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Looking Forward to Next Year

I just had my last class period with my English 121 class yesterday, and I’ll be grading their final portfolios over the weekend. I’ve already spent some time, obviously, thinking about what I want to do next year in terms of online platforms in my classes. However, there’s still quite a bit of planning to do, and I’ve realized how important it is not to think about the online component of the course separately from the rest of the course. As Julie Maloni writes in her Profhacker post, I have to “integrate”: When “blogging is part of the course requirements, it clearly plays a role in meeting the goals of the class, and you support and provide feedback to the students with regards to their blogging to the same extent that you would their essays and exams,” then students will treat blogging with the same commitment that they would more traditional assignments. This is the part I have to figure out in much greater detail: how can I make blogging play a role in helping students achieve the course outcomes? 

That question has to hold off a bit until I figure out exactly what the course outcomes are, as this summer will see the implementation of some changes to the first-year writing program at Eastern. We’ll be adopting a new book (probably Understanding Rhetoric by Losh, Alexander, Cannon, and Cannon), which will structure the semester for me a little bit, and which I think the students will really enjoy. We’re also introducing new, course-specific (rather than program-wide) outcomes, which will help to differentiate the two courses I’ll be teaching next year. My specific plan for using the blog will depend, to an extent, on these changes. 

That being said, I think I can begin laying out some questions that I need to answer over the summer as next year’s syllabi begin to take shape:

  • Do I want to use blogging in both English 120 and 121? Is blogging useful for the purposes of 120? How will I use them differently in each class if I use it in both classes? I’ll probably have at least a few students carry over from 120 into 121. If I keep the basic plan the same, then the returning students could potentially be relieved at not having to learn a new system, and they could teach the other students how to do it. All I’d have to do is change the prompts to fit the course outcomes and maintain the returning students’ interest.
  • Do I want to continue using the hub-and-spoke model? Or do I want to adopt a more singular, centralized model? I currently have a course blog (the hub) and then each student has their own blog. This seems to be working out, and could be tweaked to make it better. Students can feel more ownership over the presentation of their work, down to the color of their blog’s background. On the other hand, there are some benefits to having a single class blog, like this one from Jay Clayton’s first-year writing seminar: it gets updated at least once a day, it’s easier to assess, it’s easier for peers to comment, and it’s more likely to reach a wider audience. Dr. Clayton told me that his class blog gets thousands of hits from all over the world, which helps to reinforce the idea of writing for an audience.
  • Do I want to continue using tumblr? It has its benefits. It’s easy to make, it’s attractive, it’s easy for an outside audience to start following it, and at least a few students in each class will be familiar with it. But of course, it has drawbacks as well. It doesn’t have built-in comments, though there might be a way, especially if I do a single class blog, to fix that. Otherwise each student would have to add a question mark at the end of each title, which isn’t always rhetorically appropriate. I also know from experience that students don’t give their writing on tumblr the same attention to detail that they give traditional assignments. This might be different in a slightly more formal space, like WordPress. 

That’s all I can think of for now. Now I must turn my attention to the reflective essay that’s due today in English 516. It’s a reflection on my attempt to create a plan for tumblr next year, which I’ve already done here, on the blog, and I’ll also be reflecting on this, the blog, which is weird, because I’m sort of reflecting on the blog now… in the blog… 

All is contained within the blog; all of the blog is contained in all.

My Student’s Opinions on Tumblr

I’ve already written a post on my preliminary feelings about tumblr. Today, I surveyed my students to see how they felt about it. 16 of my 19 students completed the survey. The results were not all that surprising.

The strongest sentiment overall was that requiring two posts a week was too much. 11 of the 16 surveys expressed a desire for fewer posts. The other 5 said that 2 a week was fine. The majority of respondents felt that one a week was a good pace. A few said that the posts should be longer, to make up for posting less frequently, and a few said that more of the other assignments in the class should be posted on tumblr.

I asked whether they felt tumblr was helpful to their learning or if it helped them to do their other assignments. 7 said that it was not helpful; 5 said it was helpful. 4 did not have a response to that question. 2 of those who felt it was not helpful still thought it was a cool idea. And 1 of them thought that Facebook would have been better than tumblr. Only 2 people of the 16 respondents were absolutely opposed to using tumblr.

The other question I asked was whether they would like to see more or less specific prompts. The plurality (5/16) wanted more specificity, 4/16 were fine with the level of specificity that we had, and 2/16 wanted less specificity. That’s not a whole lot of statistical variation, but it leans slightly towards wanting more specificity.

This survey is very informal, not very statistically significant, and probably somewhat biased due to the way I worded the questions… but with those caveats in mind, it’s helpful to see that my students feel, very generally, the same way I do: next year’s students would benefit from less frequent, but more significant and more specific, posts.

Lessons from My First Time Using Tumblr

Tonight I’ll be giving a presentation to my English 516 class about my experiences and plans for using Tumblr in first-year writing. I’ll be doing a survey of my students on Thursday to get their final thoughts on their experiences, but the presentation is today, so here’s what I’ve thought about thus far.

Untitled drawing (3)

I call this “the Chelsea Lonsdale font.”

This semester, I had my students create tumblr accounts and post twice a week to tumblr. Whether they wrote something original or reblogged something, they had to write roughly 150-200 words in each post. I sometimes gave prompts, but for the most part, they were directed to post anything they felt was relevant to their research and writing. Here are some of the takeaways:

  • My students had a hard time keeping up with two posts a week. Most of them kept up, but a lot of them didn’t like it or feel that it was a reasonable work load. Given that this is a first year course, I could probably reduce the posting rate. This would give me more of an opportunity to actually read and respond to more of their posts.
  • I needed to provide more specific prompts more often. The open-ended nature of their tumblr requirements made it so they were less likely to remember to post, and their posts had less to do with one another. With specific prompts, they’ll all be writing about similar things, and will be more likely to reblog or comment on each other’s writing. It will also make it easier to bring the blogs into our face-to-face conversations.
  • Comments need to be possible and required. This is where tumblr is particularly frustrating; tumblr posts don’t automatically allow comments. Using a more traditional blogging platform, like WordPress, would make it easier to comment. My students did sometimes reblog each other’s posts, but I think there would have been more conversation if they could just comment. Reblogs are a different rhetorical situation than comments, so I don’t think they can take the place of comments.
  • I need to either make the blogs a more central part of the class or get rid of them. A few of my students commented on their midterm evaluations that they felt their tumblrs were pointless. While many of them saw value in the personal work that they were able to do on tumblr, it would have been much more meaningful if I had referenced their blog posts in class more often. This follows from my second point, too. It’s hard to reference their work in front of the whole class when one person’s post is only really relevant to that one person.
  • Overall, I need a more specific plan for what sorts of work I want the students to be doing on their blogs. This semester, I expected them to do everything at all times with their blogs: find and generate ideas for their research, maintain a sort of annotated bibliography, communicate with one another, help each other with writing, etc. I think all of that can still happen, but I need to give prompts detailing the specific work I want done each week or each posting period.
  • I think the blogs should take the place of more of the work in the class. I had my students do a lot of small writing assignments over the course of the semester that could have taken place online, with more opportunity for peer feedback. This would be beneficial both for me and for the students.
  • Blogging, just like any other pedagogical tool, can’t be an afterthought. It has to be an integral part of the overall framework for the class.

Here are some of the resources that have helped me thus far in thinking about where I want to take classroom blogging next year: