Using Web Writing To Banish The Greys

I thought it was sweet on Monday when Jack asserted that "most college essays still were written for exactly one reader: the professor." Such optimism, and on a Monday, too! Some days, I think this overstates the intended readership of much formal college writing by at least one. In yesterday's post, Chris Hager's students obliquely acknowledged this point, as their relationship to their own writing brightened when confronted with the certainty of peer readership. (See also Ryan Cordell on "Writing in Public (in the Classroom).") One of the things that web writing can do for the liberal arts is to revitalize the relationship between academic writing and its various potential audiences. And by helping us think differently about audiences, web writing can help academic writing be more than just a performance for a grade: it can be a way of connecting with people beyond the classroom, a way to translate academic practices more readily into other contexts, and a way to dramatize the best parts of a liberal education. That web writing in all its multimodal glory can connect students with different audiences is virtually axiomatic. This can happen in individual assignments, such as blogging, or using Facebook or Tumblr (another look at Facebook), wikis, or Twitter.

Entire courses can be designed around the idea of actively engaging multiple audiences, whether on campus, around campus, or farther afield. Some fault the liberal arts for not providing directly transferable skills--that is, for not being reducible to job training. And while that complaint is obviously shortsighted, I also think that web writing offers a way to bridge academic writing practices and writing in other contexts. Consider the humble blog: Tim Carmody once described the "three-step dance" of great blogging: link, pull, response. A good blog post links to (cites) another source, quotes selectively to show why it's interesting, and then glosses it in some way. This move is so characteristic of academic prose that Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein turned it into the title of their book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Instead of slavishly training people in one specific way of writing--whether it's an MLA-formatted research paper or a business letter--web writing can help students think about the core elements of all effective writing. One of the most popular ways to think about web writing as providing a transferable skill is via the e-portfolio. But the way portfolios so quickly become assimilated to the rhetoric of assessment and the job search always makes me a little sad. There are other reasons to keep a portfolio: Gardner Campbell has argued that the three core verbs of blogging--"narrate, curate, share"--are fundamental to education. By telling, editing, and sharing the story of your education, Campbell argues, you deepen your own learning while also facilitating others'. Whether in portfolio form or blog, web writingis an excellent way to achieve these different goals. How might you use web writing, and the different kinds of audiences it implicitly imagines, to challenge students? Post your response here and/or at Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning, our book-in-progress.


This is something I hope to try out on my students - to not only use the blog as a professional portfolio but use is to engage peers within their own discipline and hone their writing as it pertains to their professional goals. Assuming communication skills are still one of the skills most lacking in the young workforce, this would serve to motivate students in honing their comp skills along a trajectory that's meaningful to them. 

What I would like to work through beforehand is the question: how do we attract an audience from the blogosphere to respond and engage students? By biggest letdown with my course-driven blog was that no one besides other students (for whom responding was an assigned task) in my class ever replied to posts. Thinking back to days where we composed letters to pen-pals in other cities or countries, do you think that partnering with other courses or campuses would invigorate discussion? 

I imagine a platform that incorporates a slightly more inclusive network of blogs where students can form global peer groups to share ideas and respond to one another. Consider a collaboration with a similarly sized course located in a foreign campus that holds particular interest to the student. 

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