There’s an interesting piece in the NY Times today about colleges that encourage student blogging as a method of disseminating information about the culture of campus life to prospective students and other outsiders.
MIT, unsurprisingly, is the institution with the strongest commitment to this approach: when it comes to using information technology in synergy with their curricular and institutional commitments, MIT remains the heavyweight champion.
I suppose it’s unsurprising that my position is that an open invitation to students to blog on a college or university-supplied platform is entirely a good thing, as long as it’s also understood that whatever happens with those blogs is up to the students.
The first reason to do something like this is not promotional, it’s educational. There was some interesting discussion earlier this year at Swarthmore about whether we needed to do more to help students learn how to present their work and themselves in public or group settings. I think we should be doing more, but I don’t want to narrow the focus of that effort just to public speaking. It should include how to apply for grants, how to write letters on one’s behalf, how to talk about a project you want to pursue, how to read and react to audiences and institutions to whom one is presenting in real-time, how to get a feel for the manners or formalities that govern the presentation of self in specific settings. Swarthmore and its peers do some of that kind of training already, but it’s more likely to be done in a concentrated way by staff than it is by faculty, and I think it ought to be a shared mission.
Blogging seems a pretty good way to tackle some of those objectives. It doesn’t help with learning the art of public presentation in face-to-face situations, which is even more important. But it’s a good way to learn about what works and doesn’t work when you’re trying to explain yourself, your experiences, your interests, your commitments, to figure out which audiences you want to talk to and which ones are peripheral.
It’s also a good way to learn about how hard it can be to stay consistently committed to a voice or mode of self-presentation and to keep plugging away at it, refining it, rethinking it. This is one reason I think class blogs often feel vaguely unsatisfying: when they’re an assignment, they don’t often produce a self-sustaining engagement with course material. That’s often why students struggle to present themselves in a persuasive or compelling manner outside of familar exercises like writing papers for professors: there’s no inner engine driving that self-presentation, that appeal for resources, nothing that’s practiced and sustained enough to survive a skeptical or probing examination from an unexpected or unwanted audience.
Student blogging also seems a great way to give outsiders some sense of what life is like at a given college or university, though. When that kind of promotional window to the outside is too controlled or manicured, too in alignment with the idealized image that an institution would like to project, it fails. That’s because the digitally literate (presumably those most likely to find and read such blogs) are generally extremely sensitive to that kind of manipulation and bowdlerization.
Certainly it would be nice if a population of student bloggers was diverse enough that it captured the range of student experiences at a given institution. Much as I loved and still love Justin Hall’s pioneering personal web page, I think it’s fair to say that Justin was not the typical Swarthmore student, if there is such a thing. The people who are most immediately motivated to start and sustain blogs may rarely fit that description. (cough, including yours truly).
You also can’t just pick a few people and hope they automagically start blogging. You need an open platform ready for all comers first. That also is not enough. You can lead some bloggers to the phosphors but you can’t make them post. You need to work at nurturing the expectation that this is something that students (and maybe others) should do, that it’s part of what they’re at college to do.