What Does a Blog Want? *

I’ve been experimenting with blogs in both graduate and undergraduate courses since my first year in grad school.  That spring, I was summarily hauled before a faculty committee who had heard that I was posting Freshman essays onto the Information Superhighway so that students from around the world could more easily plagiarize them.  My position, which was probably a subtle combination of righteous indignation and apoplexy, was that (1) asking students to write essays that no one would ever read seemed like a silly way to teach them about writing, and that (2) based on what I’d read of their material so far, the likelihood of plagiarism was, well, nil.  Or less.

They listened politely, talked among themselves, and then explained to me that I underestimated student wiles, and that surely if others abused this Information Superhighway as I had, it would lead to rampant and callous disregard for intellectual integrity among undergraduates.  The papers were removed from the server forthwith, and I am happy to report that Higher Education has thrived ever since.

I am yet looking, however, for an organic, sensible way to make use of blogs, wikis, forums, Tumblrs, Twitter, and so forth, in the conduct of a course.  There are many ways to deploy these technologies, of course, and (if everyone is willing to give it their best effort) they tend to work out just fine.  Or, at least, they don’t do much harm, per se.  But insofar as I am concerned, the artificial character of the classroom community, and the extrinsic requirement that members of that community regularly contribute to blog X or wiki Y, means that we’re still not doing it right.  This is not to say that other faculty members’ present use of the technology is wrong, or is without merit:  Only that I remain unsatisfied with the way I have interfaced with these technologies in the past.

So here is another approach.  On this blog, for the duration of the semester, I will frequently make available materials related to our last meeting (lecture notes, links to videos we discussed, further research on our favorite issues) and material that anticipates our next session.  If you have any thoughts about this approach, please let me know.

* Louis Kahn, renowned architect and Professor of Design at Yale during the middle of the 20th Century, famously asked of his students, “What does a brick want?”  To which Kahn would invariably imagine bricks responding with requests like “I want to be an Arch!” and “I want to be load-bearing wall!”  This has always left me cold:  Bricks likely just want to be left alone, and put back in the cold, quiet ground with the rest of their clay-based friends.  Asking “What does a brick want?” is really just a coy way of asking “what does an architect want to do with this brick?”