Teaching as Research

What is at stake in the digital humanities?

In the past year, many scholars of the humanities have addressed the shifting definition of what it means to read in the digital age.  Pointing specifically to Twitter and Facebook, and more generally to personal archives and the GUI (graphic user interface), these scholars reveal a concept of reading that structurally privileges finding information over analyzing complex text.  But writing is largely eclipsed in these discussions.  How does writing change when we move online?  And how do we situate new technologies and their attendant forms of writing within the larger context of what it means to teach students how to communicate through the written word? 

Communicative Writing

My research seeks to characterize students’ evolving conceptions of blogging as a form of communicative writing.  In doing so, it investigates the primary learning benefits for this form of writing.  Through a combination of online survey questions, focus group interviews, and blog content and language analysis, I examine the match between blogging with measurable outcomes in student engagement, cultural, linguistic, and technological fluency.  In other words, my project seeks to explain how blogging fits within the traditional frame of communicative skills such as listening and speaking, and to point to the unique affordances that blog writing provides.

Blogghiamo!

To open the Blog Project, I asked my students, “If you could be an expert in any topic in Italian culture by the end of this class, what would it be?” Choices ranged from contemporary street art to sustainable agriculture to film.  Students then followed that theme across four realms of the Italian Internet (blogs, Podcasts, Youtube, Facebook) to craft four different blog posts.  They then commented on classmates’ blogs and responded to posts on their own blogs, ultimately writing 4 200-word posts and 8 100-word responses in Italian.  Using my grading rubric, I assessed their writing for personal input, originality, and consideration of audience.

 

Defining Engagement: Autonomy, Authenticity, and Community

In describing engagement, students’ comments clustered around three interrelated themes: autonomy (student choice of topic, material, tone; having “their own” blog), authenticity (exposure to Italian materials written in slang and dialect, writing online felt “natural”), and community (learning culture and vocabulary from classmates, contributing to Italian online forums).

Advantages of Blogging

Student blog content highlighted what blended literacy looks like in practice: cultural, linguistic, and technological considerations intertwined. These literacies took the following forms:

•Cultural Literacy: comparisons between American and Italian culture, denotation of frequency, rarity, or absence of cultural forms. For example, two students used the blog response section to discussed why spaghetti westerns use both English and Italian titles.

•Linguistic Literacy: interest in non-standard vocabulary, questioning the pervasiveness of Italianized English terms, emerging awareness of punctuation, sentence length as markers of emotion.  For instance, one student writing on contemporary street art voiced her interest in the Italian etymology of the word “graffiti,” meaning “little scratches.”

•Technological Literacy: continued blog posting after the project’s conclusion, independent research into other Italian Internet realms (Twitter, Wikis), interest in Italian blog maintenance and computer terms.

Why do students enjoy blogging?

While the primary goal of the assignment was not necessarily to teach tech literacy, the fact remains that, when we move writing online, traditional conceptions of literacy take on pluralistic forms involving both culture and technology. Indeed, a key aspect of increasing technological literacy lies in teaching students how to write with increased attention.  After all, the Internet projects their voices across a far wider stage than traditional paper assignments do. Many students returned to descriptions of authentic voice and its effect.  Students reported that writing online made them feel as though their voices mattered more and that this made them feel more engaged in writing.  It also motivated them to immerse themselves in the technology as a means to achieve the goal of authentic communication.

Conclusions

So, to reiterate to this study’s guiding questions:  How does writing change when we move online?  And how do we contextualize blog writing within the broad array of writing styles we already teach?  In approaching the issue of technology, we must consider both questions when studying teaching as research and then developing our best practices.  Addressing the former question guards against fossilizing the definition of writing, while confronting the latter assures that we do not lose sight of traditional modes of writing that still have something to teach.   An additive approach to writing that allows one to select among choices, rather than a Darwinist model that advocates survival of the “best” way to write increases the likelihood that our current definition of writing will not become obsolete when current technologies evolve, as they inevitably do and with ever increasing celerity.

Here we arrive at a key feature of online writing: users write on the Internet knowing that the world may read it.  The inherent publicness of crafting text online thus heightens the importance of effective communication.  To effectively convey a message to one’s audience, the writer must target every element of writing, from content and structure to register and vocabulary, to meet this goal.   Such attention to writing’s recipient is not new – the epistolary novels, broadsheets, and circulars of years past attest to the longevity of communicative writing and its formidable power.    But we do not write broadsheets.  We write articles and essays, blog posts and status updates.   Integrating these two forms of writing need not involve a carrot and stick organization.  Communicative writing provides a framework to hone the effectiveness of one’s writing regardless of its placement in a print or online forum.   We separate and dichotomize writing in this way at our peril.