Comp Courses on a Blog

Comp Courses on a Blog

  • The topic is pertinent enough to warrant discussion.
  • I’ve been teaching my Comp I (two sections every fall) and Comp II (one section every spring) courses on a public WordPress blog since 2010.

The practical advantages are many

  • Elimination of paper
  • Speedier two-way communication
  • Feedback on rough drafts ahead of the deadline
  • Unlimited editing
  • Side-by-side comparisons of every draft with changes highlighted

The practical disadvantages are not negligible

  • Necessitates teaching in a computer lab or every student bringing a laptop, tablet, or smart device to class
  • Technological learning curve for students
  • Instructor must be proficient at posting, categorizing, linking
  • Danger of student distraction at screens during class

The Mechanics

  • I email students before the semester begins to alert them to the plan for the course and to advise them that the course will be conducted on a blog.
  • I let them know there will be no textbook for the course, but that we’ll be consulting the New York Times as a class (Comp I), or working from online sources on controversial topics (Comp II).
  • The first day of classes, I sign students on to the blog as Authors.
  • We use anonymous usernames to protect the Authors’ identities.
  • From that day forward, we log on to the blog in every class.
    • Agendas, assignments, source materials, exercises, submission of essays, feedback on those essays, submitting of revisions are conducted on the blog.
    • Grades are not posted to the blog. They are shared on Blackboard.
    • Portfolios are built on the blog.
    • Final grades are posted on Banner.

Pedagogical Considerations

  • According to our Core Values, writing is a recursive social process.
  • Students are required to embrace the principle that their writing has consequences in the world.
  • We ask them to engage in the social exercise of responding to real-world materials with real-world materials of their own, which take their place in a public discourse.
  • On the blog, every student sees her contributions as part of an ongoing dialog among fellow students, the professor, and other authors everywhere.
  • Students who post ahead of the deadline get early public feedback that all other students can read to gain clarification about what is required to complete assignments.
  • The example is rare, but New York Times reporter David Bornstein left a comment on our blog after I characterized a conclusion he drew as having been based on anecdote. He proved that our voice mattered to him.

Real World Response

David Bornstein says:
January 27, 2011 at 10:49 am

I saw this comment: “Bornstein bases his broad conclusion on one doctor’s anecdotal evidence.”
Not true. The assertion is based on studies like the one below, which surveyed 900 homeless people, and was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Other studies support this finding. The link to this particular study is contained in the first paragraph of the article you reference: ‘A Plan to Make Homelessness History, in the NY Times.’

I’d appreciate if you’d clarify this. Study Title: The effect of traumatic brain injury on the health of homeless people
Stephen W. Hwang, MD MPH, Angela Colantonio, PhD OT Reg, Shirley Chiu, MA, George Tolomiczenko, PhD MPH, Alex Kiss, PhD, Laura Cowan, BScN, Donald A. Redelmeier, MD MSHSR and Wendy Levinson, MD

David Hodges says:
January 27, 2011 at 11:25 am

Thank you, Mr. Bornstein. I’m delighted to have your clarification. In addition to keeping me honest, it’s excellent evidence that what we say here on our class blog is published and available for a caring world to see.

The article you name, “‘A Plan to Make Homelessness History,” New York Times, December 20, 2010; is supplemental to the article I referenced, “The Street Level Solution,” New York Times, December 24, 2010. Good students will certainly read both. I’ll update the assignment to be certain they do.

Good students will also consider leaving a comment here to express their appreciation to David Bornstein for making a contribution to our blog, in addition to inspiring us with his research and writing.
Thank you, sir. I am in your debt for many reasons.

Ethical Considerations

  • Every student’s work is visible to everyone in the class, to the world in fact.
  • As incoming freshmen, they are not accustomed to “writing in public.”
  • They may be intimidated about exposing their writing to their peers.
  • The blog raises the question of when or if communication between professor and student should be private and when it can or should be public.
  • Feedback also occurs on the blog, in full view of classmates.
    • The instructor accepts a heavy burden to balance criticism with compassion.
    • The student who sees that classmates receive heavy doses of criticism are less inclined to take criticism personally.
  • Students may be “over-influenced” by the work of their peers.
  • Copying of rhetoric or mimicry of structure may result.
  • Outright plagiarism is a temptation.

Final Thoughts (at the moment)

My experience has been that students are of course initially intimidated by the public nature of the interactions. Those who fear being criticized in full view take comfort in several facts they quickly learn:

  • Only the Author knows who is receiving what feedback.
  • Most of their classmates aren’t bothering to read what I say to others.
  • Those who do read widely soon discover that EVERYBODY gets WAY TOO MUCH criticism.
  • At the end of the course, the most common answer to the question “What is the best feature of the course?” is always: the Blog, or the Feedback.

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