My students write and read all the time. I know they do. I see it. Sitting in my class, they tuck their chins in, look down at their phones, and then their thumbs fly as they scroll through blogs and tweets and reddit posts. I usually take this as a sign that my lecture has gone on too long and maybe isn’t quite as captivating as I thought. I’m not engaging them in the subjects I’m trying to teach, writing and reading, so they entertain themselves by writing and reading. I suppose that could be a teachable moment, irony anyone, and is but not for them, for me. If my students are such great readers and writers, why isn’t my class more interesting to them? Shouldn’t they be clammering, absolutely clammering to learn how to make more effective arguments in their own writing and recognize it in others? Shouldn’t they be demanding to know how “real” writers move their audiences, sway them, draw them into stories? They should but, they’re not.
They’re writing all the time. They’re expressing ideas, making arguments, promoting things they think are important. Their writing is often smart and engaging. It has voice and power and passion. The problem is that this isn’t the writing they’re doing for me. As soon as I assign something, much of that passion and voice goes away because, instead of using their writing to connect with an authentic audience, they’re chasing a grade by trying to be “formal,” “Scholarly,” and “schooly”. The problem isn’t with their writing skills but with how they apply them. The problem is with the audience–me. I’m their teacher therefore I’m judgy and prescriptive and formal and hold the keys to the college kingdom, grades, but take a good look at what students do in a digital environment and you’ll find that they are doing many of the things we as writing teachers want them to be doing, though it’s often scattered among the many ways and platforms that they use to write online. What I need is a way to corral all of that writing so I can help them learn how to do it better. By better, I mean in ways that satisfy their obvious need to connect with others over shared interests and my desire to help them do that effectively, using their own authentic voices.
Enter the blog. This is where the worlds can meet. There’s a tension between these worlds. The digital world of blogs and texts and social media demands passion and voice but it’s often at the cost of strong argumentation and good writing practices. This might be where we can exploit the tension between the formal demands of scholarly writing and the passion of the web by changing the audience to one that cares about the same things they care about. When the students move a notch past friends as their audience to people who are interested in the same things they are, there tends to be a shift towards adopting the standards of that group, even if those requirements aren’t codified. That to me seems key – an audience that connects over shared interests and challenges writers to be passionate as well as accurate and informed.
Blogging also scrambles the usual teaching formula. This is the model I was raised on, both as teacher and as a student. I teach my students how to write an essay, assign one about a book we read and then, only after they’d demonstrated to me that they could write about something for class, allow them to transfer those skills to something they cared about. Even then, I often dictated the form and the audience–usually a letter written to an “interested reader.” Using digital formats like blogging puts skills in service of a purpose that works for the students and hopefully means something. Simply changing the format from paper and pen–so 20th Century–to a digital format can increase student engagement if the students care about the audience for their writing. Some of my early attempts to dip into this pool–class websites, a discussion board only the class could see–were not successful because the audience wasn’t authentic, or authentic enough to spark my students passions. They know when “real” people are watching, and the ones that cared about the kinds of topics I was posting weren’t the ones they cared about.
In a digital environment, I can shift the rhetorical triangle that we spend so much time with to suit the needs of the class. A SOAPStone (Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Speaker, Tone) approach turns from an analytical tool we use to look at a mentor text into a method I can use to develop writing skills. Some days I’ll ask the students to respond to an idea or theme that’s being explored in our reading and move Subject and Speaker to the forefront. I want them to write about their own ideas without the pressure of a Purpose. In this case, the blogs become a reflective space. Other times, we might use the blogs as a place to convince the audience that something the student cares about is worthy of being considered Art or (Shudder) High Art. In this case, our focus shifts more to audience and how the students might engage and then persuade it. What matters in this environment–one that we created for our needs but that also exists in a larger Blogosphere–are rhetorical skills and being able to make decisions about how to use them. The ground is always shifting so the students have to learn to be nimble, make decisions, and take risks. It’s engaging and scary because it feels more real than writing an essay for me or some other interested reader.
My thinking has changed over the years, and now I tend to care more about writing than about the subject being written about–a switch from content to skills, which was not easy for me. I was raised on Great Books and the idea that Good Writing comes from exposing students to those Great Books. It tends to be elitist, and I liked being a guide to my students, although to many I was more of a gatekeeper. A digital environment does away with the idea that good writing comes from Great Writers. In the blogosphere, students know and I’m learning that good writing comes from people who are engaged enough about a subject that they are driven to write about it for an audience. This isn’t unique to the internet, but the internet makes it easier to find people who have jobs other than professional writer or teacher doing that writing.
So what difference does it make if a student writes about a novel, a social issue, fashion, or a band, as long as the writing itself is good? Does it make it less scholarly, less useful to them as they move into college? These are great questions that I can not seem to get answered. It seems that many of the college and university folks that I’ve talked to will tell me about the great, engaged writing they are getting by using more forms of digital writing like blogs, or sites like Genius.com but they shy away from admitting that they’re abandoning “traditional” essays. Is this some kind of dark secret? Is the literary analysis essay dead? If it is, I wish someone would tell me so I don’t have to teach it anymore. Where, other than a Literature and Composition class, do people write that kind of essay? I teach that class, and I haven’t written one in 30 years. I talk about how to do it, teach the moves my students need to write one for the Advanced Placement Exam where I know they need it–there I teach a strategy designed to get a high grade–but really what I’m interested in is developing skills that my students can apply to things that they really care about.