A bleg about blogs.

11 06 2011

At the moment I’m in Salem, Massachusetts, working on a TAH grant for a group of teachers from Wyoming. What’s funny about this is job that it’s the first historical thing I’ve ever done where I am not primarily identified as the historian. I’m actually the tech guy, the one who explains to all of them the wonders of blogging their trip to the greater Boston area. It’s not as if I know nothing about the colonial or revolutionary eras, but I’d probably be the last guy doing this job if it weren’t for the fact that I understand WordPress.

If you know anything about TAH grants, you know that travel grants have a very bad reputation. Send a bunch of teachers on vacation on the government’s dime! Somewhere, Paul Ryan is very upset. If you were standing at the North Bridge in Concord yesterday, listening to the ranger describe the position of the two armies before the firing of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, you would see the value of place for understanding history. Still, blogging is an excellent way to make sure that there is serious academic rigor to work like this.

Each of the teachers has a blog. [If you want to see their work, you can visit the blogroll at our class blog here. Each name links to the blog of one of the teachers.] We ask them to reflect on what they saw each day on their blog (emphasizing the utility of their information in their classroom) and to read other teacher’s reflections and comment. This is my fifth year doing this and it has so far worked very nicely. In fact, I believe that blogging is one of the reasons that our grants get funded in what has been a brutally competitive TAH environment.

Last semester, I brought blogging to a regular 14-week semester class for the first time, and I don’t think it worked so well. Unlike the trips, where there has been considerable conversation in the comments despite the teachers’ late hours, with graduate students back home comments were like pulling teeth. I really think there is great value in assigning different kinds of writing, so I want to bring a class blog to at least one of my undergraduate courses next semester, but I want to do it right this time.

So, people who use blogs in regular face-to-face 14 week classes, what do I need to know to do it right? Do you just have one blog or do you make every student get their own? How do you get students to read other students’ work? What percentage of the grade should be based upon the blog?

Inquiring minds want to know.

PS Why the picture? My next post here is going to be about graves. Stay tuned.




6 responses

12 06 2011

I incorporated blog assignments into my low-level undergraduate class. The purpose was to give a forum for discussions of some of the wider and/or tangential issues related to the class work, and also place where students could interact with each other without the pressure of being in class. It was also nice to expose them to some of the really cool research and writing on the internet; it’s not *all* kittens, folks! I hoped that the habit of discussions among themselves would carry over into the classroom, and I believe there was some success with this. One blog for the class, biweekly assignments, required number of contributions (in the comments section), required interaction with other students, worth a decently significant chunk of their grade. Overall, pretty successful. There was a range of participation: some students got right into it, and took part in some informed and nuanced discussions; others did the basics; and a few never logged in at all. I’ve done it three times now, tweaking each slightly, and would absolutely do it again.

12 06 2011

I have used blogging in undergraduate courses for probably four or five semesters, and I think I’ve reached the point where I have fixed most of the glaring problems. I’ve found it doesn’t work very well with first-year students, but upper-division students usually do pretty well. I can give you my materials if you’d like!

One major issue that I’ve noticed is that students generally cannot handle the technology without significant instruction. There are usually only a few tech-savvy people in the course, and the rest do not know how to think through and problem-solve. So, they come to a window they’ve never seen before and they shut down and email me in a panic without looking around the page/figuring it out themselves.

12 06 2011
Jonathan Rees


I know I’ve seen your blogs, but not your syllabi with the rules. [Or perhaps I did and was just too overwhelmed to read them that closely.] Luckily, since we work in the same department, I can just get them out of the file.

PS I find the notion that you are reading this blog entirely voluntarily now rather scary. If you come to the realization that what I write and do are entirely different, call me out in person rather than online OK?

12 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I really like your project, so this isn’t a criticism of the idea at all. But the hesitation I’ve had about requiring individual student blogs rather than using a closed social network (I use Ning for my classes) is that I’m vaguely bothered by the idea of cluttering up the blogosphere with very short-lived bursts of student activity. So I’m thinking ahead to questions of sustainability. Do I want my students to stay on and become serious bloggers, in a way that they might continue throughout their enrolment and into their professional futures? Well, maybe I do. And what do I do about the fact that many are already blogging? Am I asking them to make a second blog just for this purpose?

A colleague of mine once told a great story about his father, and his rule for family camping: always to leave the campsite in a better state than they found it. In this case, perhaps I think it means for me that I’m trying to keep our virtual footprint smallish — so I’d go for one group blog, rather than many. And I’d have a think about how to tidy up when the class is over.

What do you know? The online charlatan’s conscience once more on display!

13 06 2011

Can’t wait for the gravestone post, Jonathan!

Greetings from Saco, Maine–I’m just back from a morning run around Laurel Hill Cemetary on the banks of the Saco. (Mostly a 19th and 20th C thanatopolis, although there are several weeping willow/urn-style headstones from the early 19th C and even a few from the last decade of the 18th C as well.)

17 06 2011
To Be Announced.

My suggestion would be to find a blog or app (or something like that) which allows students to post from whatever cell phone they have. That way while they walk from class to class or are just waiting in a long line somewhere they will get it done and I’m sure they know how to use their cell phones as they are usually not as complex as a full computer (minus the iPhone).

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