Archive for April, 2003

April 2003 blog archive

April 30, 2003 Leave a comment

Archives: April 2003 [source]

Wed Apr 30, 2003

Experiment on the last day of class: advice to next semester’s students

Today in W130 I asked students to give advice to next semester’s students, as a way of starting to experiment with the idea from Sunday’s post. #

I asked for their advice about how to get the most out of the course — learning, that is — and how to get a good grade. They suggested these things:

1. Pay attention to the feedback from classmates but also learn how to give feedback because it will help you give feedback to yourself on your own drafts.

2. Don’t be frightened by the length assigned; write your ideas about the topic, and you will probably do better than you might think.

3. Don’t be frustrated at first because you’ll get better and your experience in the course will get better.

4. Don’t be afraid to be extra tough on feedback on people’s papers at the start, for as the feedback became tougher it became more useful.

5. Aim to please the teacher because the teacher has all the power.

6. Try not to take it personally when your paper is discussed in class, but instead learn how to give feedback from the process. Make it a positive learning experience.

7. Volunteer to have your paper discussed in class as soon as possible, because it makes the class’s lessons much clearer.

8. Use the SI tutor or the Writing Center for immediate feedback. Take advantage of all resources that are offered. Stay for the SI session.

9. Take your time and look deeper into the subjects and topics — don’t just skim the surface of the reading or topic but look into it more.

10. Don’t write your papers as if people know the readings, but for people who haven’t read the readings, so you have to explain things more thoroughly.

11. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to write a paper in two hours. Put it aside and then take a fresh look and revise. This allows more creativity because you keep thinking about the paper over the course of a few days.

12. Use feedback activities to get to know classmates.

13. Keep all of your papers for the final portfolio and get satisfaction from your progress.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 30, 2003 | 12:40 pm


Tue Apr 29, 2003

Portal design

A nice portal design that a person could adapt for a group project in a research-oriented college course: #.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 29, 2003 | 1:18 pm


Early journalism about blogs

Jorn Barger lists, among other things, more than a dozen of the first high-profile newspaper and magazine articles about weblogs. #

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 29, 2003 | 12:51 am


Sun Apr 27, 2003

Preserving successful strategies

“Companies are going to want to capture people’s experiences so when they leave the company they don’t take everything with them,” says Biz Stone in an article by Jimmy Guterman. (#)

This makes me think about students who might pass on to later students successful strategies for mastering course content.

Quotation from Management by Blog?
By Jimmy Guterman, Apr 25, 2003, in Business 2.0

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 27, 2003 | 8:54 pm


Sat Apr 26, 2003

Kuusisto on growing room

I thought of blogs when reading this passage about teaching from Stephen Kuusisto’s wonderful memoir, Planet of the Blind:

I’ve never understood those writers who deprecate their students. Roethke . . . Nabokov . . . the list goes on and on. The classroom, however, is my ray of light. The Bible says there is a fatness in heaven, a rich sweetness where the soul can feast. Sharing stories with my students becomes a kind of mutual tasting. I encourage them to read to me, and they do. Not just their own stories but the things they find at random in the library. Talking in this way, we find we can make something larger, you might call it growing room. Just when you think you’ve acquired some expertise at understanding the power of words, a student comes along who surprises you. (133)

This is about dialogue, chance encounter, building on the words left to us from the past, and making something like a space that has healthy properties. Perhaps best of all, it’s unpredicatable and not all the creative energy belongs to the one in authority. This dialogic space seems, which is the creative writing teacher’s classroom, reminds me of the communities that spring up around certain topics and their representative writers and blogs.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 26, 2003 | 6:57 pm


Fri Apr 25, 2003

Johnson writing on a deadline

I’m not sure these self-revealing comments by Samuel Johnson about writing on a deadline help me think further about blogs, but I’m fond of them:

Though to a writer whose design is so comprehensive and miscellaneous, that he may accommodate himself with a topick from every scene of life, or view of nature, it is no great aggravation of his task to be obliged to a sudden composition, yet I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty. There was however some pleasure in reflecting that I, who had only trifled till diligence was necessary, might still congratulate myself upon my superiority to multitudes, who have trifled till diligence is vain; who can by no degree of activity or resolution recover the opportunities which have slipped away; and who are condemned by their own carelesness to hopeless calamity and barren sorrow. (Rambler 134)

