Archive for June, 2003

June 2003 blog archive

June 30, 2003 Leave a comment

Archives: June 2003 [source]

Mon Jun 30, 2003

A well-known writer

Here is an anecdote passed along by Annie Dillard:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know . . . . Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentence? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin . . . . (The Writing Life 70)

Bloggers often plainly like writing, but it is not clear how many like sentences. If more did, we might run into more posts that are about sentences or that are about writing in more old-fashioned ways — sort of like the Paris Review interviews with writers, where people talk about nuts and bolts, where do you write, how do you revise, how many pencils do you sharpen at the start of each day to get yourself into the psychic space of writing, that sort of thing. Where are the posts quoting amazing sentences, not amazing ideas or amazing news, but amazing sentences from favorite bloggers? And the discussions that follow, suggestive, enthusiastic, reverential, trying to figure out how those sentences work and how they got written and how you and I could write some sentences like them.

Where are the blog posts about prose?

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 30, 2003 | 12:49 pm


Sun Jun 29, 2003

Emerson on blogging

(I’m addicted to squinting while I read. Try it!) The great American essayist can help us with the problem with “pointage,” those posts that do little more than point to other posts. In the final paragraph of “Quotation and Originality” Emerson said:

Only an inventor knows how to borrow, and every man is or should be an inventor.

In other words, it is an essential trait of human intelligence to work with the world by reinventing it, by borrowing elements of this and that, attaching them sideways and upside down to other strange elements, and thereby making some new worthwhile thing. Human beings must create, not just replicate, not just follow procedures, not just obey. Otherwise, no joy there is. (I’ve been watching Star Wars movies with the kids this week.)

In “The American Scholar” Emerson also said, One must be an inventor to read well. We cannot even have a fruitful relationship with our own experiences, including our reading experiences, without making what we see our own. We see new ideas and events from the context of our past experience, for one thing.

As a writing habit, as a habit of mind, undigested linking swears an oath to a nearly mute humanity, one able to say little more than, “I point to this!” It testifies to how little one can think and still produce words on a screen. We can do better.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 29, 2003 | 12:23 pm


The personal side

Halley Suitt essays on the urgency of personal writing in the blogosphere: And, as you’ve probably guessed, I think of Anne Frank as a blogger, she says. And in a longer piece she tells the history of blogging, in part, as an opening into the personal that was driven by the different uses women saw to make of the software.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 29, 2003 | 9:09 am


Sat Jun 28, 2003

A collective course blog

This fall I’m teaching W350 Advanced Expository Writing, and I’ve announced a focus on style for the writing assignments. I think I will try for a single blog, a collective blog, for this course, in which students and I will gather examples of good prose style, reflect on the techniques we find in them, and try to name principles we see at work. Perhaps we will revise and assemble some of our work into a manual of prose style at the end, a site that might be of use to others. Students in later semesters might use, extend, and revise the site. It might be best to use Wiki software for our collaboration on the manual.

We can refer to scholars of style as we do our work — how can we bring the ideas of Hazlitt on familiar style into our discussion, for example? Which of their terms and concepts speak most powerfully to a practicing writer today? How do we translate the advice of a theorist into our own daily composing pratices?

I haven’t worked out the other assignments for the course yet. Students are required to do a research project, for one thing.

As you can see, this course design continues my interest in using blogs in settings that pay attention both to process and to product, using the blog to help enrich the process but not letting it be the only or final product. And I want the product to have a sense of audience and wider use. If blogs help us create and test knowledge, then publishing a web site with the results invites people to use that knowledge.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 28, 2003 | 10:12 am


Wiki progress report

Tim Bray’s first encounter with a Wiki site leads him to notice that people are more able to work together in a radically open environment than he expected. He calls the process reverse entropy, a making of structure when one would expect things to be falling apart. Still, he has the urge to assign an editor to Sam Bray’s new site devoted to the Echo Project, which aims to improve syndication technology in the blogosphere. In a post called “Stamp Out Creativity Now,” Bray soon reports reservations about the undisciplined content of the unfolding site that may be due to the radically open Wiki process, though.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 28, 2003 | 9:58 am


Fri Jun 27, 2003

The First Stone

Joel Bleifuss of In These Times has started a blog associated with the magazine, an interesting hybrid. A periodical is probably a good place to test the dynamics of a site that has both relatively static and dynamic elements — the month’s issue and the dialies of the blog. The Michiana Chronicles contributions to the WVPE web site have an opportunity to work both of those ways — posting the newest piece along with two or three others from previous years that still have a seasonal interest, say, along with the larger archive. I remain interested in the static and dynamic mix for course sites, partially because a teacher of writing, research, critical reading and thinking skills must be teaching process and benefits by any method that slows the process enough to make the parts more visible, more open for consideration, and partially because of the sense of urgency and audience we gain by making something that others can use.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 8:15 pm


A writing course blog assignment

First, the model. From Making Sense: Constructing Knowledge in the Arts and Sciences, edited by Bog Coleman, Rebecca Brittenham, Scott Campbell, and Stephanie Gerard, I am interested in Wanda M. Corn’s work on that famous painting of the farm wife and the husband with the pitchfork. Her essay, “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic,” investigates the painting itself, the writing that has been done about it, its cultural context, its relation to the life and other works by the painter, and the parodies that have been made of it. She provides a fine model for students of a complex study of a cultural object. A longer version of the essay was also published in Art the Ape of Nature.

I see this essay as a model we can study and emulate in this fall’s W140 Honors Composition course. The students will all be members of the Honors program, and we will have the pleasure of a slightly smaller class size, 15. We will meet in a networked computer lab once a week and in a seminar room once a week, and I can probably have a laptop and projector there in the seminar room if I schedule ahead. So we can easily use a weblog this semester as part of our study of expository writing.

The course requires a research project, and I would like to use student blogs to help them slow down and make public and, I hope, strengthen the stages of their research and research writing. We will use a single weblog on pMachine, but each student will have a category for posting his or her entries, so the category feature will imitate free-standing individual blogs. This will deprive students of a few blog features, like page design and a free-standing blogroll, but it will have the advantage of gathering all of their blogs together for easy reading — the class will be frequent readers and respondents to each other’s work. The View All link will allow each of us to see all the newest entries very easily.

Students will blog their research process as an aid to creating a polished research product. They will create something meant to be of use to others. I will ask them to choose an object, event, practice, or person of wide cultural interest and importance, as Corn does, and to use blogging to gather and evaluate the materials already existing about their topic. As the weeks go by, they will, as Robert M. Holland, Jr. advises, begin drafting a guide for other researchers who are interested in their topic. The guide will include an annotated list of resources, a description and history, and a discussion of its cultural roles, its cultural contexts, and its role in cultural struggles or debates.

Aside about plagiarism: it might be possible to help students work past some of the temptations of plagiarism by adding this requirement — if a source is not introduced and discussed in your weblog, you cannot write about it in your final paper. This would mean that students would have to start digesting their sources, which would help with the quality of the project as well as get us past some of the pitfalls of plagiarism.

Let’s say that students must create four or five weblog entries a week. In the early weeks these might survey web and more traditional sources addressing their topic and its contexts. They would provide links to the sources, summarize them, and begin to evaluate them. They would stop from time to time to sketch their growing sense of the topic’s character and importance to certain cultural processes or debates.

Classmates would be responsible for keeping up with several blogs by other students and writing comments about what they find there, helping each other extend their thinking by asking clarifying questions and discussing the most interesting discoveries. They would also see good examples in each other’s work and be able to try new techniques in their own writing as a result. We would spend some time each week looking at good things people are doing in their blogs and learn together what makes blogging better.

As the weeks go by, students would stop searching from time to time and write short pieces in which they attempt to consolidate some portion of the work so far. Just as Dave Winer, say, stops occasionally and adds a bit of an essay to his collection of short daily postings, the students will try to see what their work has been adding up to and take a provisional stand on some portion of the topic. Upon posting this, we will all give feedback, and the gathering and thinking will continue from there.

All through the semester the students will keep a collection of links to their sources, so the annotated section of the project will grow steadily, in public view. About 2/3 of the way through the semester they will start drafting the other prose sections that will, with feedback and revision, go onto a class site presenting the final projects.

Perhaps that web page could be called Studies in Culture or Studying Culture or Guides to Cultural Reseach. I might write an introduction, and then from a central table of contents we would link to each student’s project page. This page would be presented as A Guide to Research on Such and Such, and would contain the annotated sources and the prose piece placing Such and Such into its cultural contexts. In a final course paper, students might evaluate the collection of sites, or they might try the assignment Ed Folsom used to give at the University of Iowa and give detailed feedback to 5 or 6 of their classmates.

Assuming all goes well, I would want to keep these guides on the web and add new guides in later semesters. I’m sure students will learn from the example of previous semesters, too. We might also ask students to end the semester with advice to other students about the processes of blogging and research writing. In the best of all possible worlds, I would create a guide each semester along with the students — I could use the materials in a later course, certainly.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 10:21 am


A spark

It would be interesting to follow the ripples from this 6/22/03 Breslin column, A Fate Sealed Under Secrecy, about the loss of American rights — see what happens to it as it makes its way around the blogosphere and elsewhere, see how the ideas and facts are worked with by other readers and writers. A test case for the democratic blogosphere and the second superpower. Via Christopher Lydon. See the comments, too.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 10:15 am


Being more helpful to readers

I have enjoyed Fred’s blog, but the brief 6/24/03 post on Krugman (five words long, with a password-guarded link to Krugman’s column in the NY Times) and the comments that follow it show how easily one can obscure what you hope to offer in a message:

Bureaucracy in Action, 11:20 AM by Fred
Paul Krugman asks good questions.

Here are the comments:

Article title please?

For those of us who aren’t signed up to receive the NY Times, could you please provide the title of this article, so we can get it via Google’s news site? Thanks.

Posted Tue 24 Jun 1:23 PM EDT by Elayne Riggs
Elayne, it’s called “Denial and Deception,” and its in today’s New York Times.

Posted Tue 24 Jun 4:35 PM EDT by Fred ( : )


Thanks, it’s been reproed in at least one non-NYT place already. Here’s the Google URL:



Posted Thu 26 Jun 10:05 AM EDT by Elayne Riggs

Questions about what?

We’re one blog post and three comments into this discussion and a passerby is still offered no clue what Krugman’s article is about.

Posted Fri 27 Jun 10:30 AM EDT by Ken Smith

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 10:10 am


An overview

Scot Hacker provides an overview of blogging for the journal Macworld.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 10:02 am


The second superpower

James F. Moore wonders whether the new communities forming on the internet will become a second superpower. The article now, the book later, then the talk shows. At stake, he says, is world peace; the tool, open dialogue among wider groups of people. Blogging as a democratic practice.

