We often think of blogging as the work of the amateur cook, the dog lover, the awestruck student abroad, or the good samaritan building homes for earthquake victims in Haiti. They are known to have value, but their value is limited. They are written by amateur writers; fun little collections of literature for family, friends, and the occasional stranger. And in thinking all of this, we fail to see the possible value writing online has for students and educators.
Blogging, in its current form, covers nearly every corner of the internet and beyond, incorporating the past and present, the far and wide, cooking, dogs, sports, music, love, hate, apathy, and abroad experiences. Its value is not limited. In fact, the inherent social aspect of digital writing (a more nuanced word for blogging) is what makes it limitless. Digital writing manifests itself in many forms; as literal blogs published through free web services such as WordPress, as posts on social media, and as blogs published through larger media groups such as CNN, ESPN, and the New York Times.
Digital writing as an act is more than putting together words on some sort of platform and pressing publish. In her talk Networking the Field, Kathleen Fitzpatrick defines writing on online platforms as “scholarly communication,” in a broader context than would otherwise be available. Digital writing has become a means of engaging not only with scholars immediately available through traditional methods of information-sharing, but with anyone, nearly anywhere. As she states, “the blog…provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers.” Consider this in the context of student work; professional scholars (professors, writers, politicians) have been given the opportunity to engage with their peers through university networks and personal relationships for years, yet students have not been afforded this intellectual luxury.
Now, with the availability and ease of digital writing, students can engage in this same scholarly engagement with each other. Fitzpatrick also emphasizes digital writing as an ongoing process; a continuous process of practicing and presenting that contributes depth and understanding to work at a more constant rate than before the advent of the blogosphere. A perfect example of this is Twitter, which allows users to instantly present (short) arguments, and within minutes receive feedback, criticism, and suggestions.
Jen Rajchel agrees with Fitzpatrick’s idea that web writing is “inherently about seeding the development of more opportunities to circulate student work while still foregrounding the difficult navigation of the public/private that accompany them.” In our current age of sharing and over-sharing, it seems trivial to speak about navigating the intersection of the public and private spheres that exist on the web. Yet these separate, and linked, spheres shape our identity equally. Digital writing is not only about the ability to publish and discuss at ease; it is about shaping yourself in a context that places you in the eyes of an audience. How might you interact with that audience? How does your audience take and digest what you say, and how do you do the same with their work? As Rajchel writes, “When students feel an increased level of investment in their projects and a heightened sense of responsibility to an actual audience, the work becomes less about grades and more about shaping their scholarship.” Rajchel is speaking about the level of depth that young scholars’ work can have when they understand the importance of creating a dialogue. An audience, hosted and sustained by the immense digital writing sphere, creates a sort of accountability for young writers and promotes reflection.
Linked to this idea of audience is what Natalia Cecire describes as “thinking in public,” a way of taking academic thought and placing it into the broader public sphere. Digital writing is an act of creating “theoretically supple ways to answer questions that we seriously want answered;” and act of linking small details and ideas to larger ideas as part of a community of authors, scholars, students, and readers. Cecire also emphasizes the importance of being somebody when you blog, as an act of public recognition of your place in the arena of digital writing. She says this as a professor and scholar, but the sentiment can be applied to students as well, and links to Rajchel’s idea that publicness leads to accountability (indeed, Rajchel cites Cecire in her essay). Implicit in her essay is Cecire’s idea that being public online as an academic, an especially trying position for women, is a form of academic progress; digital writing is both an expression of scholarship and and expression of your value as a scholar.
In his essay Organic Writing and Digital Media: Seeds and Organs, Pete Rorabaugh advocates for a sort of scholarly composition that sheds formula and instead attends to planting the seed of a composition and writing in unpredictable directions using that seed. That does not mean that the piece of writing is inherently messy or confusing; it simply means the the process of writing is not structured like high school teachers might have us think. Instead, it is paths that converge to create a cohesive whole. Rorabaugh focuses on the digital medium as having the capacity to facilitate this organic style, stating,
“[o]rganic material and compositions move through particular stages with a goal in mind, but the process takes precedence over the product. Using the digital landscape to frame academic composition allows us to attend closely to that process and encourage research fluency and critical inquiry.”
By this he means that digital writing provides a context in which outside participation, the acknowledgement of an audience, and the tangible and visible stages of developing a piece all come together to strengthen the process. Digital writing is about using the process of organic writing; engagement on a much larger scale. Digital writing is interactive, reactive, social, and, at times, messy.
Jason Ranker, in his essay The Affordances of Blogs and Digital Video, uses a specific case study to add nuance to the idea of blogging as a tool of scholarly engagement. He discusses two students, Jakob and Derek, and their blogging and digital video project. As ninth-grade students Jakob and Derek, along with other pairs in their class, were tasked with creating blogs and videos about a topic of their choice. What Ranker found from observing Jakob and Derek is that the class’ use of blogging, commenting, and multimodal aspects (video) lead to dynamic discussions, both online and in person. While he concedes that there were limitations to blogging (less depth and limited face-to-face interaction), he finds that “[b]y providing multiple modes, media, and technologies through which students can explore their topics, a more comprehensive—and perhaps more engaging—understanding of the research process and of the subject matter can emerge.” This includes online discussion between students, an aspect that Jakob touches on when he says, “nobody will listen to your blog if you have no credibility.” Again, an audience creates accountability and interaction, which affords credibility.
Ranker also touches on the power of multimodal aspects of digital writing and engagement. Multimodality can be defined as, “blends of words, pictures, charts, graphs, tables, audio, and/or video,” in the context of digital writing, or in traditionally published sources such as textbooks. As Ranker mentions, things such as hyperlinks expand discussion by introducing other web pages and sources in a tangible way. Video (and images) aid in conveying a message, acting as “a visual means to communicate complex ideas.” Often times words need the help of visuals in order to fully articulate an experience or point.
Chris Thaiss, in discussing multimodality both online and in brochures, on research posters, in journals, and beyond, writes that, “[e]ven the articles in peer-reviewed journals… include an array of visuals—charts, graphs, tables, photos, drawings—to supplement and clarify written text.” Multimodality is a way of further unpacking what is written, adding context. It is inherently linked to digital writing because images, sound, video, and hyperlinks are accessible and clickable, adding more depth to writing and paving the way for better understanding.
The regretful part about my education is that I firmly believe I chose the wrong major, or at the very least I could have chosen a better major. I chose political science because I was unable to commit to anything else. Luckily, I have been able to tailor my major to fit my interest in journalism and writing. I have focused on media and their relationship to politics, and a number of my classes have required blogging in order to better understand that relationship. I have found it to be the most effective means of understanding the field, and the most interesting. Looking at classmate’s blogs allows each student to approach the course material from different angles (and also allows students to interact with each other on a slightly-less superficial plane).
Digital writing is a means of scholarly engagement that goes beyond the traditional essay in that it is true engagement. When writing a research paper for a professor, you are only accountable to yourself and to your professor. It is easy, then, to write in a superficial, formulaic way that betrays your actual identity as a writer. Too often do formal essays leave me wondering how they helped me in any substantial way. As many of the authors above noted, an audience beyond you and your professor adds weight to issues, and forces more insightful and developed work. Writers in digital environments began to add more of themselves into their work, which is how they expand their scholarship. True engagement in scholarship necessitates interest, and digital writing is a catalyst for interest. If you can’t write online like you are interested in your subject matter, then you lose your audience. You lose credibility. Writing online, therefore, promotes interest and engagement.
In personal terms, writing online is a way to produce a portfolio of sorts that I can show prospective employers. It is more intriguing than linking them to a PDF of an essay for class because what I write online is a concise discussion of topics that interest me, and therefore represents my best work. I would rather an author see my piece about homophobia in the hip-hop community than my recent research paper on government in Latin America. Writing about homophobia might prove to be polarizing, but it is a much more personal and interesting piece. Multimodal aspects also allow me to engage readers and address sources in a more direct way, allowing for a better and more informative read.
Writing online usually requires writing for an audience that is made up of readers from multiple disciplines and backgrounds. Given that, it is necessary to write online employing rhetoric that can transcend your topic and be understood by everyone. In that sense, digital writing is a practice in liberal arts; it is an aggregate of multiple and diverse styles that lend to readability and understanding, more so than other academic works. Writing for politics online means writing so that your science-minded friend can understand the complexities of the judicial process. Writing for science online means writing so your politically-minded friend can understand the complexities of the double helix. In each case, we are using a liberal arts mindset to explore topics online.
Perhaps the most important and formative aspect of writing online is that it is ever-changing, ever-evolving. Technology may give rise to new ways of sharing your writing, or new ways to use image and sound. We will continue to see the expansion of internet access into rural and impoverished areas in the world, creating larger and more diverse audiences. With that, our own engagement with digital writing will change. Nothing is definitive online, only collaborative.
Written using the following articles and blogs as sources:
Cecire, Natalia. “How Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging.” Arcade. Stanford University, 20 April, 2011. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. http://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/how-public-frog-academic-blogging
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Networking the Field.” Planned Adolescence. N.p. 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/networking-the-field/
Jen Rajchel, “Consider the Audience,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/rajchel.
Ranker, Jason. “The Affordances of Blogs and Digital Video.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58.7 (2015): 568-578. Print. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jaal.405/epdf
Rorabaugh, Pete. “Organic Writing and Digital Media: Seeds and Organs.” Hybrid Pedagogy (2012): n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2015 http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/organic-writing-and-digital-media-seeds-and-organs/
Thaiss, Chris. “Multimodal Assignments: Writing for the Digital Age.” The CETL Blog. UC Davis Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, 8 May 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. http://cetlblog.ucdavis.edu/writing-for-the-digital-age/