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 25, 2003 | 11:43 am


A model editing site

It’s not a blog, but this collection of links about Samuel Johnson might serve as a good model for a product students could produce as part of the process of blogging about a focused topic.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 25, 2003 | 11:38 am


Thu Apr 24, 2003

Samuel Johnson knew

In 1751 Samuel Johnson might as well have been writing about blogs:

As every scheme of life, so every form of writing, has its advantages and inconveniences, though not mingled in the same proportions. The writer of essays escapes many embarrassments to which a large work would have exposed him; he seldom harasses his reason with long trains of consequences, dims his eyes with the perusal of antiquated volumes, or burthens his memory with great accumulations of preparatory knowledge. A careless glance upon a favourite author, or transient survey of the varieties of life, is sufficient to supply the first hint or seminal idea, which, enlarged by the gradual accretion of matter stored in the mind, is by the warmth of fancy easily expanded into flowers, and sometimes ripened into fruit. (Rambler 184)

At first Johnson seems to know only the weaknesses and limitations of the form, and even by the end there is only the chance of bearing fruit. Yet the chance for flowering and fruit is there, in spite of the limitations of what the author happens to encounter along the way. It requires the writer, with a well-stocked mind, to respond inventively or imaginatively to the seminal idea. In other words, to work with it, to bring it into relationship with other ideas and examples, to make or try to make something of it. As in a post of a few days ago, this is writing rather than editing the web. #

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 24, 2003 | 10:55 am


Wed Apr 23, 2003

The need to organize #1

I’ve written about 15,000 words since March 7, and one of the ways I’ve tried to challenge myself in this blog has been to go back and say more about ideas in earlier posts. Even in 6-7 weeks, though, there are too many entries to find old topics easily. In a class with 20 students posting to individual or class blogs, the problem is compounded. Unless the search feature, the chronological archive, and the broad categories (some software offers this feature) are sufficient — I don’t think they are — the day comes when the writer has to say so long to old content as it sinks into the waters, or start organizing. I’d like to try re-organizing this site, and I will keep track of my efforts as I go, in case that is of use to others.

One problem: I’m not actually a well-organized person. But here goes. Step one, accomplished a day or two ago — add a category about page design, since that is a subset of the software category that I’ve found myself taking an interest in lately. Surely page design deserves its own collection of entries. What next, I wonder?

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 23, 2003 | 11:38 pm


A guide to writing for the web

Author Gerry McGovern shares two chapters from The Web Content Style Guide that clearly introduce a variety of writing and design principles that a class might consider.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 23, 2003 | 12:00 am


Tue Apr 22, 2003

More page design

I like the middle column design of the World Press Review site: subdividing its subject matter into groups, with each group offering links to three stories. I could see a shared class project taking advantage of a format like this, breaking up into teams to carry out a portion of the larger task, and being responsible for a section of the middle column.

And as I look around the site a bit more, I see that they have a page devoted to educational uses, and sure enough, they’ve already dreamed up what I was describing above.

I can imagine asking students to collaborate on a glossary that can support new students in a particular field, as they have done for the Iraq crisis.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 22, 2003 | 1:01 am


Sun Apr 20, 2003

Images and tables: for puzzle-lovers only

If you like intricate puzzles and want to think more about ways to put images on a blog, and you think a complex of tables might be the way to do it, check out the page source for Greggman. Or just enjoy his pictures of all manner of Japanese food, each item more lively than what you may be accustomed to in packages like these:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

PS. It’s true, I need to figure out the code for centering images on this software the next time I have a few minutes.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 20, 2003 | 11:58 am


Writing vs. editing the web

Part of the problem I see in adapting blogs to college courses comes from the decision writers make to focus most on editing and commenting on what they find on the web or on writing new material that connects to and builds on what they find on the web. If you edit the web, your blog might consist largely of links with or without brief orienting comments; if you write, you still depend on the links you make to the work others have done, but you press yourself to contribute something of your own. If you edit, you contribute many judgments, even if you don’t explain those judgments very much to readers; if you write, you bring those judgments out front, for all to see. Whether you write or edit, your judgments may be excellent or poor, but they are available in very different ways to readers, or to teachers who need to give feedback, prepare grades, or write letters of recommendation on behalf of students.