PS on 8/12. Andrew Orlowski traces the term back to a comment by Patrick Tyler in the NY Times, but others disagree about his interpretation.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 12:27 am


Breaking news

The courses at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School share course materials on the web. One small feature worth emulating is the Breaking News section of each course site, where the professor can leave updates for students that they will be likely to find. A W250-style pMachine course site would benefit from that feature.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 27, 2003 | 12:21 am


Wed Jun 25, 2003

Journalism list

CyberJournalist offers a collection of three kinds of journalism sites.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 25, 2003 | 1:31 pm


The virtue of literary form

Writing about the nature of journalism’s famous inverted pyramid story structure, Chip Scanlan shows how the restrictions of a literary form can change a writer for the better. Of the pyramid, he says:

It’s also an extremely useful tool for thinking and organizing because it forces the reporter to sum up the point of the story in a single paragraph. Journalism students who master it and then go on to other fields say it comes in handy for writing everything from legal briefs to grant applications. (6/23/03)

The restrictions of the form force the writer to make judgments, often under time pressure.

The inverted pyramid and summary lead can be a challenging form for some journalists. At least, it was for me when I began reporting. Summing up three hours of a school board meeting or trying to answer the five Ws about a fatal car accident in a single paragraph, then deciding what other information belonged in the story — and in what order — was arduous and frustrating, especially with the clock ticking to deadline.

Also, as a beginner, I usually didn’t have the knowledge of the subjects I covered to easily answer the central question posed by the event: What was newsworthy about it, and in what order of importance? I resisted the disciplined thinking the pyramid demands, and like many reporters, scorned the form as uncreative and stilted. I preferred the storytelling approach of the fiction writer to the “just the facts” style of the reporter.

Instead of giving readers a loosely-constructed stream of brainstorming, writers who train themselves in one or more forms of writing change and grow to meet the demands of their forms:

Over time, it became easier, and I came to see that the form helps develop the powers of critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis that are the foundation of clarity in thinking and writing. The inverted pyramid is a basic building block of journalistic style.

Students whose teachers ask them to blog but who give them few other restrictions to the assignment may miss out on this opportunity for development. I suspect that the blogger’s freedom can be reduced without damage if a teacher introduces a discussion of effective traits of form — journalism blogging, for example — using good models that teacher and students all gather in their web research. Students could write a guide to the particular literary form they want to practice on the web, collecting and annotating strong and weak examples and preserving these for future classes to extend and refine.

The inverted pyramid is not the most likely form for some bloggers, but it has a name and a well-documented history. Scanlan provides links to other articles on journalistic forms: a history of the inverted pyramid, the hybrid of narrative and pyramid called the hourglass, and other hybrids called the five boxes and the nut graf.

Teacher and students might also take on the project of naming other, less journalistic blogging forms, tracing their history, analyzing and exposing their strengths and weaknesses, and practicing and mastering them.

See also Scanlan’s long list of other resources on writing, creative nonfiction, the personal essay, editing, and journalism. Don’t miss the Fall 2000 special issue of the Poynter Report on the personal essay.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 25, 2003 | 9:51 am


Tue Jun 24, 2003


Sam Ruby is working on some of the technical questions about the software that supports the weblog way, but he starts his essay with this definition:

Authentic Voice of a Person. Reverse Chronological Order. On the web. These are essential characteristics of a online Journal or weblog. #

I asked the computer to check Meg Hourihan’s essay on blogging for the word authentic — no show. Catherine Seipp’s article — no show. Dave Winer’s essay — no show, though he is interested in “the unedited voice of a person” — a sense that the writer is shaping her presentation of content and self, rather than having it shaped or reshaped by editing or pressure from others. He says, “as long as the voice of the person comes through, it’s a weblog.”

Back at the office we would probably want to distinguish between some essential voice that one person owns and a range of choices about speaking and relating to audience and occasion that a person makes. If you control those choices, something about you is imprinted on the prose, no doubt, and that is in some ways you, but it is not authentic in the flatter way I think many people might mean.

I often draft sentences that say “such and such seems to” and as I revise I usually strike out “seems” for a more dynamic and confident verb. The first version might be authentic, from one perspective, but the second version is almost always a better, more lively sentence, more fully reflecting the movement of my thought, less cloaked in mannerism, more actively in touch with the particulars of language and the specificity of experience. I’m still in there, but differently. Authenticity doesn’t get at it, really. Craft, trying for craft, might be better.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 24, 2003 | 9:36 am


Mon Jun 23, 2003

A topical collection

Sheila Lennon’s collection of garden blogs is a hint, I think, of the sort of annotation project I have thought about for students, though I would like to see students group and annotate their finds more thoroughly, and maybe write an introduction to the collection, as if they were curating an exhibit. They might also prepare a syndication page for those interested in the field, as well as a parallel collection of garden web sites. The job would be to add some value to the materials assembled by searching.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 23, 2003 | 11:05 am


To move the story past

Ed Cone has a phrase about writing that makes a difference — maybe all journalists say it this way, I don’t know:

The next day I interviewed Rick Boucher for my weblog. The article I posted before noon on Wednesday moved the Orrin Hatch vs. the Web story well past the version the bigtime exec’s paper posted at its site that evening. It didn’t just feel like reporting, it felt like a scoop. (6/23/03)

I should gather other terms like it, since some students need a series of explanations for a new task that comes to them as a challenge. Write something that builds on and moves the story past what others have already contributed. Or moves the idea past, in a certain kind of project. For some students, it is a way of asking them to practice going beyond summary. For writing about texts, see also the Kurt Spellmeyer phrase about interpretation meaning to say what the text hasn’t already or hasn’t quite said.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 23, 2003 | 10:03 am


Sun Jun 22, 2003

Corporate blogs

The New York Times today suggests some of the risks and requirements for corporate blogging. The article probably applies to a college blog too. A blog creates a more informal relationship with the community that an ordinary college web page, requires a sense of voice, and can’t be completely controlled by P. R. or law offices if that voice has a chance to connect with the audience.

