This is a draft that has been kicking around for a while in a few different forms, wanted to see it out in the world so I’m putting it up here on the blog.
Now that the novelty of academic blogging has worn off, what are we left with? A decade ago, it seemed blogging was emerging as a core practice of scholarly writing. I speak specifically about history and the humanities, but the trend seems true for a range of other fields too. In 2005 the History News Network began recognizing the best history blogs with a series of awards shared out at the American Historical Association’s annual meetings. In 2006, Dan Cohen’s made the case for academic blogging in “Professors, Start Your Blogs.” A year later, academic blogging itself would be explored and extolled as a new literacy in scholarly communications. By 2015, academic blogging itself had become a subject of in depth analysis as part of the infrastructure of scholarly communications.
In the resulting decade, blogging appears to have stabilized into a persistent form of public writing. However, it does not seem to be poised for substantial further growth. Some scholars, librarians, and archivists blog. Most do not. Of those that do blog, they largely seem to do so a lot less. Analysis of the growth of blogging in the digital humanities suggests that the peak moment of growth in the field was in fact in 2008. Indicative of this change, In 2011, the History News Network made the seventh and last set of history blog awards. The lack of growth of blogging has been largely attributed to the mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Using Blogs for Graduate Seminars
When academic blogging was emerging as a new literacy and scholarly form in academia, it made a lot of sense for digital history, humanities and library and archives inclined educators to explore introducing blogging as a part of digital humanities pedagogy. In that context, in 2012, I offered a perspective on these issues in The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends. Notably, that contribution, like many of the original contributions to the first Debates in the Digital Humanities, began as an entry in a series of blog posts. In that blog-post-turned-essay, I reported on the results of teaching my first graduate seminar, a digital history course, through a public course blog. Now 8 years, 9 seminars, 818 student blog posts, and 2057 blog comments later, after the hype of academic blogging has faded, I thought it might be good to circle back and interrogate the extent to which the potential of this form of open public writing has lived up to its potential.
While blog boosterism has faltered, the practices around course blogging in the humanities in particular, seem to steadily continue. In this context of the stabilization of blogging as a form of public writing how do we understand the value of public blogging as a pedagogical practice in the humanities and social sciences? I’ve gone back and looked at some of my students reactions over time to my use of course blogging and thought it might be interesting to share them here. It seems somewhat natural to post about them here on my blog.
Functions of a Public Course Blog
In The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends. I made three primary claims about what I saw as the central value of the public course blog as a teaching mode. As a starting point, it is worth fully articulating each of these concepts.
- Blogging enabled a shift from teaching as knowledge dissemination to teaching as knowledge production: Where classes generally require students to produce writing read by the instructor, by implementing a public course blog students were instead writing for each other and also for others outside and beyond the course.
- Blogging enabled extending courses through time and space: Where courses function as discrete classrooms that persist for a fixed semester of time, a public course blog could both spatially and temporarily extend the reach of a course. Teaching using the same course blog allowed for students to encounter and engage with previous writing for the course and could enable students from prior classes to engage with current students.
- Blogging enabled students to write for and connect with broader audiences: Students participating in the course were not only writing for each other, but they could also interact with the broader digital history community. That is, through the blog students could interact with the creators of tools and scholarship via the public blog.
Positive but somewhat mixed reactions from students
Overall, all ten of the graduate seminars I have thought through the course blogging platform have been well received in student course reviews. Most of these courses have been a digital public history methods seminar (see the syllabus from 2011, 2012, 2015, Summer 2015 , 2018, 2019, and 2020 versions of the course.) I also used the same approach to teach a Digital Art Curation seminar in 2016, and a Digital Preservation seminar in 2016 and 2018. I decided not to use the same approach for an online Digital Curation Policy and Ethics seminar I taught in 2019 (I had internal course discussion boards for that in part to facilitate more candid discussions). I also decided not to use that approach for the online course I taught on organizational leadership for libraries and archives last semester, in fall of 2020.
For context, this blogging assignment has been part of work with face-to-face classes. That is until spring 2020 when my digital history methods course shifted rapidly into an online course. Of note, I’m about to start teaching the spring 2021 version of that course which will be all online.
The numerical scores from student reviews for each of those courses rank them higher than the median values for both the departments and colleagues that the courses are taught in. That offers, at least preliminary support for the idea that the public course blog, a central component of each of these courses, can be part of an effective approach to teaching and learning. That noted, delving into anonymous comments from students offer a chance to explore some of the varied ways that students have responded to this as a teaching too.
Blogging kept it interesting
Over the last decade writing as part of online discussions in course management systems has become an increasingly routine part of teaching for college courses. To this end, one of the students reflected that they found, “blogging was an enjoyable way to get to know the class over the semester and the less formal tone kept it from being a chore.”
This student went on to observe that they “have come to loath the mandatory discussion board participation in all my classes over the semester” and that they were “surprised with how much I enjoyed writing for the public course blog.” In this context, the goal of writing for broader audiences identified in my original objectives for course blogging appears to have indeed made this form of class writing more engaging.
