blogging my swift and literary studies course, part II

This is a follow-up to earlier posts of mine about course blogs.  This one is about my evolving course blog for Swift and Literary Studies, my version of the gateway course to the English major (literature concentration). This course is designed to teach students the research process involving literature, literary criticism and literary theory.  We do this by recursively studying a single author and work, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in the light of successive critical and theoretical approaches.

As time has gone on, I have modeled it more and more as an inquiry-driven course that stresses active learning and the acquisition, consolidation, and transfer of skills rather than coverage of a prespecified course content.  The blog enables me to do that by introducing more and more of the students’ offline inquiry process (student questions; student responses; student research) into face to face class discussion.  In this way, it provides more time on task outside the classroom, and provides many more, and more timely, forms of feedback for students.

What I typically do is begin by creating a wordpress shell each semester that I then remodel substantially after the previous semester’s iteration.  This blog is blocked to outside search engines and non-users.

Here’s a screenshot of the homepage.

The screenshot shows that I use a vanilla format for the homepage with a row of easily accessed pages that students use throughout the semester.  For example,  the Resource page

contains links to selected library resources and websites; and so forth.

The course-blog has become essential for my teaching because I use it in a variety of ways:

  • as an online forum for discussion, with periodic reading questions and responses assigned throughout the semester on the course readings, along with assignments for students to post their own questions about the course readings;
  • as a convenient place to share the links or pdfs for assignments and course readings; to direct them to particularly important resources (e.g., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), or to structure assignments to find new sources using approved paths (e.g., use the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to learn something about Judith Butler);
  • as a venue for sharing individual and group work, whether small research assignments in background reading (e.g., what is the disciplinary background of Luce Irigaray?) or finished group research assignments like annotated bibliographies on sub-topics of Swift criticism; these become available for the whole class to critique, compare, and incorporate into their own research;
  • as a springboard for collaboration, among students but also among the various people attached to the course; students were able to compare the results of the various peer group teams in relation to various topics, but I was also able to work with the various librarians and reading support counselors who came and went through the semester by using the blog as a common forum.

One of the perennial tensions in pedagogy involves two contrary goals: of organizing all the materials of instruction so that they can be found in a single convenient place (i.e., the textbook or anthology) versus encouraging students to move beyond the predigested, preselected, preinterpreted materials of the typical textbook to show how they can apply, extend, and hopefully transfer what they learn into new contexts.  For me, the well-designed course-blog can provide enough organization and convenience, along with sufficient flexibility and potential for extension, to satisfy both demands.

NB: for further reflections about better, more reflective uses of virtual learning, see these two pieces, by some of the researchers who helped devise one of the earliest articulations of best practices in higher ed some years ago, “Seven Principles for Good Practice.”

6 responses to “blogging my swift and literary studies course, part II

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    I use the blog and wiki functions on Blackboard. What I do is divide students into “coffee houses” and rotate their blog and wiki entries throughout the semester. So for any given class, students in one coffee house will post a blog entry (discussion of the literature assigned for that class period) and students in another coffee house will post wiki entries, choosing either to define a term from a list given out at the beginning of the course (must have three sources) OR summarize a critical article on the material to be discussed. Each student ends up posting 4 blog entries and 4 wiki entries over the course of the semester. I find this is helpful because the discussion has already begun before we get to class. Since I have the coffee houses set up, sometimes I use them for group work in class.

    I find this enhances discussion and student progress, but it is difficult to keep track of. Right now what I do is have them email a copy of whatever they posted to me so I don’t miss it, and then they also have to save it in a dropbox account. I respond to them individually by email.

    I am happy with the teaching/learning benefits, but am wondering if WordPress provides any technical advantages.

  2. Hey Laura, I like the “coffee house” metaphor, and the way you’ve structured the various small research assignments. How many students do you typically place into a “coffee house,” and how many houses do you end up with total? The list of terms and summarized articles must also come in handy. Do you or the students introduce these into the online or face to face discussions, and do they use them in their essays?

    In terms of the volume of graded material, I’ve had the same issues with these kinds of low-stakes research assignments, but what I’ve found works really well, if your class size permits it, is a portfolio format. Have the students compile everything they’ve done, including online contributions, into a semester’s end portfolio, along with a self-assessment essay. These make grading much easier, because students themselves are tasked with collecting everything, and you get the added benefit of reading their self-assessments.

    For an excellent example of a portfolio guideline, see Ann Dalke’s instructions for her critical feminism course at Bryn Mawr:

    As for the pros and cons of wp vs. bb, I’d say that bb has a lot of built in features that are helpful (wikis, grading, etc.) but wp is less demanding in terms of how you and the students enter and exit the system, which has been an issue at UH, and less demanding in terms of your own posting. I also like the fact that students can post and share links with one another as part of their research. From my own perspective, I feel that wp gives me a lot more control over the virtual environment than I would have with a bb environment, though that might just be about my familiarity. But I’d be curious about others’ experiences.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    I usually have about 5 coffee houses with 5-7 students in each. I use a version of the portfolio system in that student have to save everything to a dropbox folder that I share with each one of them. This way nothing can get lost, even if a computer crashes. But I also think it’s good to give them feedback as they go so they don’t keep making the same mistake. I have been thinking about adding some kind of self-evaluation, or at least metacognition exercise, at the end with these folders for when I teach the Critical Methods class. But I think you’re right that it could work in any class.

    The term list is just basic contextual material (‘whig’; ‘tory’; ‘satire’) that they have to know for the final, but they can start looking out for these points of reference right away. I go over them in class, but they get reinforced through the wiki posts. The information in the wiki posts has to be documented, so part of the learning outcome has to do with what sources they are going to trust in their own and each other’s posts when their studying demands it. Thus it is no excuse to get something wrong on the test because another student has it wrong on their post.

    Blackboard is indeed awkward to use and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. People have recommended Moodle to me for the wiki posts but I haven’t tried it yet. It seems like such a project to learn a new tool and Blackboard is already set up. I can foresee a point, though, of getting fed up with Blackboard.

  4. The dropbox idea is really cool; I’m constantly fighting with the volume of material that students generate, and this is a good way to keep everything in a common space.

    The use of the wiki also seems like it would be very effective, since it forces them to collect their sources and synthesize them.

    One of the things I’ve been learning about teaching and technology is that there are three time-sinks: the time to learn to new technologies; the time to maintain your current system; and the time to update your knowledge when these technologies are rendered obsolete. This is all on top of whatever time your teaching normally requires.

    I think if you’re already fluent in that technology, the platform seems transparent, but relatively few of us reach that point, and the vendors themselves seem unconcerned about the time necessary to learn (and re-learn) their products.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    I think the students are annoyed that they have to save their posts three times (on the blog or wiki; in dropbox; then email to me), but I haven’t figured out a better way yet. With all of these different assignments, the Dropbox is crucial. I am hoping to do more with this later. I find it’s actually harder to keep track of electronic assignments than paper ones.

  6. Well, wordpress has a tagging feature, which if they self-tag, they should be able to collect all their own posts without a problem. Don’t know if bb has a similar tagging/category feature that would enable you to download all the assignments by a particular person or group or whatever. But the portfolio assignment, which has them collect everything they’ve done over a semester, should take care of it.