“The Corporate Blog Is Catching On” was written by Thom Weidlich.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 22, 2003 | 10:54 am


Two links for the price of one

It took me a couple of months to notice that some bloggers were economizing on their links to people, giving one link through the first name and another through the last name. This is kind of nice, since it gives more for a reader to follow up on. The shortcoming is obvious: you have to get in the habit of checking to see whether a blogger is doing this or not, or you will miss it.

Example: at the bottom of this page, journalist and blogger Ed Cone offers two links through the name of Jack McCook.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 22, 2003 | 10:07 am


Sat Jun 21, 2003

Slow down and talk about it

Here is an interesting idea from Halley Suitt’s Weblog — linking the blogosphere to the writing of much earlier American and other writers. Halley starts with Emerson on self-reliance. But here’s the problem — instead of pointing to the whole essay, quoting bits of it and talking about those bits in light of current writing practices, we get a very brief and general headnote and then a cut and paste of the whole Emerson essay. That’s a good idea going sour because the writer doesn’t take the time to do some detail work with otherwise fine material. That’s one of the main weaknesses of many blogs. The power of language is in its specificity: “When Emerson says this, he helps me think about such and such. He leads me to consider X, but when I think about X in light of Y, I have to come to this conclusion . . . .” Not this: “Another thing on that grocery list called My Blog is Emerson. Hurray, Emerson.” All the more disappointing when the Emerson you’re pointing to is on self-reliance. Let’s get serious; let’s slow down and talk about the good material we have in front of us. Let’s stop pointing and think together.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 21, 2003 | 10:32 am


Fri Jun 20, 2003


We’re leaving for the bookstore in a few minutes — there is a Harry Potter party tonight. I expect we’ll be reading the book for about three weeks, since we read it aloud. Now there’s an author who knows how to make regular writing build into an extended project. She also helps teach readers how to listen for and do the different voices in her books — scenes like the chapter in which Hagrid fetches Harry from the Dursleys in the first book are several times more lively once you hear and try to act out the tones of the voices. The tensions in the scene come alive and move with great speed through the characters.

I’m not sure I can learn much about blogging from the Potter books, but then again, Bakhtin’s sense that fiction is driven and animated by contesting social and individual voices may be useful in our dailies. We see how much of social life is worked out through the differences in desire, fear, opportunity, and experience that mark each human voice, each social group. Maybe we can listen for these things in blogs and in the sources we study as we prepare to write each day; maybe we can get some of that novelistic, dialogic energy into our dailies; maybe if we don’t we’re just repeating the already known, the rarely thought through and often untested common sense of our social circle. Stock language on one side, dialogic language practices on the other. Maybe all good novelists have something to offer bloggers.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 20, 2003 | 9:29 pm


Foucault on criticism

From Krista at Arete, a long passage from a 1981 interview with Foucault about the social work that criticism does.

A critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established, unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based. (So Is It Important To Think?)

It’s a world of surfaces and ideas that support them, then, and to change the world one needs to get past its surfaces to the concepts that quietly justify the social order:

Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy. Understood in those terms, criticism (and radical criticism) is utterly indispensable for any transformation.

And it is a world of comfortable people, satisfied with what seems obvious, he suggests. We’re among the comfortable, certainly, among the ones who have trouble seeing past our own assumptions. Daily posts trumpeting familiar readings of experience would be a sign of that; another sign might be never reading or writing about people whose ideas and experiences are very different from our own, or if we do, just touching the surface of their difference and glancing away. Of course Foucault wasn’t talking about blogging, but he was talking about the social practices of thinkers and writers. Daily posts can break through the outer coating of common sense, can challenge what seems obvious, but I suspect that something has to accumulate, to build, rather than to burst out in full and final accomplishment each day.

Two days ago I wrote about Glenn Reynolds and his essay on good blogging. He said one of the key traits was quick response, a sense of lively interaction with events and other readers and writers. That’s a real virtue, I think, but not a sufficient one, if Foucault is right about criticism. We make contact with others, with events, in a lively way, moment by moment, and as writers in daily posts, but we also need to follow the subterranean currents that move more slowly and track them over the months until we can name the course they take and know their character. If we only write dailies, if we only think we’re writing dailies, and not working on something bigger too, I think we’re shortchanging ourselves, not doing justice to our ideas and experience. I’m seeing blogging as a worthwhile process that creates opportunities outside itself for other worthwhile products.

It would be wonderful for students to leave a course knowing both of those things.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 20, 2003 | 9:42 am


Thu Jun 19, 2003


I have to look into Alexander Reid’s article on Uniplanet, an undergraduate online journal, but sadly I can’t get the journal itself to appear in the browser today. Another time . . . . For now, there is his blog and the article in Kairos 8.1.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 19, 2003 | 9:09 pm


Wed Jun 18, 2003


Glenn Reynolds talks about what makes a blog good. Mainly he wants the writer to have her own voice and respond quickly to unfolding conversations and events. Also, be interesting, write well, and use links.

I suspect that students and other new bloggers will struggle with the voice and with participating in unfolding conversations because they will lack a developed sense of their audience as well as a developed audience. Teachers should probably build into assignments the task of being an active audience for classmates, to help stand in for what might otherwise be missing. Also, students can benefit from learning how to be an engaged audience, too. I say, give structured assignments that include both roles.

