What is ultimately shared by the course blog is digital space that students are able to carve out for themselves over the course of the semester (or, if they wish, much longer). Through contributing to a collective course blog, students construct digital space that is uniquely theirs; students cultivate an online community that gives them the opportunity for written work that is uniquely available within the realm of the blog. Jodie Nicotra has recognized the inability for traditional definitions of writing to account for the richness of the writing that is generated exclusively online. She notes that writing has been traditionally defined as a “discrete textual object produced for a definable audience by a single individual or group of individuals” (Nicotra 259). Such a definition is restrictive, Nicotra argues, precisely because it does not account for the unique opportunities that digital writing presents. Blogging and other web-based writing can be differentiated from print-based writing in relation to the “question of materiality” (Nicotra 262). Nicotra suggests that the reticence scholars (or teachers) have towards digital writing is the inevitable lack of a final finished product (in the sense of words printed on physical paper). Thus Nicotra suggests that we must move towards a definition of writing that is focused less on the construction of a textual product and more on writing as “the building of a space” (Nicotra 263, emphasis original). This is exactly what students are doing when they construct a course blog; they are creating and fostering connections where there were none preexisting as well as contributing to “conceptual spaces” (Nicotra 265). The space that is created within the blog is both single and multi-authored; it is single authored insofar as individual students maintain the role of main author on their individual posts, but it is collectively authored in the sense that all students (along with the instructor) communally contribute to the blog as a whole.
Students—as individual and collaborative authors—can use the blogging platform’s tagging feature as a further way to display their sense of authorship. Nicotra locates folksonomy—or multiple user tagging—as one method through which students can contribute to the construction of digital space. The use of tagging in blogging is related to the ability for information to be found via search as well as a way for that information to be categorized. Students can thus tag their posts as a way to organize their entries collectively. For example, if students were to each tag their posts by ‘Week 1,’ either the instructor or other students would be able to find a list of all student entries from this week.
This example is quite limited to the practicalities of assignment organization; there are of course more creative uses for tagging in blogging. For example, students that tag a post in a certain way might find that other classmates tagged their entries similarly, and thus can be directed to read those posts in greater detail. Also, tagging on many blogging platforms is not limited to single-word categorical tags, such that students can construct tags of entire sentences (which can also be continued in subsequent tags). The tags can thus construct a continued narrative from the blog post, drawing more subtle attention to potential areas of interest, confusion, or commentary in relation to the student’s full entry. This method of tagging can be seen as a reflective way for students to engage with what they’ve written, if only in order to encourage students to consider what aspects of their posts are most important and relevant enough to warrant a tag.
[For more info about folksonomy in relation to Tumblr tagging: click here!]
In relation to the rhetorical situation of blogging in relation to folksonomy, Nicotra writes:
In other words, in folksonomy invention is directly linked to the social in a way that simply does not happen in the conception of invention in traditional, essayistic literacy, that which consists of allowing one’s image of the audience to guide or direct the kinds of claims, reasons, or examples that one uses. With folksonomy, rhetorical agency and intention become much more complicated, because invention is revealed as not simply the product of an individual, isolated mind, but as a distributed process driven by the interaction of a multitude of users. (Nicotra 273)
In relation to blogging and tagging within a course blog, students are necessarily aware of the extent to which they are writing not only for themselves but also in relation to a group; they are constructing a space for writing that accounts for themselves, fellow classmates, and the potential audience at large. Through composing the blog entry, students are not only creating a composition that is worthy of being called writing, but they are also carving out digital space—something that writing on print cannot do quite so well.
Also, there is something to be said about the location of writing in relation to its positive effects upon students; digital writing is situated in digital space, but can take place in any physical locale. That is, students can write from any location that they find most comfortable and suitable to their personal needs. Further, the blog itself as space constitutes, I’d suggest, a textroom as it is defined by Alexandria Peary:
Unlike a face-to-face writing group in which conversations about writing evaporate, textrooms are epigenetic, providing a stable record of instruction, a trail of interactions to which learners can return at any time with a standing invitation to future learners. Textrooms are also generative and democratic: the more learners discuss, publish, and post, the more extracurricular opportunity they afford other writers: the higher the word count, the more learning opportunities exist for participants. (Peary 44)
Blogs can function also as “informal writing classes” in that participants can learn not from a teacher but from one another (Peary 45). While Alexandria Peary is specifically talking about writing groups organized beyond the realm of higher education, I see no reason why her ideas cannot be applied to the college writing classroom; for, students who take seriously the blogging environment contribute not only to their own writing development but crucially also to the writing of their peers (and any observers choosing to read their posts).
The space of blogging as textroom allows students to think of their writing as existing within a specific location (over which they have a certain amount of control). Their writing never occurs in a vacuum, for both fellow students and the course instructor are constantly reading it. Most crucially, students are encouraged to engage in conversation—not only with each other, but also with their writing (and with their writing in relation to one another). Peary suggests that in adapting the textroom to the formal writing curriculum, we
might give thought to implementing these resources individuals need to succeed in their writing when not with us. How could a course be built, word by word, chiefly on students’ writing—textbook, class discussion, feedback, and evaluation? How could a composition course be structured such that it put into conversation writers of different levels and abilities (seniors and first-year students in the same required course) and put on display texts from a range of genre and ability? How could the number of mentors in a course increase beyond the single expert teacher (the use of undergraduate teaching assistants)? […] Could a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning platforms provide such a site, in part to develop a different discussion of writing process with students reacting to their composing experiences in near real-time? Textsites present a remodeling opportunity for the traditional classroom. (Peary 63)
Here, Peary presents a variety of good questions that—I would argue—writing teachers need to consider. Through encouraging students to engage in digital writing via the course blog, they are allowing undergraduates to create a space that can ultimately serve as a way to continue education outside of the classroom (and beyond the limits of the course itself). Such a model of undergraduate composition teaching is effective in that it allows students to engage with writing and with one another (whether that means other students or other public readers) without the authoritative guidance of the instructor. While the instructor’s role is of course important, it is primarily the students who will be responsible for creating the writing space—and this is what will allow students to continuously construct their writing skills.