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Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition
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Writing and Citizenship:
Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition

One of my major goals as a first-year composition instructor is to find ways for students to take charge of their writing, to provide them with a sense that writing matters. Within this context, I have sought to think about the classroom in the terms described by Richard Ohmann (2003: 124): "The supposition that higher education and schooling in general serve a democratic society by nourishing hearty citizenship." Ideally, this model of higher education should work against consumerist models that encourage students to view themselves as passive consumers rather than active participants. More important, a composition class that nourishes citizenship should convey the connections between the classroom and the so-called real world, which seems to exist everywhere else. In order to foster this notion of citizenship, I have incorporated into my first-year composition courses the requirement that students write, and sometimes read, Web logs.

Web logs, as Rebecca Blood (2002) explains in The Weblog Handbook, are Web sites that consist of dated entries usually in reverse chronological order and often linked to news articles or other blog entries. They have had a mixed reception among academics and journalists alike for a variety of reasons. Most notably, blogging communities have a reputation for wild, unfettered political commentary, hardly the form of writing that would seem to lend itself to reflection or the multiple revisions of a polished essay. However, my specific investment in Web logs celebrates precisely these qualities that are often criticized: blogging's ephemerality, its focus on the everyday, and its no-holds-barred argumentative style. I see my requirement that students write—and read—Web logs as concretizing two major lessons that may be valuable to any instructor of first-year composition. In my courses, I seek to instill in my students that much of the writing that they will do in their academic lives and beyond will require them to make and support arguments, usually for a specific audience. In addition, I hope to help students become invested in their writing, to give them a sense that writing—and citizenship—matters. In this sense, I take my cues from Charles Lowe and Terra Williams (2004), who emphasize that students will take writing more seriously if they are writing for public audiences on the Internet. The instant [End Page 128] feedback and endless arguments that constitute a large corner of the blog world quickly bring to the surface the techniques by which good argument can proceed as well as the logical fallacies that often emerge when blog writers fail to think through their arguments.

I first experimented with blogging in fall 2003, in a standard composition class that introduced students to the basics of argumentative writing. In this course, which I titled "Writing to the Moment" after Samuel Richardson's description of his writing process in his diaristic novel, Pamela, I emphasized blog writing and reading as the course's major components. In choosing the title, cited in T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel's Richardson biography and suggested by my colleague George Williams, I reinterpreted Richardson's use of the phrase to view blogging as a form of what Michael Renov (2004) describes as an "essayistic" mode conducive to engaging with the fragmentary or the ephemeral, precisely those aspects of everyday life that often escape careful analysis. The open-endedness of the essay form could also provide a way to talk about how blog writing, and the essayistic in general, is grounded in authors' experiences.

One of my first major assignments asked students to conduct a fairly typical rhetorical analysis of one of several blogs I linked to on the main course blog (tryon1101.blogspot.com/). The assignment was designed to give students a brief overview of some of the many types of blogs, to introduce students to blogs with a broad range of political commitments, and to begin a conversation about how certain blog communities develop specific argumentative writing practices. These blogs included conservative sources, such as Right Wing News and the education journalist Joanne Jacobs, and liberal bloggers, including Howard Dean and Tom Daschle. (See the appendix...