I suspect that grading a writing-style blog is easier than grading an edit-style blog, since in the first one the student shows her work. This may be fairer to students and easier on teachers.

In aligning myself for the moment with writing instead of editing, I am probably remaining faithful to respected traditions of research-paper writing. For example, in The Craft of Research (1995), Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams say:

Good research should change our thinking . . . . Such changes we rightly resist without good reasons. So when you ask your readers to change their minds, you owe them your best reasons for doing so. But you can’t just pile up more and more data, no matter how reliable . . . . considerate researchers always ask themselves whether they need to explain why their data are not just reliable but relevant. (111)

Booth et al recognize that some writers simply try to “overwhelm” readers with data, but a better approach, they say, is to “anticipate their views, their positions, their interests, to put forward your claims in a way that helps them recognize their own best interests” (87). They hint at the lively sense of audience that we recognize in good weblogs in the next sentence:

By helping you explore the limits of your evidence and test the soundness of your reasoning, the elements of a good argument help you work not against your readers but with them to find and understand a truth you can share. (87)

Again, I find myself wanting course-related student blogs to have a strong engagement with a real audience, which will probably mainly be classmates and teacher, and a clearly-defined project that calls for substantial writing, rather than only editing, the web.

See an earlier post on editing: #

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 20, 2003 | 11:12 am


Sat Apr 19, 2003

A page format for class collaboration

The two-column format of CounterPunch would work well for a class collaboration in which students contributed small or medium-sized pieces on a regular schedule, building a body of work on a shared topic. The left column lists recent entries by date, title, and author, and the main column contains the newest entry or the one a reader has selected. They place “Today’s Features” at the bottom of the main column, but they could also be in a third, right-hand column or elsewhere.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 19, 2003 | 10:38 am


Fri Apr 18, 2003

The DC metro blog map

A clever designer has turned the lovely Washington Metro map into a map of District of Columbia blogs:

You could imagine a campus map similarly set up, as well as a map of the college town or the region, with links to blogs by students and faculty on topics of interest or study across the area: a local wetlands project, the literacy center, the internship projects at the daily paper, and so forth. Let the images play across our screens.

Pointed out by Bureaucrat by Day on 4/15/03. #

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 18, 2003 | 12:03 pm


A lively graphical feature

The blog called randomWalks has small, lively, and often thematic images that serve as spacers at the start of a day’s entries.

They give more visual character to the site, a nice touch. I’ve sampled a few here.

If you reload the randomWalks site, the images are replaced by others in the collection. I believe there are 255 different ones to see.

Please do take a look at the images in their original setting, though — they work better there: #

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 18, 2003 | 11:39 am


Remaking Harvard

I guess I’m just getting the point. The Harvard blog project is an experiment to see whether the software can provoke a new sense of social organization at the university, based on more fluid and dynamic kinds of communication via blogs . . . using blogs to let parts of a university know more about other parts, assuming that a university can act more as an organism whose parts are aware of each other and think together:

It’s the bright promise of creating intellectual community among Harvard’s discreet “tubs” that launched Weblogs at Harvard Law. The initiative arose, says Palfrey, from a conference the Berkman Center sponsored in November 2002 called “What Is Harvard’s Digital Identity?” At that conference, Provost Steven Hyman challenged the assembled deans, faculty members, and technology-forward administrators to harness the Internet to build intellectual bridges that would facilitate the flow of information and ideas between the University’s disparate schools and centers. #

Imagine trying to provoke an entirely new social organization at one’s workplace — a bold move. From the same issue of the Harvard Gazette, Dave Winer looks happy at his job:

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 18, 2003 | 1:17 am


Thu Apr 17, 2003

What is creativity?

