Student Blogging as Transparency and Education

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.

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4 Responses to Student Blogging as Transparency and Education

  1. jpnudell says:

    I saw this article and clipped it from the paper, though in some ways the blogs that they were referencing seemed almost self-generated by the students and then picked up on by the university. Of course you strike on the crux of the issue in that assigned blogging doesn’t quite fulfill some of the basic criteria, and an open system will ultimately mean that some, if not most students won’t write.

    Now I am sure that there are ways to encourage people to write more, and that it is encouraged, but there will still be holdouts. Easing the access of blogs would be one big way (for example, in addition to webspace and an email, each student is automatically presented with a blog–whether or not they choose to partake).

    I would also like to see some sort of interconnected nature for future blogs, especially between universities, though I admit that I don’t have a good way to do this.

    From my own personal experience, I have hosted a blog off and on for almost three years now, and I use it as a way to talk about things (history in particular) that I wouldn’t otherwise get to talk about, while at the same time working on my writing. This began when I was in undergrad and now continues while I am in graduate school. Further, as the only person in my department as a graduate student working in Ancient History, I find myself wondering if there are ways to network with other people in the field beyond just conferences; blogs are one of the thoughts that come to mind.

  2. hwc says:

    MIT is paying their student bloggers. If I recall, up to four hours a week at the prevailing work study wage, just like working in the library or giving admissions tours. The pay makes the positions competitive so they are able to select from a surplus of applicants.

    Swarthmore might want to consider the same approach. The Swarthmore student blogs have done a fairly good job of conveying a range of experiences and have had some terrific writers, but the lack of consistency has been an issue. With 20 applicants for, say, four first-year blogger positions each year, the College could presumably pick four good writers and pay them enough to cover a dinner at the Indian restaurant in Media and a beverage or two for the fridge each week. Seems like a reasonable deal for all.

    Overall though, Swarthmore has done a good job staying in the leading wave of on-line presence, student blogging, etc. President Chopp’s blog of her alumni Q&A events is a solid addition. When you look around at what else is out there in on-line presentation from peer schools, it’s very spotty and often downright embarrassing.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s a good incentive, yes, and I’m all for adopting it. I think lately the administration has been doing a good job as an institution with digital dissemination of information, I agree.

  4. I would love to see my students consistently visiting and contributing to blogs. I teach English in Italy, and learning methods which include any kind of technology are always very interesting and motivating to my students, but a fair number unfortunately lack good internet access and/or dedication to maintaining their contributions and commenting on others. I have had some success with one large aggregator blog that ties into all classes and projects. That way, the most enthusiastic students have a platform on which to share their views and comment on others, while being exposed many different writing styles and themes (some more advanced, some less). Blogging and commenting are such good ways to exercise fluency in foreign language learning- hopefully we will see more educational technology and more accessibility in Italy’s near future.

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