People don’t write much on blogs about what it means to write well, do they?

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 18, 2003 | 4:22 pm



MSNBC is happy to help us keep an eye on the blogosphere with Will Femia’s Weblog Central Blogspotting site. Links there, too, to the line-up of blogger / columnists on their staff, like Eric Alterman.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 18, 2003 | 10:06 am


An unofficial student portal

Not connected with the university or any classes, here is a portal for student blogs at NYU. Unofficial as it may be, I suspect that this service is one more bit of the social glue that makes a university work. Via Scripting News.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 18, 2003 | 9:46 am


Tue Jun 17, 2003

An assignment idea — more about the shirts

Following up on the Gathering post of 6/13 . . . . Students could do some interesting work with the wifebeater shirt — I talked briefly with April Lidinsky about this. With this item we’re at the intersection of fashion, social class, media representation, language change, gender roles, resistance to cultural norms, agency. One web site from the Google search suggests that the term came from the gay community, so there’s a complication, and other sites show some women resisting by reversing the gender role in a version they wear.

There are dozens of web sites that mention the term, many images of the shirts being worn, items for sale, designs with familiar and alarming images on the shirts, some critiques, some sites happily accepting the term on its face value, it seems. A student group could do an analysis of the images, the way the word is used, the history of its use, the types of critique that are made, and an evaluation of their own. They could blog through the process and then produce a web site or web-based multi-media article as the result. A class could do a project like this as a group and then individuals could carry out their own research on another case. Students in a particular course, over the months and years, could build a small magazine of cultural history and analysis. It could be published to the web for students and others to use.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 17, 2003 | 1:50 pm


Mon Jun 16, 2003

Blogging place

I’ve run into a few blogs interested in different ways to focus on a place in a weblog, including this one Jeff Sutter passed along today, a site devoted to the architecture of St. Louis. Built St. Louis is, I believe, a combination of two weblogs and a series of links to topical pages, all nicely designed and rich with photographs of the architecture.

It makes a good model for a course-based site, I think. A class could, for example, build a site here in South Bend addressing any of these things: the ethnic history and heritage of different parts of town; the famous and not-so-famous industrial history of the area, the progression of neighborhood and house styles over the decades, a collection of parks / scenic walks / other beauties of the area, one of the smaller towns in the area, types of rural life in our region, tomake some examples.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 16, 2003 | 12:11 pm


Sun Jun 15, 2003

This version of the facts

My daughters gave me Bill Bryson’s new book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, for Father’s Day. The epigraph, from Hans Christian von Baeyer’s Taming the Atom, reminded me, at the end, of the mark of individual perspective that good writing puts on that portion of the universe the writer has known:

The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: “I don’t intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.”

“Don’t you think God knows the facts?” Bethe asked.

“Yes,” said Szilard. “He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts.” (xiii)

All the more reason, I say, for giving up the habit of merely pointing to other blogs, other web sites. Slow down, write fewer posts but take the time to weigh the materials in front of you and add something of value to the discussion. Everybody, the Creator included, knows the facts already. What we don’t know is each other’s best thinking.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 15, 2003 | 11:07 am


Sat Jun 14, 2003

A call for educators to participate

A conference called BloggerCon is getting under way, and the organizers are looking for educators to lead one of the strands of discussion. Here is the call from Dave Winer:

One of the areas of focus at BloggerCon will be weblogs in education. So we’ve got a couple of people lined up who are scholars who use weblogs with excellence. No announcements yet, but they’re great people.

Now I want to balance that with a couple of educators who have successfully created a network of weblogs in a school, school district, college, university. I’m looking for people who support people who use weblogs, in a context that is not about weblogs, if possible.

My goal of course is to learn from them, and then figure out what the next steps are. What do they need from other educators. What software is missing?

We’ve already got some famous universities, I want to get connected with some not-so-famous universities. Who is leading in use of weblogs in education? Who do you look to for insight and inspiration? That’s who I want for BloggerCon.

If you have ideas, please post them here in the comments section, or send them via email to me at 6/14/03

Links and comments are starting to come in here, including my suggestion:

It will help if you bring in people who see your assignment for them raising two sets of questions, one set about the technology and one set about pedagogy that can make the technology educational. In other words, blogging for school is, by itself, not the same as learning, and requiring students to blog is also, by itself, not the same as teaching. The software is, by itself, not educational, but its structure makes certain kinds of pedagogical acts, including some new ones, possible.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 14, 2003 | 3:28 pm



Think of the category of entries that Tim Bray calls Language; think of the years under Hitler when Victor Klemperer risked his life and saved his sanity by faithfully cataloging the abuses of language routinely practiced upon the German people by their dictators, as one of the means of maintaining power. What Bray will do with all his observations I don’t know, but Klemperer, a German Jew, made notes day after day for most of Hitler’s rule and then wrote a book after the war theorizing about tyrannical uses of language. This is a way of doing blog-like work that build into something, an extended intellectual project of value to others, interesting moment by moment but important when it is made into something larger than the dailies.

Here is Bray’s 2/14/03 entry, called Wife-Beater:

There is a variety of sleeveless T-shirt that is called a singlet Down Under (maybe in Britain too?), and a muscle-shirt (mostly on males) or tank-top (mostly on females) here in the New World. It’s a little-known fact that a black singlet is a culturally important signifier of New Zealand-ness. Google suggests that on these shores, a singlet is what wrestlers wear.

I gather that these days some people are calling these things “Wife-beaters” because of their appearance on the perps in reality/cop TV shows. A living language, you gotta love it.

This is clearly a worthwhile blog entry, noting variability in language, which is interesting enough, but then raising the stakes with the class-linked, media-linked term, “wife-beaters,” for the shirts. But the entry ends almost immediately — instead of speculating on the class issues, the media’s love of stereotyping, the ways groups code themselves in language and dress, etc., Bray skips out with a sentence that is little more than a shrug: A living language, you gotta love it. It stops where it should start the serious work of theorizing, of linking one example to another, of testing or resisting what the example seems to show, and so forth. The genre of blog post undermines the opportunity the writer created for himself.

If he had chosen to say more, on that day, or to build, as Klemperer did, for months and years, then it wouldn’t matter how much a given day’s post carried through on the promise of its thinking. If the writer doesn’t build something more, though, then the customs of blogging undermine the promise of the living mind that made the observation, tempting him to abandon what he has just started to create.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 14, 2003 | 1:08 am


Thu Jun 12, 2003

Thoreau on blogging

[If you squint.] In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard paraphrases her teacher’s journals:

To find a honey tree, first catch a bee. Catch a bee when its legs are heavy with pollen; then it is ready for home. It is simple enough to catch a bee on a flower: hold a cup or glass above the bee, and when it flies up, cap the cup with a piece of cardboard. Carry the bee to a nearby open spot — best an elevated one — release it, and watch where it goes. Keep your eyes on it as long as you can see it, and hie you to that last known place. Wait there until you see another bee; catch it, release it, and watch. Bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree, until you see the final bee enter the tree. Thoreau describes this process in his journals. So a book leads its writer. (12)

Yes, it’s not exactly blogging, but the analogy does suggest that we’re missing out if our sense of blogging doesn’t get beyond the dailies and build something. We shouldn’t just login every day and say, “I was out in the yard and saw a cool bee. See ya next time,” even if we finish the entry with a good link to a more famous blogger who’s also seen a bee.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 12, 2003 | 10:05 am


Annie Dillard on blogging

Well, only if you squint as you read it. So let’s squint at this passage from The Writing Life, where she distinguishes between writing to make a point and writing as a form of inquiry. When you attend to this distinction, she says, you find that

The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back. (3-4)

It’s another way of thinking about the limitation of brief, daily, unedited works. I don’t take the dailiness as a fatal flaw because I think she’s arguing for daily writing all through the book, but as I squint at this passage from this obscure corner of the blogosphere I think we should stop from time to time and try to make something out of the accumulating dailies. Either harvest them for an essay or extend the thinking and write something new in the new territory.

The dailies build community, start an exchange, start to accumulate something, but if we look back a day or two at the A-list parody we see how easy the dailies can become identifiable mannerism and even self-parody. There is a more difficult relationship to writing that promises more, Dillard suggests.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 12, 2003 | 12:21 am


Wed Jun 11, 2003

A corporate model

Michael Gartenberg suggests a model for developing a corporate weblog, starting in-house and then slowly opening up the site to a wider audience. The model may be appropriate for an academic department or a college, too. Via ?

Or, make a living writing your blog, says Glenn Reynolds.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 11, 2003 | 11:22 pm


Tue Jun 10, 2003

Pointage and the R-VAT

My favorite line in the long parody of the so-called A-list bloggers is at the end of this:

This new meme here, that new meme there. Here’s some pointage to back and forth between this person and that person on this issue. #

The parodies probably make a couple of main points. 1) that bloggers may have the usual range of self-serving human failings, and 2) that far too much of what gets posted is repeating what others have said and pointing to where they’ve said it.

There should be an Reverse Value Added Tax — instead of taxing added value, as in Britain, tax that which does not add value. Offer something new; make it matter; make yourself and others think.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 10, 2003 | 11:16 am


Mon Jun 09, 2003

True value

Andrew Orlowski suggests that the true value of blogs is to keep socially mal-adjusted people busy and out of other people’s way. (5/30/03) It’s “faux populism,” he says.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 09, 2003 | 10:58 am


Make yourself care (Make me care, part 2)

Part of a writer’s obligation Michael Stillwell described in a post I linked to on March 14 is recognized by Ben James here:

My blog is extremely tedious, and I’m buggering off for a few days to think of something interesting. (3/16/03)

Or, put another way: William E. Coles, Jr. is reputed to have answered frustrated students who asked him what he wanted in their papers this way: I want what you would want when you were proud of yourself for having wanted it. (See The Plural I.) Imagine the class conversation about that question: what would you want your papers or your web page or your blog to be like if you were proud of yourself for having wanted it?

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 09, 2003 | 10:05 am


Sun Jun 08, 2003

Everywhere I look

My parents hired a landscape architect. They were warned, “He’s good, but everywhere he looks he sees water features.” Sure enough, they now own a small waterfall and a very small pond.

Says Dave Winer:

If I were starting a new company in 2003, I would put in the charter that, in addition to whatever else my company did, the new company would be a publication. (6/7/03)

Yes, a complany creating a record of its work for itself and for others. What about a university as a publication? A department as a publication? A course as a publication?

Some of that is a matter of public relations. Who we are and what we have done well, for others to see. Part of it could be to help improve our work. What we have thought and said together that we will want to refer back to and build on later, for ourselves to see. Or that we want to keep talking over right now. That could cover the university or the department.

What about the course as a publication? Making something for others as a goal? Possibly, but also what about making a portfolio for students and teacher, as a record of their work, to talk about and improve now and to build on later? What about a faculty member as a publication?

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 08, 2003 | 11:01 am


Blog prose styles

Sooner or later I’ll have to be able to talk about prose style with students writing blogs. I might as well begin with today’s graceful birthday post by Ed Cone. The writing is very clean, the paragraphs each have a clear focus and advance this tiny essay, and the sentences each build confidently on something that has been announced before. That has been the hardest thing for many recent students of mine — making each sentence work with, work from, what has just been said. When they manage it, their prose changes quickly.

Ed Cone writes with the authority of a seasoned writer, a seasoned journalist, and with confidence that he can be suggestive rather than exhaustive and still do a good job. It is tempting to imagine a longer version of this essay, less a blogger’s piece or a columnist’s piece and more a familiar essay, that slows down and unpacks some of these suggestive sentences. Yet as a reader I know he’s made this choice, rather than fallen into a form out of lack of skill. This is difficult for students — they often need to read more and write more before they have a range of choices at their command, as the seasoned writer does. It would be interesting to talk with students about when they realize that a topic might explode the short form they’ve chosen for it, such as a blog post, and ask for more time and space.

Essayists often choose to present themselves as imperfect beings, as Cone does here. Part of one’s authority can come from a bit of openness that tempts a reader to accept the writer’s words generously. Essayists do much of their work close to home, in their own experience or their own thinking, rather than in the realm of objective reporting, and they depend on the character and authority they project as they portray themselves. The care they take choosing words, writing sentences and linking them to other sentences, reflects well on them.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 08, 2003 | 10:33 am


The dark side of the force

Sarah Baxter suggests a harsh vision of blog freedoms in this story about bloggers helping to bring down Howell Raines, executive editor of The New York Times, after the recent scandal over the shoddy reporting ethics of Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg:

E-mails, magazine websites and blogs poured out gossip and venom against Raines at a speed that left the slow-footed, bureaucratic newspaper looking like a media dinosaur. Sunday Times (London)

Says Baxter,

Raines’s departure is allowing bloggers to indulge in further self-congratulation. The internet’s new breed of media commentators is already savouring its potential impact on the 2004 presidential race.

Baxter’s piece would be a good one for students to consider as they work out their own sense of the ethics of public writing and blogging. Also, what about seeing how bloggers respond to the portrait? Dave Winer pointed out the article this morning on the prominent Scripting News, so others should see it and comment. He didn’t evaluate the story in any way, though, as he seemed absorbed in a long post about offenses against RSS standards.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 08, 2003 | 9:52 am


Sat Jun 07, 2003

Another form of generosity

Via Arete I notice a faculty version of the generosity that animates many good parts of the web — see the Foucault and other course outlines of John Protevi, for example. One of the primary traits of the web is its ability to create opportunities for generosity to others, yes? See also the prospectus for the Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy as a use of the web as an aid to collaboration on a large project.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 07, 2003 | 9:43 am


A page design

I like Chris Pirillo’s blog design quite a bit — it stretches my sense of the options quite a bit and mixes styles successfully, I think. One complaint: on my screen, at least, the handwriting font sometimes rests right on top of the legal pad lines, making it harder to read.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 07, 2003 | 9:27 am


Fri Jun 06, 2003

Distant voices

I know you through your words, if you write. A little bit.

Looking back on three months of nearly daily writing, I see that one of the pleasures of blogging is the upredictable chance for trading ideas with interesting people one would otherwise never have known. That’s different than the experience I usually have with writing poems or reports for the office. One rarely hears back about a poem; you often get a reply about workplace writing, but it is usually about the workplace rather than about yourself. Blogging is a bit like writing essays for the radio — sometimes you hear back from someone and a conversation begins. You figure out something about the person by what catches her eye in your prose; you figure out something about yourself by how he reflects your prose back to you. So, I can turn that opening phrase a little:

I know myself through your words, if you write. A little bit.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 06, 2003 | 7:04 pm


Thu Jun 05, 2003

Intel series

Something to watch for:

Four teachers who are using a new Web publishing technology to motivate students, build online collaboration, and enhance learning opportunities share their stories in a special series scheduled to launch in late June on An Innovation Odyssey, a feature of the Intel® Innovation in Education Web site. The Intel Innovator

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 05, 2003 | 11:42 am


A syndication model

Stephen Downes provides a complex example of a site devoted to syndicating sources on education. He offers an RSS feed of its own, so faculty and students could have it piped into their own sites. With something like this, you find some duplication of entries as news makes its way around the blogosphere.

It might be a good group or class project to create a page like this to serve people interested in a topic, and then to annotate it or create a guide to its use. They might index or create a library of important posts, too.

Tony Byrne provides a more industrial view.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 05, 2003 | 11:25 am


Wed Jun 04, 2003

A page design

I like the clean Digital Banff page, though I would have to improve my css skills to borrow its techniques, I think.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 04, 2003 | 11:16 am


RSS overviews

Mark Pilgrim provides a two-part technical introduction to syndication, iwth other links at the end of part 2. Jay Cross gives a more general introduction. I’ll have to give a more detailed look at Syndic8, too, said to be a collection of more than 13,000 public xml feeds.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 04, 2003 | 10:59 am


Why blog at school?