Nicholas Negroponte on creativity:

Innovation is inefficient. More often than not, it is undisciplined, contrarian, and iconoclastic; and it nourishes itself with confusion and contradiction. In short, being innovative flies in the face of what almost all parents want for their children, most CEOs want for their companies, and heads of states want for their countries. And innovative people are a pain in the ass.*

He may be right, but I wonder if instead creativity for groups, though perhaps not for individuals, is at least as often based on conversation, exchange of perspectives, shared inquiry, play, working with decent resources toward shared goals, and so forth. I think of times committees of faculty members have worked well together and created new programs. I was able to make sense of those events as acts of problem-solving that became simultaneously acts of professional self-definition. As we named our circumstance we named our sense of self and our vision for our shared future. We built a shared language that could serve us as we built a new program.

Blogs that remind me of Negroponte’s quotation don’t seem any better to me than those that remind me of those successful committees I’m recalling. Instead, those committees seems suggestive at least of ways blogs might be shaped or guided for classroom purposes. I’m not sure the classroom resembles Negroponte’s vision either, most of the time.

*From “Creating a Culture of Ideas” by Nicholas Negroponte, in Technology Review Feb. 2003 (106.1).

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 17, 2003 | 1:46 am


Tue Apr 15, 2003

Toward a rating guide

How about a scale for evaluating entries, just to provoke some conversation? Then you could give a blog a rating based on the average of its last 10 entries, or 10 chosen at random, or its best 10, etc.

1 point for each of these things:

mentioned something in the world or on the web

linked to it or otherwise showed you how to find it or bring it to mind
praised or criticized it generally
summarized it overall
named its parts
named a connection between it and something else
evaluated it overall
evaluated its parts
evaluated its connection to something else
discussed the significance

10 points possible

It is possible that a 10 is not always a desirable score, that posts that earn a 10 are not always the best choice for a writer.

(This is a streamlined version of an earlier post — #)

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 15, 2003 | 10:41 pm


Mon Apr 14, 2003


Dave Winer uses the Weblogs at Harvard Law site to build a community of bloggers there. # Like many other good sites, this one is marked by a spirit of generosity that will, no doubt, help bring new people to the Harvard project by using clear language to offer links and other resources. At the same time, the resources are there for non-Harvard readers to use. See, for example, Winer’s posting of the bookmark list for his April 10, 2003 presentation. #

I get the impression from his list of bookmarks that the presentation doesn’t much address pedagogy. I think that’s interesting. It could mean that weblogs have such a strong character that they will draw students in almost without the teacher providing a pedagogical wrapper of some kind. Or it could mean that they’ve not taken a conversation about pedagogy as far as they’ve taken other conversations there at the Harvard group. But maybe writers from other places will generously share their ideas about pedagogy and weblogs. Several have already done so — back to the search engine.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 14, 2003 | 11:01 am


Sun Apr 13, 2003

Writing good links #1

I’ll be wanting a brief guide to help students make good links. I’ll start writing it now and add to it from time to time. Your suggestions are welcome.

First, an example from the Tuesday, April 01, 1997, post to Scripting News. # The archive contains a dozen brief items for the day, including this one, which I offer in its entirety:

Check this out. Amazing!

The word this was a link to the home page of, but if you click on it you get their most recent entry, so you have no clue about what the prominent blogger was pointing to that first day in April of 1997. I suspect that the entry was illegible within a day or two, even in 1997, for the same reason.

The rule teachers in the age of the typewriter tried to teach their students probably still applies: give a full enough bibliographic reference, in some standard format, to help an interested reader find what you’ve been reading and read along with you. The web complicates the problem, since many pages evaporate. A link to a frequently-updated site doesn’t serve, but a date, an URL for the entry, and a brief description of what to look for on the page might.

Important bloggers with a well-established relation to their audiences may not need to say much about a link in order for it to be of use — their readers may know what to make of their briefest hints. Students, however, haven’t established the reputation and persona that will allow readers to know what to make of an entry like the one above, so they need to say more. Why is this worth pointing to? Who should go there, and why?

