I have a confession to make.
I was a journaler.
As a kid, as a pre-teen, and even as a teenager, I found unbelievable solace for my never-ceasing angst in the blank pages of notebooks, diaries, post-its, whatever I could find to write in. In those pages of privacy and complete control, I could write about my mean teachers, my unfair parents, the boys that didn't notice me, my pitiful life, my love for God, my incredible life, the sunset, my homesickness, my self image issues, etc etc etc . . . My mom discovered piles of these journals a few years ago and called me, shocked: "You had this ENTIRE LIFE going on that I had NO idea about! I thought we were close!! Did I even know you?"
So I had no need for an authentic audience (and after I got one, I felt a bit violated.) But for those insecure beings (like me) that feel the need to express their life in writing to make sense of it, blogging can serve as a place to do so and gain an automatic virtual audience. As Downes (2004) points out: "writing a weblog isn't for everybody" . . . it perhaps is mainly for those who feel that "writers will write because they can't not write". (Pilgrim)
Maybe this is why assigning my "Culture of College" students last semester to create their own blog was a bad idea. These students, who are forced to take the class because of a failing grades, are typically freshmen or sophomores who thought college was about partying, not going to class. In my head, letting them express the struggles and joys of college life (without any parameters- just write a blog about your life every once in awhile) would help form community in the classroom and also be a welcome way to gain some points. Ummm . . . probably should have thought through this a bit more . . . .
Here are some challenges that emerged:
1. Technical difficulties: It probably took me until the last week of the semester to finally get everyone to provide me with their web URL. And I'm sure very few of the class members actually did the work to "follow" their fellow classmates (although I made it mandatory for them to comment on posts throughout teh semester.) The same reasons they were in the class to begin with made some basic organizational issues a nightmare to contain.
2. What do I write about?: The lack of constraints and topic assignments KILLED several of my students, who said they couldn't complete the assignment because they didn't know what to write about. I tried showing the class examples of successful classmate blogs, gave them suggestions of things to write about (how did midterms go? are you meeting any of your set goals? what do you love/hate about IU?), but the same students again and again lamented the lack of specifics I was giving them.
3. Conversation? What?: Mandating that my students comment on each other's posts was like pulling teeth. For 5 or so of my students, this came naturally, and they jumped on everyone's posts with insightful thought after funny thought. But most only responded to their best friend. Community, thus, was not enhanced through the medium.
Some of these issues are probably predicatable. Downes says it well here: "What happens when a free-flowing medium such as blogging interacts with the more restrictive domains of the educational system? What happens when the necessary rules and boundaries of the system are imposed on students who are writing blogs, when grades are assigned in order to get students to write and all, and when posts are monitored to ensure that they don't say the wrong things?"
Well, it appears that conversations via blogs need to have clear PURPOSE but REMAIN UNCONSTRAINED. How can I facilitate both of these things? How could I have helped blogging maintain authenticity and engagement for these unhappy learners? And how could I have helped them see that blogging is FIRST about reading your culture, your community, your ideas: "If a student has nothing to blog about, it is not because he or she has nothing to write about or has a boring life. It is because the student has not yet stretched out to the larger world, has not yet learned to meaningfully engage in a community."
That student sounds like my students, and it sounds like I was trying to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying problem. . .