Phil Windley offers some good reasons in the abstract of a conference panel on blogs in education:

Among the problems cited by educators in teaching critical thinking skills to students are the lack of access to primary sources of information, the inability of students to experiment with thoughts and concepts before committing to them (on a test for example), and the difficulty students have getting multiple, valid outside reviews of what they are thinking. Weblogs are a solution to these problems. Weblogs allow teachers to guide informal classroom activity and to see student’s work before its time for the test or final paper. Students gain a vehicle for creatively experimenting with thoughts and concepts and easily accessing, cataloging and storing outside information related to their interests. This panel will introduce the concept of weblogs, or blogs as they are commonly called, discuss what makes them different from other websites, and talk about how they can be used to enhance classroom education. The panel will consist of weblog experts from around Utah and be moderated by Phil Windley who operates a popular technology blog at and has first hand experience using blogs in an educational setting. #

He also offers some links to other sites.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 04, 2003 | 10:44 am


A model assignment

From Clint Wrede at the University of Iowa, a nicely-worded semester-long weblog assignment, for a library science course on electronic publishing, that can serve as a model for others.

Wrede also does a nice job creating a one-page project history that could be of use to students and instructors who would like to document the research process. The topic: baseball box scores.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 04, 2003 | 10:15 am


Tue Jun 03, 2003

Words words words

The entries from March 7 to May 31 add up to more than 25,000 words. The quality varies so much from day to day, from sentence to sentence, but I have to say that this is more prose than I almost ever write in that period of time. That’s been good for me, though maybe not for anybody else.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 03, 2003 | 6:45 pm


Small pockets of structure

I know I haven’t mastered the full argument of the John Udell talk, but I’m charmed by this passage he quotes from Joshua Allen, from an essay called Naked XML, on usefully-structured information:

Professed reverence toward XML is not proof that someone has apprehended the true beauty of the semistructured data model . . . . The lesson, of course, is that real-world information is chaotic. In any but the smallest “proof of concept” systems, the best that one can hope for is to be able to recognize small pockets of structure within a sea of otherwise unstructured information.

Udell asks, “How do we create ‘small pockets of structure’?”

The software writers want to create systems that help make that possible, but the content writers are always responsible for sentence-by-sentence decisions that make structure and meaning. We add a few tags to the content when we enter it into a blog, and the content management system or template sorts with the help of those tags, and perhaps in a few years fabulous new things will become possible through the sorting. But for most students and teachers, the issue remains the ability to write sentences that link with other sentences, to revise and improve them, and to present them in useful ways for audiences — creating small pockets of structure on the page, on the screen, in the mind of writer and reader, perhaps in a community.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 03, 2003 | 11:38 am



Consider webrings as a site for student research on a given topic, a site of research in internet organization and communication, and as a possible goal for students creating a topical site. See, for example, the BioScience ring, the Nature Photos ring, or the Wildlife and Nature Photography ring.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 03, 2003 | 10:50 am


Mon Jun 02, 2003

PBS NewsHour weighs in

I just found out that there was a longish segment on the PBS evening NewsHour show on 4/28/03. The transcript includes Terence Smith summarizing the form this way:

Weblogs are public web sites characterized by brief, time-stamped entries in reverse chronology, often laced with edge and attitude. They customarily include hypertext — links to other sites favored by the author — and some now include still photos, video, and audio.

The story makes for a friendly introduction or overview.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 02, 2003 | 12:31 pm


Experiments in collaboration

Dan Gillmor experiments with collaboration by inviting readers to help him think about his book project. He offers a series of stories intended for the book and asks for comments about any of them. He proposes that much of the book’s work be extended on a web site.

A wilder dream is the Openlaw site, which is trying to take collaboration into the realm of legal practice.

Openlaw is an experiment in crafting legal argument in an open forum. With your assistance, we will develop arguments, draft pleadings, and edit briefs in public, online. Non-lawyers and lawyers alike are invited to join the process by adding thoughts to the “brainstorm” outlines, drafting and commenting on drafts in progress, and suggesting reference sources. #

Their list of electronic tools for research and collaboration is impressive.

Both models should be worth watching.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 02, 2003 | 12:28 pm


Sun Jun 01, 2003

Steve K. says no

Are blogs good pedagogical spaces for collaboration? Based on the experiences of a recent semester, Steven D. Krause says no and offers a copy of the conference paper where he says why. He draws this distinction in the paper:

If you have a piece of writing that you want to “deliver” or “publish” as a more or less finished text, put it on a blog. If you have something to say to a particular audience in order to enter into a discussion with them, put it on a mailing list.

He describes a pretty loose assignment, though, which leads me back to thoughts from earlier posts here: that weblogs are like other kinds of assignments for writing classes, which need clear goals, clear tasks and responsibilities, and a structure that allows time for such things as informal writing, feedback from others, further deliberation, and revision or further composing. The structure doesn’t just happen for most students.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 01, 2003 | 11:42 am


A consortium of doctoral students

PhDweblogs is a blog linking the work of Ph.D. candidates from several nations who use blogging in their work. It looks like they have more than 50 participants right now. Participants like Clancy Ratliff make this a good resource.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 01, 2003 | 11:22 am


Twice or not at all

Austrian essayist Karl Kraus on reading seriously:

My request that my writing be read twice has aroused great indignation. Unjustly so. After all, I do not ask that they be read once. #

Or on the power dynamic we rarely acknowledge in education:

What the teachers digest, the pupils eat. #

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 01, 2003 | 10:06 am


Chronicle chat on blogging

On Wednesday, June 4 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time the Chronicle of Higher Education will host a live web forum on academic blogging. Transcript to follow.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 01, 2003 | 10:03 am


Journalism review

Nicely edgy pieces this week by Ed Cone remind me of the need for journalists who review the work of other journalists. I’ll keep an eye out for people already doing the work, such as Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review. Students should be able to use sites like this to gather ideas about the nature of strong and responsible blogging. They might start with Mark Glaser’s interpretation of the role played by bloggers in the fall of Trent Lott.

Posted by Ken Smith on Jun 01, 2003 | 10:01 am