers in both English and ASTU courses connect our discussions to new materials, expanding the context of our conversations, and fostering mastery of course concepts.
What has been the result?
Blogs also open up the floor to different speakers in productive ways. I’ve found that many students who are very quiet in the class are often the most sophisticated bloggers. Getting to hear these voices changes how students see each other and allows us to hear from a wider range of contributors. That public (or at least peer) audience is a key factor: students are now writing for an audience who is not just their instructor. That new readership motivates quality contributions and also fosters confidence: it is validating for one’s ideas to be heard and taken up by peers.
I’ve also learned not to underestimate how intimidating this public shift can be for students, particularly upper-years. Interestingly, I’ve noted that my first-year students are in some ways much better bloggers than my fourth-year students: the senior students write much more effective analyses, but tend to produce “mini-essays” rather than blog posts and to focus only on course material. I’ve used this observation to explain and reinforce the difference in genres and clarify my expectations.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and is there anything about your approach you would improve or change?
In the six times I’ve required this assignment, I’ve made adjustments to address issues and challenges faced by the students and by me. For one, I now assign due dates: students struggled to self-monitor their production. I’ve reduced the number of posts to 5 from 6 to address workload concerns. I include a ten-minute, in-class discussion of the blogs because students wanted them to be more explicitly taken up in the course. The success of this component is variable, and continues to need consideration.
The biggest challenge I’ve found is keeping up with the marking: I read and evaluate each post, though I don’t provide extensive commentary, and this takes time, especially if I fall behind. Students have asked for mid-term feedback on the blogs, which I now provide, and this necessary step adds to the workload.
Do you have any advice for instructors hoping to implement this in their course?
My advice: use a rubric, if that works for you, and mark posts as they come in. I found accounting for the comments most problematic: how to find and track them, and there can be issues if students moderate comments and then don’t release them. This term, I have required students to make only 3 substantial comments over the term, and send me screen shots of the ones they’d like to be graded on. Hopefully that will save some hassles!