Friday, November 03, 2006

Back to the Rhetoric

I’ve been remiss in keeping current with this blog, mostly because of laziness but somewhat due to the frenetic pace of the news this fall as next Tuesday elections approach. As soon as I’m ready to write about one issue, another one, equally as compelling, erupts.

I’ve been especially stunned at the levelof misleading rhetoric displayed in the political advertising and punditry in recent weeks, but I’ve been equally amused at some efforts by the pot, so to speak, to call the kettle black. For example, this week we have pulp-fiction writer Lynn Cheney (yes, she is the vice-president’s wife) tussling with Wolf Blitzer over whether or not her own fiction is steamier than that of the Democratic Senate challenger in Virginia. Any rhetoric will do, obviously, when the party in power is wallowing in a vacuum of workable ideas.

However, rhetoric is not the issue I want to talk about this week. Rather I want to critique and brainstorm my own efforts at teaching rhetoric. In both my W140 and W233 classes I’m having my students do learning blogs, in which they complete progressive, small weekly writing assignments as post to their blogs and then look at and comment on each other’s posts.

Let me start with making a pro/con list to this approach, as I see it well into the semester now. I should note that the blog is in lieu of using the WebCT discussion feature and of turning in the assignments as attachments to the assignment tool, and I’ve told the students I will assess their blogs, at the end of the semester, as a major part of their class participation grade, based on their level of engagement with their blog and with the blogs of their peers.


  • Fewer written assignments for the teacher to open and look at each week
  • Creates a more open environment than WebCT, one which extends and breaks down classroom boundaries
  • Can be shared with others outside the class
  • Is part of a modern, developing genre of writing
  • Is a form of self publishing
  • Keeps all student writing in one easy to access place
  • Eliminates some administration time in that they do not require the teacher to set up individual discussion topics for each assignment
  • Has a creative and colorful feel to it that expresses a student’s personality, as opposed to the drab institutional landscape of WebCT.


  • Security issues
  • Copyright and related ethical issues
  • Students, despite instruction often don’t put their full name on their blogs so it is hard to identify who is doing what
  • Not all students are intuitive when it comes to technology, and some struggle setting up their blog (although these are the same ones who struggle with WebCT)
  • Requires some instructional time for setting up blogs (of course, so does using WebCT).
  • Not easy to assess – no quick way to count posts as there is in WebCT.
  • Not clear if students are getting enough feedback or if even reading the feedback.
  • Some topics are too personally sensitive to share with the rest of the class, particularly if there is a chance outsiders may see them too.

Looking at this list, I’m more relieved than not. For example, Internet security is actually a great teaching point, plus there is some new blogging software that can be used to limit the community of viewers and responders. Another great teaching point is copyright issues and net etiquette. As to identifying the blogs accurately, that’s not a lot different than getting students to put their names on their papers and using proper MLA formatting for identification issues. As to the technology, this is an on-going issue, but one I’m only having to address once, as I’m finishing up some nifty “reusable learning objects” that walk my students through creating a blog and using my blog aggregator. And although I do find the WebCT discussion tool useful, and still use it for specified applications, I find the rather cheerful and colorful nature of blogs much more appealing and much more student centered.

All in all, comparing the two lists, I’m happy with this new approach to small weekly writing assignments. At the end of the semester I will send out a SurveyMonkey questionnaire to assess the classroom technique and to see if my confidence in it is warranted. Possible questions include:

  • How easy did you feel the blog was to set up
  • Did you read blogs of your peers routinely
  • Did your peers read yours
  • Did you find the weekly exercise of posting specific assignments to your blog useful?
  • Would you rather have sent them to WebCT
  • Did you worry about Internet security issues?
  • Did you feel you got enough feedback from the instructor for this class?

The results may help me change course, abandon course, or ease my mind.