PS. See post #2: #

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 13, 2003 | 2:10 pm


Sat Apr 12, 2003

An audience for self-involving writing

In the introduction to her 1987 book, Context and Response, Lou Kelly, the long-time director of the University of Iowa’s Writing Lab, described the ways she hoped her students would participate more deeply in their own literacy skills and practices as a result of the writing course they were taking. Her statement of founding values translates well to the realm of the weblog:

The opportunities for self-involving writing which this book offers will take you from talking on paper to thinking on paper: from using your own expressive, everyday language to composing the more complex linguistic and rhetorical forms needed to express more complex ideas. While writing your way through one or several parts of this book, you will also find opportunities for self-involving reading which is directly related to the personal knowledge and ideas you are exploring in your writing. But the development of your writing and reading abilities is possible only when the messages you’re sending out, and the messages you’re taking in, are being shaped, and challenged, by your own perceptive questioning mind.

Lou’s course began exactly where the students were as readers and writers when they walked into the Lab that first day, but self-involving writing and reading grew as the writers enlarged their sense of audience in response to the engagement generously given by Lou and then by other students. Writing Lab teachers read carefully and generously. They often responded by asking a few serious and challenging questions that indicated what they had understood and what more they wanted to understand about the writer’s ideas and experiences.

On a good day in a good semester, a teacher has a chance to see a healthy sense of audience build among students. They sit in pairs or small groups and give each other lively, detailed feedback, and they even manage to strike to the heart of a draft’s problems and make very challenging suggestions for rethinking and revising. They have become a serious community of engaged readers and writers. Their conversations are energized and energizing.

When you look around the web at some class blogs, you notice that the some writers don’t have that energy. I attribute this, in part, to a difficulty they may be having developing that sense of audience. Students are not likely to build a strong outside readership in the first month or two of a semester, and unless classmates are guided to participate as readers and respondents, a student blog can have an attenuated sense of audience. Strong students can produce self-involving writing without an audience, but others will struggle.

If teachers don’t help students assemble an audience, then weblogs will become mere assignment-posting spaces, and their special value will be lost. Supported and challenged by the best sort of audience, however, students have often written well. Since weblogs add new dimensions to the classroom, the potential audience, and the raw materials of writing, we can expect great things if we can name our goals clearly and structure our assignments and classroom practices soundly.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 12, 2003 | 1:05 pm


Fri Apr 11, 2003

From electronic office hours to FAQ pages

I remember a colleague who used to hold electronic office hours a couple of times a week. These were times when his students could count on him to catch up on email or answer any new messages. He wanted students to keep in touch and to learn the new technology, email. Now email is common and almost all students use it, but there may be some interesting variations for electronic office hours involving weblogs.

Electronic office hours: answer questions from students on a weblog rather than through email, on the principle that if one student asks, three others probably should have asked the same thing, and on the principle that you will have to answer the question again next semester.

Have a different student each day keep track of questions asked in class, and then answer one or two of the most important of those questions again on the teacher’s class weblog later that day, to form a record of the best questions.

End each class with index cards for one minute – ask each student to name one or two things that were most clear and useful in the day’s class and one or two questions that remain. Answer some of these on the class weblog later that day.

Or, post some of these questions on the class weblog and ask rotating groups of students to prepare answers for them and post these on the weblog in a day or two. Read the answers at the start of the next class, to spark the discussion.

Ask students to preview their contributions for a day’s discussion ahead of time, posting their notes and questions on the class weblog. Other class members can be responsible for preparing ideas about three of the posts before class.

Edit the questions that accumulate on the class weblog into a Frequently Asked Questions page for the course, and make that available for the students the next time the course is offered. Or ask the students to edit the questions, as a class assignment that will serve as a guide to the subject matter of the course for later students.

In several of these ideas, the premise is that addressing questions asked in a course is best seen as a responsibility shared by students and teacher. Announce that premise in the syllabus and practice it all through the semester.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 11, 2003 | 11:35 pm


Thu Apr 10, 2003

CSS layout resources

The site provides a generous set of resources for learning about cascading style sheets (CSS), which make possible very elegant page designs. See especially the collection of two-, three-, and four-column layouts, with code provided at the bottom of each example.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 10, 2003 | 6:11 pm


Launching and anthologizing

Some bloggers clearly announce their project in a first entry, and students might be asked to give it a try, as a way of focusing their efforts as early as possible. Nevertheless, the projects will evolve, and occasionally a student might try again later to name the focus of the project. Teachers of research writing assignments know how challenging and useful it can be to ask students to guide their work with a question they want to answer and to revise the question several times during the process.

Lisa Thompson keeps a lively site called “field notes” about living on California’s Tomales Bay, an area rich in shore and water life. Writing in the tradition of Thoreau and Dillard, she launched the weblog with her 8/18/02 post on the some of the things she wanted to learn about the land and waterscapes around her. She extended her thoughts about the project a few days later, on 8/21. Here is an image from her site:

—————- a view with room —————-

Lisa Thompson also provides a good solution to the problem of losing one’s best work deep in the archive of an active weblog. In her upper-right-hand column she offers a brief anthology of titles and links to what she calls “suggested reading” from her archive. This kind of anthology would be a good assignment for students, after they accumulate a substantial number of entries or as part of a final class project in which they evaluate their work. While the process of blogging may be reward enough for some writer and readers, I suspect that for classroom use we must also think of the products. Anthologizing one’s best work can be a way of reflecting on values and achievements, a worthy task.

The software itself can provide different opportunities for carrying out this task. I’ve mentioned before, for example, the way pMachine easily supports indexing through the “View by Category” link in the left column. # It can also support an elaborated version of Lisa Thompson’s anthology list, either on its own page or there in a section of the site’s main page. I haven’t turned the feature on for my site yet, but this software offers several fields for entering text associated with a message. A writer interested in producing an elaborated anthology index could activate one of those fields and enter a brief description or highlight when composing each post. Then when you set up the anthology index, either in a section of the main page or on its own page, you could ask for the titles (as a link) and the description or highlight to be displayed. Wherever you place it, the index entries could look like this:

The Truth about Weblogs — ancient tablets reveal two lessons about blogging that can change your life.

Three Perfect Weblog Assignments — mistake-proof assignments that adapt to any college course.

And so forth.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 10, 2003 | 1:45 am


Tue Apr 08, 2003

Defined, illustrated

“I propose,” wrote Tim Bray, “that we define a weblog as a conversation between a person and the world.” Along with that lovely and expansive definition, he said to include pictures as often as we can. # Here is one I had in the files:

[That’s from a mock-up for a proposed literary magazine. A colleague and I believe that weblog software may be a very efficient way to post a poetry journal, edited by students. We hope to invite English majors to build a wider range of editing and editing-related technical skills. The software plays to the strengths of English majors, I think, dividing content from form and giving writers and editors room to think and act without requiring a second technical major.]

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 08, 2003 | 10:10 am


Mon Apr 07, 2003

Course-linked blog ideas #2

In my technical writing course I usually break students into groups and give each group a task to perform as consultants to some other organization, and I play the role of the client as they work through the task. At the end the groups present their completed consulting reports to the other groups for comparision, feedback, and evaluation. A class might have four groups and four interestingly different solutions at the end.

With weblogs, some new opportunities arise. Each group could have a non-public weblog on which they record all their work, using it like a company email record, file drop for working drafts, and log of activities. These pages would be open only to group members and the teacher until the end, when the students would make their presentations and throw open not just their product but also their process for viewing by the other groups.

A final task might be to evaluate the group’s collaborative process in light of the strengths and weaknesses they see in the ways one of the other groups worked through the consulting task in their weblog. This would make it easier for students to reflect not just on the technical writing they had produced but also the process of collaboration that is so important in writing for business and civic life.

If the consulting project involved research on a topic of wider interest, the groups might also be asked to produce for their clients a body of web resources, with annotations. These would be part of each group’s presentation, and then they could be collated as a final full-class project and offered as a web site of value to people in the field outside the class. Students might take away a CD of their group project and the class’s collated resource site as part of a portfolio to show potential employers.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 07, 2003 | 12:08 pm


Sun Apr 06, 2003

Course-linked blog ideas #1

I ran into Wild Skye, a lovely collaborative site from the island off the west coast of Scotland. The writers keep track of the local flora and fauna of the island, with siting reports, photographs, and enjoyable speculation and commentary. The project is clearly a labor of love. Here is a Golden Eagle from an entry on Wednesday, November 27, 2002.

image The site may be a good model for courses where students collaborate on a weblog in order to make something for a wider audience. I think, for example, of a course I took in Plant Taxonomy, long ago at the University of Missouri. We all memorized the key characteristics of 50 or 100 plant families, and each student collected, dried, mounted, identified and tagged 25 flowering plants. After these were graded they vanished into closets and trash cans, I suspect.

But if the class would make the identifications using digital cameras and record them on a weblog with dates and place of “collection,” then as the semesters go by the site would become a growing public record of the natural history of the region, while still serving the needs of the course. Students would be able to look back at the site years later and see their work and the work of others who have followed them. Another Skye web site, Skye Flora, is building something of that kind.

Over time, other courses, such as ecology and urban planning, could draw on the growing collection for data about the health of ecosystems and the impact of new housing developments, say. Geography classes could map the data. Climatologists could trace shifting weather patterns. Photo-journalists could look up the best dates for seeking a rare flower in the local woods.

Younger students could manage similar but simpler projects. In South Bend, for example, we have a lovely, small zoo. Grade school students could produce a guide to the zoo, with short features on the different types of animals, observations of their behavior, and updates on births and other developments. A grade school could deepen its links to the community by inviting local experts to contribute 100-200 word entries on some topic of interest for the site — a botanist could talk about how grasses are grown for herbivores in the zoo, while a veterinarian could talk about the how to take care of very large and very small animals, such as elephants and poison dart frogs. The result would be a site of use to children and science teachers from other schools in the area, which would be a point of pride for the sponsoring school.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 06, 2003 | 3:10 am


Sat Apr 05, 2003

An introductory article

Laurel A. Clyde offers a two-part overview of “Weblogs and Blogging” from the online publication Free Pint (numbers 111 and 112). In part one Clyde defines basic terms and types of weblogs and introduces some of the software choices. Part two discusses weakness of weblogs and some areas, such as library and information science, where they seem promising.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 05, 2003 | 4:03 pm


Fri Apr 04, 2003

Blogged out

It’s useful to listen, when we can, to experienced weblog writers. Here is Peter Merholz:

I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the echo chamber effect of weblogs. A meme drifts out there, and then 38 different people post their take on that meme, and they all link to each other, and, as a reader, you bounce from post to post, the semantic feedback growing until it’s deafening. I needed to remove myself from that for a while. To prune a tree. To look on as my g/f and another friend weeded my garden. To get licked in the face by a dog. To prepare my taxes. To watch work out while watching TeeVee. 3/29/03

I suspect that we need to stop talking and make something once in awhile. Words into other forms of creation, words into action, words into community, words into other forms of life. To avoid being left only with words and words that are words about words.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 04, 2003 | 5:15 pm


An extensive site

Will Richardson, “Supervisor of Instructional Technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in beautiful Flemington, New Jersey,” maintains an extensive site called Weblogg-ed, addressing theory, practice, and reports from the field. In a better world New Jersey’s beauty would go without saying.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 04, 2003 | 5:03 pm


Bibliography and metablogs

José Luis Orihuela provides a good general bibliography about blogging, a list of metablogs (blogs about blogging), and other resources.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 04, 2003 | 4:54 pm


Thu Apr 03, 2003

Professors who blog

The Professors Who Blog site provides some examples of academic uses of weblogs or weblogs with an academic aroma. The page’s host, Andrew R. Cline, himself provides many resources for readers interested in interpreting political rhetoric — visit his Rhetorica site to see an example of a site devoted to providing resources for an academic and civic endeavor.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 03, 2003 | 4:05 pm


Trying the free software

Everyone knows the free software provided by Blogger, with its bright blocky default page templates and its advertising banner on top. Blogger pages can be a bit clunky to look at, but the price is right. Not, I think, as well known, is we::blog, a free provider I’ve tried out this week for another topic. To my eye, the default pages are clean, clear, almost graceful in their simplicity, and there’s no banner advertising, which I think is a valuable difference for a course-associated weblog. Take a look.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 03, 2003 | 2:01 am