This kind of general positive response to course blogging largely fits with additional feedback I have received on course design. With that noted, those aspects of writing for a broader audience have also resulted in specific related negative feedback from some students.
Finding the right rhythm for blogging and reading
One student explained that they were “too time-crunched and overwhelmed trying to read and understand the material to try to engage in a public intellectual discussion about my own or others posts.” This observation is an important one that I have been working to reflect on and refine my approach to. On some level, asking students to process readings and then engage in discussion of the readings in advance of a class session in which we then further engage in discussion can create significant opportunities for redundancy.
This sentiment was shared by another student who noted that they found the requirement to “write/comment/discuss ad nauseam” made it “impossible to keep up.” Throughout both of these students comments it becomes clear that it is challenging to establish and manage a rhythm for the course between the function of the blog as a place for discussion and the function of the face to face situation of the class. Resolving this issue is challenging. Many of the graduate students in the courses I teach are taking multiple graduate seminars while also often working full time jobs. To that end, I’ve worked over time to try and pace the volume of reading better and to lower the total number of times I ask students to blog for the course.
Notably, I have consistently observed over the course of teaching various instances of these classes through the blog that different students participate to varying degrees in the online discussions and the face-to-face discussions. To that end, it does appear that providing the two, potentially complementary, spaces for discussion to occur are creating opportunities for students to engage in discussion in ways they find most comfortable. Still, the comments from students also clearly suggest that the multiplicity of places for discussion also promote a kind of anxiety about a course being always on.
Engaging with “the profession in the real world”
Accepting the challenges and issues that are presented by the integration of blogging as a form of public writing in the course, there are also notable strengths that come through in this form of teaching. One student’s explanation of the role of blogging in their learning experience underscores several of these points. In their words, “Trevor…was always looking for ways to engage us with the profession in the real world.”
As a specific example of how I supported their engagement with the “profession in the real world” they mention my “referring working professionals in the field to student posts on the class blog via social media.” In keeping with my objectives for using the public writing function of the blog as a means to connect students with professionals in the field I will regularly share out examples of particularly thoughtful student posts and connect them with others working on those issues over Twitter. This kind of direct interaction with the people behind the papers, the tools, or the platforms we are working with can have a really powerful effect in the classroom.
The student who wrote that comment ended by asserting that, “In Trevor’s class I felt that I was treated as a professional and expected to perform accordingly, a challenge that I very much appreciated.” Blogging wasn’t the only part of the course that they asserted supported that feeling, but they did directly connect the concept of public writing, writing for an audience and connecting with that audience beyond their classroom, as something that supported that.
A Future for the Public Course Blog
Dighist.org has come to present a significant collection of research and writing of students in public. While most student work in course discussion spaces is erased and overwritten shortly after it is created these posts, for the most part, persist. Given that the bulk of the courses taught on and through this platform are digital public history courses it makes sense that this platform functions as a way for students to engage in this for of public writing.
With that noted, part of my original concept for teaching through the public course blog was that blogging was an increasingly important form of academic public writing that it was significant for students to be learning. It appears now that even when I had started using blogging as a means for teaching in 2012 academic blogging had already reached its saturation point. Where at one point it appeared as if scholars of the future might each maintain and manage their own blogs as a kind of public research journal, it now appears to be the case that blogging has matured into a somewhat niche form of academic journaling.
In this context, and with these notes from students on the ups and downs of academic blogging, what do we make of the public course blog? I believe the strong positive reactions to the role of the public course blog suggest that students do indeed largely find value in this approach to teaching. With that noted, I am also sympathetic to the concept that an always on kind of course with considerable reading and writing isn’t particularly sustainable for all students.
Given all this, I’m still a believer in the value that public course blogs can offer to graduate seminar design. With that noted, I think a lot of my initial takes on why this would be useful don’t hold up. Blogging didn’t become a “new literacy” for scholarly communication. It’s a thing that some academics do but that most don’t. To that end there isn’t necessarily a general value for grad students to learn about blogging.
With that noted, if you want to do work in public history, or in libraries and archives, it turns out that blogging does persist as a valuable tool in the toolkit of social media communications. Organizations continue to use blogs alongside social media platforms to communicate with their audiences. In that context, learning how to use wordpress and thinking about audiences and public writing on history is inherently useful as a skill for folks that are interest in public history. I think that leaves me at the point where I’m going to continue to use public course blogging when it’s inherently relevant to the context and goals of the course.
To that end, in the last few years I’ve taught two courses that didn’t use the same public course blog platform. In one case, the course is focused on digital curation policy and ethics, and I wanted to make sure that students felt comfortable discussing their own experiences with ethical and policy related challenges and dilemmas relating to digital curation and it struck me that this was not a great context for pushing students outward into public writing. Similarly, for the leadership and organizational theory course I taught, I wanted to make sure that students had a space where they could share candid reactions and reflections on their work experiences and on readings about workplaces. In both of those cases, I think setting up a more closed and temporary space for course discussions and student journaling worked a lot better then it would have if students were trying to filter things through what they would be comfortable saying in a more public forum.