Thursday, April 21, 2011

I just finished grading my ENG 101 midterms and was struck that too many of my students relied on a personal voice with some extreme editorializing ("I think," "I can relate," most every other sentence) and "this reading reminds me of my own story," instead of engaging our source texts with direct quotes and cites. Argh.

I blame the blog assignments, which of course are wonderful for eliciting personal stories and so forth. But for newer writers especially, who are obviously not aware of the conventions of more formal writing, I think my blogs may have been a hindrance.

I'd agree with Dr. Van that their blog posts are strong, their formal essays are not. Writing an essay with a beginning, middle and end seems to have been impacted (though we have reviewed models and made plenty of suggestions for the review.) 'Writing from sources' is an important objective in Composition I. I've tried to structure my blog assignments to encourage mid-stakes writing, not exactly informal, but still I see the effects....

More theoretically, I suppose, professors of writing and literature obviously are so aware of genre and convention and audience. Our students do not know this, or really care. This all reminds me that blogs--or any other technology--can never be a magic bullet for our students' needs.... It's still work to engage these questions of audience, genre and rhetorical effects. (Next week, we shall have to go over the basics of writing a simple, but effective, in-class essay in class. Yet I fear that my students may groan because 'formal writing' is just not as fun as blogging.)

Last, I wonder what the cognitive effects of texting or tweeting all day are? It cannot be good for the modest essay form.... In its ideal form, I still believe the blog is perfect for a smart, informed mini-essay.... But it takes work to use blogs to promote forms of writing that will translate into the more 'formal' assignments. It's probably my fault, in part, since I allowed my students to practice for their midterms on similar, sample topics for a blog assignment. (I'll be grading those next... and get some ideas of what, perhaps, may have gone wrong.... and how to improve things for next time.)


  1. That whole announcing thing that students do, "I will show you," or "I believe," drives me crazy. Unfortunately, they (somehow) have learned that it is acceptable for so long and so many years that it is as commonplace as saying, "nowadays," which also drives me up a wall. I say, of course, you think that way or you wouldn't say it! They laugh, and continue to do it.
    I really don't know what can be done because, as you said, on the one hand, we want them to blog and feel natural about writing, but "unnatural," in their essay writing. I realize that I really need to direct their comments as if testing them. Even then, I'm sure that many will find their way to saying, "I feel."

  2. Hey Rich--

    Could you clarify one point? Is it the format of the blogging that is hindering, or is it the type of blog entries that you are requiring of your students that you think you need to change?

  3. I generally sympathize with your issue here. I do think the way that most young students (in particular) use social media becomes self-referential.

    Rightly or wrongly, for my blog assignments I expresedly forbid the use of personal reflections in the manner you describe. I use the blogs to practice smaller chunks of prose that they'll need to master for the essays: direct citations and explications, summaries, comparisons and contrast, etc. The blogs are thus about skill building, even as I try and have them direct their writing to a non-class audience.

  4. The use of the personal voice very well might be impacted by your students' writing on blogs and in tweets, but I wonder if there could be other, non-technological reasons. I remember encountering a rash of "in this paper I will show..." statements in a certain class and discovering later that the students wrote that way because someone had taught them to do so (or because they misunderstood what they had actually been taught to do). Your students might be enacting some previous instruction when they resort to that technique, or they might just be guessing at the kind of writing that's appropriate for a blog because they don't know. One suggestion I'd offer is to give your students a few short sample "texts" (blogs, formal essays, articles, and whatever other genres you want them to produce writing in) before they write to get them thinking about different ways to engage different audiences.

  5. I agree w/Craig--models usually work. Maybe we could put together a set for use by the C 2.0ers.

  6. The New York Times blogs, on a really broad range of topics, provide an example of expository writing on blogs. Sometimes they have more of a personal flavor, sometimes less, but it might be worth taking a look to see if there are any useful examples there.

  7. For Dr X....

    Actually, I really try to make all my blog post assignments a bit more 'mid-stakes' and several of them (like for the midterm review) invite them to write in a more formal style. So that's not it--I think one problem may have been that they did not read the source essays carefully enough. They were summarizing ideas from a source on Reality TV, for example, forgetting entirely that the source author said their main 'talking points.' The first person, 'I think,' 'I believe,' etc. made it sound like they were thinking this for themselves (they weren't). I always stress 'writing from sources' in these writing assignments... Even if a few of the blog posts are more informal and impressionistic, most aren't.

  8. @Rich: Aha-- I see. If I am not wrong, one way that Chris Alexander skirted the issue was by assigning "annotated" blog entries. See, for example: