Sunday, September 02, 2007

Notes on writing a blog post (for CIE and RELS-365 students)

So... you've got this assignment: write two "blog posts" per week. But what's a blog post? You've been told it's an "online journal entry", but that could mean a lot of different things. Well, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, keep in mind that the purpose of the assignment is to create a loose structure -- and I emphasize loose -- for reflective thought. In other words, if you're actually thinking about the material and about the questions it raises, and some of that thinking can be recognized and comprehended by someone reading what you've written, you're probably doing fine. There isn't a single clear goal here other than encouraging open-minded, probing thought. The assignment is intentionally open-ended, and not just because I want to drive you crazy.

Okay, fine. But what are you supposed to do? Start by following these steps.

Make sure you have some free time to think and write. Give yourself, oh, an hour or so. Also, make sure you've already done the relevant reading. Don't try to sit down, race through the reading assignment, and then dash off a post. Instead, read first, and then give it a little time to sink in; then write.

Ask yourself: what seems interesting about this? Try thinking in terms of connections. How does it connect with what the class has been discussing? Or with the previous readings? Or with things going on in the "real" world, or even things in your own life, past or present? What seems strange, or familiar, or surprising, or just wrong about it? Do you have any idea why this text was assigned in this course?
Brainstorm. For me, if I'm drawing a blank, I make a list. That's always the easiest way to get started at this stage. I use either paper or a computer, and I just try to write down, in a fairly condensed form, whatever pops into my head about the topic. Usually, a pattern will start to emerge after a few minutes. Often, though, I skip the list-making step and just start writing.

What are the characteristics of a good blog entry? Here are a few.

  1. You should care about what you're saying, and the reader should be able to tell that you care. (Or, if you're very talented, you may be able to do a wonderful job faking that you care, but that's hard to pull off, and I don't encourage it.) If you're just writing because it's an assignment you've got to finish, and you really don't give a damn, the reader will know, because your writing will be very, very boring.
  2. Remember that blogs -- course blogs like this, anyhow -- are supposed to be open-ended, probing, and questioning in nature. Don't be hesitant to ask more questions than you answer; there's nothing wrong with that. In fact it's usually a good thing. Even if you feel you're rambling and haven't figured out what the point is, try to stick with it. You may discover something insightful.
  3. The flip-side of this is: stay away from simple yes-or-no, thumbs-up-or-down questions. Merely stating a preference is rarely a fruitful way to explore a new idea. Your reaction to a text may well begin with "I liked this" or "I didn't like this," but try not to let it end there -- ask yourself why you feel the way you do and what that says about the text, about your own convictions, or about the world you live in.
  4. Explore points of seeming contradiction, confusion, and conflict. If you find yourself taking sides in some sort of argument, challenge yourself to see it from the other side as well. If the text seems to contradict itself, try to discover a perspective from which the contradiction might seem less problematic.
  5. Be aware, and respectful, of your own and others' feelings. Don't try to write dispassionately about a text you hate; admit that you hate it, and see if you can figure out why you react so strongly. If you liked something but others despised it, again, ask why.

You may notice that the principles I'm laying out here are not that different from the ideas we discussed in the opening class sessions about what makes a discussion productive and interesting: open-endedness, respect, willingness to explore new ideas and to ask questions that don't have clear answers. In a way, a good blog post is like a conversation: with the text itself; with yourself about the text; with other conversation partners, present or absent, real or imagined (friends, parents, the guy from Fight Club, the President, God -- or anyone, really).

Now, give it a shot. Try to enjoy the process, if you can. Let your classmates and me know how it goes. And if you haven't sent me the URL (internet address) of your blog, please do so. If you're having trouble setting it up, let me know.

P.S. Here is a list of bookmarks, which include a few examples of blog posts students have written for me in past semesters.

No comments: