Introducing composition students to blogging

This is a continuation of a series of posts that constitute a draft of an essay I am writing for the Writing Spaces textbook. See part one here. I'd love to have your feedback, as always.

What is a blog? Or better, what is your blog?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Typically the first answer one imagines for this question refers to the content of blogs. One might think of blogs as public diaries or perhaps as amateur journalism or political, op-ed websites or maybe as celebrity gossip sites. Many of the most popular blogs today deal with specific interests from computers and automobiles to (allegedly) funny pictures of cats. But none of these things really define the blog itself. Technorati.com, a site devoted to indexing blogs, has recorded 133 million blogs since 2002.  In short there are many blogs with many topics. On the other, one might attempt to provide a technical definition of a blog. While one might create and maintain a blog using only HTML, like a traditional web page, most blogs operate on a web application (e.g., Blogger, WordPress, Typepad, etc.). With such blogs, individual entries are saved in a database and those entries are then called up and published on the blog according to any criteria including in the database fields. For instance, one can publish entries chronologically, which is the convention for blogs. However, one could also publish them by category (also common on blogs) or by author (if there are multiple authors for the blog) or even alphabetically by title (which is certainly less common on blogs). Having some technical understanding of the particular blogging application one chooses to use will be helpful in making it work effectively, but the technology behind blogs doesn’t offer much insight into a useful definition of blogging practices.

Arguably, the practice of blogging has become so vast, including people from around the world, that any definition general enough to include everyone would be of little use in helping a new blogger in a composition course decide what to do. Instead, it is necessary to begin with identifying a more narrow genre of blogging practices. In a sense, this is much like the more general advice I give to my composition students about writing. It isn’t particularly useful to try to understand “how to write” in a general way. Instead, one needs to learn how to identify the particular writing practices at work in the specific writing situations that one faces as a writer.  That is, students in a literature course face different writing tasks from those in economics courses or biology courses; and writers in public relations firms face different tasks from technical writers in the computer industry or analysts at a bank. However, any writer might begin with some fairly basic rhetorical questions.

  • Who is my audience? What do they expect from me? What do they already know about the subject of the text I am composing? How will they react to my message?
  • What is my purpose? What is the exigency for this text? (i.e. what has motivated me to write this text?) What do I hope to achieve?
  • What is the genre in which I am writing? What are its conventions? (E.g. fairy tales being “Once upon a time…:” what are the familiar practices of this genre?) How are arguments made in this genre? What types of evidence will be found convincing?

These questions certainly apply to blogging. So when we ask “what is a blog?” the answer is shaped by who we wish to write to, what our purpose(s) might be, and how others with similar audiences and purposes already practice blogging. I know that when I began blogging I didn’t have a very strong idea of what my blog would be like. I knew that I would write about my professional-academic interests and experiences (as opposed to personal experiences or hobbies or pop culture). I also came to my decision to start blogging after having read the blogs of several colleagues, so I had some idea of what others with similar interests were doing. Most of all, I was already familiar with my intended audience (though, of course, on the public web, one never really controls who reads what one writes). I knew what other English professors and graduate students were like. I knew about their expectations for scholarly writing. That said, no one knew what academic blogging should be like, and arguably we still don’t know for sure. So blogging was an experiment, an exploration into what that genre could do for me and other rhetoricians. However, blogging will probably operate somewhat differently for you as a composition student.

Of course it is difficult to generalize about composition students (but I will anyway). In my experience, typically, composition students haven’t had much experience as writers. When I started blogging, I was already a writer and already had experience writing about my subject matter and to my intended audience. These things probably aren’t true for the average composition student, but they probably aren’t true for the average blogger either. So, in order to understand what a blog is, or more specifically what your blog will be, you will first need to identify the subject on which you are writing and the audience to whom you wish to speak. If one thinks of the typical, public diary blog, then the answers are “personal experience” and one’s friends and family (at least to start). Over time, that audience might expand to include other bloggers and readers who have similar experiences and interests. (I’ll speak more about expanding one’s audience later.) This kind of blogging might be useful for you as a student if you use the blog to write about your classroom experiences. The blog then becomes a place to reflect on learning.

However I want to encourage you to consider writing a different kind of blog, one which might more directly support your academic and professional careers. For this kind of blog you need to identify an academic or professional subject in which you are interested. Perhaps you have already declared a major. If so, that should give you a good place to start. If not, then you might have to get more creative in thinking about a subject that you would like to read and write about. Once you’ve decided on a subject, you need to investigate other blogs with similar interests. Read a wide range of blogs–the most popular blogs on your subject, blogs by experts on your subject, blogs by those with amateur interests, and blogs by students like yourself. Reading is an essential part of blogging. Once one gets beyond the diary blog, it is quite common to blog about one reads elsewhere on other blogs (aka the “blogosphere”). In fact, writing about other bloggers is one of the primary ways one builds an audience and community for a blog.

Researching for blog writing is much like researching for course assignments. One can begin with a general search engine. Google allows one to search specifically for blogs, or one might try Technorati. The goal here is to find a handful of the most popular blogs in your area of interest. From there, things get trickier. Most blog sites include a list of links called a “blog roll” somewhere on their sidebars. This is a list of sites that blogger also reads. Sampling the blog rolls of bloggers you like is a good strategy for finding worthwhile blogs. As you find good blogs, you’ll need to bookmark them, or even better, subscribe to them using a RSS Aggregator (a website or desktop application that will check your blog subscriptions and let you know when there are new posts; see the Appendix for some suggestions about aggregators).

Maybe this sounds like a lot of work. Maybe it is. Much like most things in life, one can get out of blogging what one puts into it.

For example, perhaps you have an interest in medieval history (OK, probably not, but maybe).  Even if with a quick search of the web, one can find dozens of blogs on the subject and start reading them. Got Medieval, for instance, is a blog maintained by Carl S. Pyrdum III, a graduate student in Medieval Studies at Yale University (or at least so we are told; one must always be somewhat suspicious on the web). On his blog there are links to many other related blogs. One of his recent posts comments on a comic documentary where people go in search of the Robin Hood legend. As a blogger one might then link to that post, embed the video (more on that later), and then write one’s own post about Robin Hood.

And off you go. Of course, since you’re probably not interested in medieval history, you’ll have to find something else to write about, or maybe multiple things to write about. One of the most popular blogs, Boing Boing, calls itself “a directory of wonderful things,” and is fairly miscellaneous. I'm not suggesting that you have to do what everyone else does. To the contrary, one of the great things about blogging is the opportunity for autonomy the genre can provide. But reading other bloggers with similar interests can help you in understanding the kinds of choices you might make and will also aid you in finding an audience for your work.
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