Stretching to meet the world #2

In a previous post I praised Rebecca Blood for her sense of the elements of a strong weblog and suggested that for some writers these things don’t come naturally, but might be encouraged and supported by a well-shaped assignment. I said that I thought students needed to make a stab at connecting to another person’s ideas and experience by investigating the ways she makes those things known in the specificity of her language. With that in mind, I want to resist something Blood says on the next page:

Link choice is voice, and those who say otherwise have not quite grasped the essence of hypertext. (The Weblog Handbook 73)

I agree that pointing to another site can be a gesture of real eloquence, taking its authority from the cleverness of the link and from the writerly persona you have already created for a reader. I agree that juxtaposing, without comment, can be as devastating as any direct comment (see many of the works of Joan Didion, for example). But at the risk of not quite grasping the essence of hypertext, I want to say that there is a virtue for students, for citizens, for professionals in many fields, in being able to point to the particulars of someone else’s language, summarize them, contextualize them, evaluate them one by one, and come to an explicit conclusion. Brief entries pointing and linking to another site, perhaps with a few words of evaluation or a lively bit of attitude implying a judgment, are more in keeping with the emerging customs of the blogosphere, and students may come to classroom weblog assignments expecting to write that way, but I don’t think they will be well-served if we don’t ask them to modify the genre for the classroom.

Perhaps I am putting too little faith in the process, in the growing sense of audience, in the integrity of the individual’s own project as a writer, or in the sense of play that might thrive under less restrictive classroom regime. I don’t know.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 03, 2003 | 1:00 am


Wed Apr 02, 2003

Stretching to meet the world #1

In The Weblog Handbook Rebecca Blood pins down some traits of a good weblog:

My prescription [for a superior weblog] is founded on three elements: challenging yourself, having fun, and most importantly, writing from the perspective that your opinion matters…. As you honestly stretch yourself to meet the world, describing it as best you can, your voice will begin to emerge. As you continue to investigate your own way of seeing things, that voice will strengthen. (72)

I like the spirit of those comments. I get the sense that there is a way of looking outward that strengthens the one who looks — a kind of inquiry or investigation through which we challenge and slowly remake ourselves. She insists that the process be playful, and she locates the authority that makes it all possible in the individual, not in a profession or academic field or party platform. She wants bloggers to think and write in a place of liberty.

I think her ideas are not so different from a few sentences I contributed to Literacies, a reading anthology for college writing courses I edited with colleagues Terence Brunk, Suzanne Diamond, and Priscilla Perkins:

You take a chance when you read. You risk an encounter with another person’s ideas and experiences, and you may not be the same when you are finished. Paying close attention to someone’s words is an act of respect and a form of inquiry, a way of taking the world seriously. When you think about the ways a writer’s words relate to what you know of the world, you take your own ideas and experiences seriously too. There is no telling where that inquiry might lead and whose ideas might be challenged in the process. Everything is up for grabs, then, when you think about what you read, and that is the power, and the risk, of the encounter. Reading like that can change a person. (xv)

When it comes to the elements of culture that reside in language, especially written language, we are under a practical and moral obligation to try hard to understand. We owe other people a substantial attempt to understand what they try to tell us about themselves and the world as they see it, and they have left the clues more importantly in the specificity of their language. To be honorable, our reading and writing practices have to include a careful inquiry into the specificity of the language of others. Without that, we are just covering their experience with whatever general categories of thought are handy.

Unless we think that weblogs create this kind of reading and writing naturally (I don’t think they necessarily do), or that live blog audiences lead a writer to rise to the occasion (I don’t think they necessarily do), then we have to return to the question of how to make assignments that invite students to into the ethical realm of reading and writing. How to invite them to risk, to stretch, to inquire, to look at the specificity of another’s life and language…. Those are everyday problems for a writing teacher, with or without weblogs. But it is good to see Rebecca Blood point out that blogging is primarily a rhetorical and ethical realm rather than primarily a technical realm. I agree.

Posted by Ken Smith on Apr 02, 2003 | 12:18 am