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.”