Online Resources and Blogging as Pedagogical Tools

The lives of our students, and our lives as professors, have increasingly moved online.  This can be a source of anxiety as we struggle not only to stay in step with the latest technology but also to bring some of it into the classroom; it can also be a source of concern as we worry about the quality of our undergraduate students’ work given that they multitask, have less attention for the close critical reading of scholarly books or articles, and seem to write almost exclusively in short, truncated tweets, text messages and (for professors only) e-mails.   

But technology can also stimulate new pedagogical practices and engage students with the most up-to-date scholarship and debates in our fields in ways that were unimaginable in the days of card catalogues and microfilm.   Here, I give some suggestions for using academic websites and blogs - one of the most ubiquitous new forms of online writing and a powerful multifaceted pedagogical tool – to create a more interactive classroom.  These suggestions grew out of an assignment I gave in my undergraduate fieldwork methods course this semester in which I utilized the new Cultural Anthropology Online website.  I particularly enjoyed teaching this course because I designed my syllabus with as much student interaction and as many in-class activities as possible each meeting.  Outside of the first few weeks in which I led seminar-style discussions, I did as much as I could to “flip the classroom.”  (The hot new pedagogical buzz-phrase, at least on my university campus, “flipping the classroom” asks students to master basic content (traditionally communicated in lecture) as homework and to use class time to apply this new knowledge to small group peer work).  I designed my syllabus so that students were active rather than passive participants, working in pairs and teams during class time to complete an array of assignments: discussing and presenting to the class solutions to real ethical dilemmas faced by an anthropologists in the field; practicing participant observation around campus and reporting findings to the class; rehearsing “60-second elevator pitches” of proposed research projects followed by a competition (best pitch won a field notebook); discussing and analyzing fieldnotes; workshopping final ethnographic papers; and writing panel abstracts for their end-of-semester mini AAA conference.   

Granted, it is much easier in a practicum course such as fieldwork methods to devise and implement an interactive pedagogy then it is in a lecture or seminar class.  But tapping into and generating assignments around online resources can be used effectively in an array of courses.  For example, in the week in which we discussed using photography as an ethnographic method and mode of representation, I asked my students to view Daniel Hoffman’s online photo essay, “Corpus: Mining the Border” on the CA Online website.  

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Danny Hoffman, "Corpus: Mining the Border." November 2, 2012.

The assignment had several phases; students were asked to:  

1)    View the photo essay on its own and jot down reactions and responses to the images.

2)    Return to the beginning and read Hoffman’s accompanying text and jot down new responses or understandings of the images.

3)    Read the posted reviews by Zeynep Devrim Gürsel and Alan Klima

4)    Write a response to the photo essay that weighs in on the discussion of the complex relationship of photography and ethnography.   

This was a low-stakes assignment, used primarily to prepare students for our class discussion.  Had this been a course on visual anthropology, or were the students rigorously engaging photography in their own ethnographic projects, I would have spread the assignment out over several class periods, creating more room for completing and discussing each phase of their engagement with the images and texts.  The end point of a higher stakes assignment utilizing this online photo essay might have been to ask the students to work towards refining a response, whether individually, in teams, or as a class, to post publicly to the open comments sidebar next to the photo essay and reviews.      

Asking students to engage with a public website such as in the assignment above is just one way to tap into online resources.  What I have found useful about incorporating such resources, and especially blogs, into my anthropology and writing courses is the flexibility and variety of use.  Blog writing in particular is also pedagogically powerful in that it gives students a larger audience than only the professor.  I find that just as students are often more prepared to speak in class when asked to write something ahead of time (even a simple 5 minute in-class response to a prompt before discussion), they will often produce better written work when they are writing for an audience larger than one, or when they know that their text will have a public life of some sort.  This larger audience may simply be their classmates, or perhap peers in a class at another university (a colleague of mine did a joint class blog site with a professor teaching a similar course at a nearby institution); or potentially a large readership on a public website such as Cultural Anthropology Online.   

In the first instance of developing an online community just within the classroom, I have created blog sites in my small writing seminars as a way to enhance student engagement with readings and as a platform for their writing.  Splitting the class into two groups, I ask them to alternately post responses to course readings and responses to the responses.  Having the students respond to each others’ posts encourages them to think of writing as an ongoing dialogue within a community of scholars, rather than something done only for the professor.  We then read one or two of the posts together in class as a way to kick-start discussion.  Sometimes I also use the posts to point out effective writing or places for improvement.  Besides saving paper, this method relieves the pressure of responding to every student every time they hand in a one or two-page response paper, since other students will respond to their posts, and common errors can be addressed to the whole class through one example (I make sure that each student has at least one post read and discussed with the class during the semester and that they understand at the beginning of the course that their writing will be made public in this way).   

I have also used a blog site in a larger medical anthropology class, asking students to create posts that alert us to current events pertaining to the class content of that day or week.  This format allows students to link their commentary directly to news articles, videos or other online media that we look at briefly together in class.  This assignment encourages students to connect what they are learning in the course with what is going on around them in the larger world, sparks interest in research topics for term papers, and brings the students in as collaborative course-builders as they contribute directly to class content.  

Finally, using public websites such as Cultural Anthropology Online encourages undergraduates to engage more directly with the discipline, tapping into the most current intellectual issues and debates in the field.  Furthermore, forums such as CA’s new Online Photo Essay or the Fieldsights community blog allow students to join the conversation, and see their ideas and writing “published” when they contribute comments and possibly their own posts.  As with any student writing project, blogging should involve a process of drafting, critical commentary and revision.            

Katya Wesolowski is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University where she also teaches in the Cultural Anthropology and Dance departments.