Entering the Conversation: Using Student Blogging to Encourage Original Writing, Critical Thinking, and Personal Investment
During the fall 2016 semester, I taught Art Since 1945 and utilized WordPress as an online platform for four writing assignments. Students were asked to read and respond to an artist’s statement, evaluate an exhibition review, and consider how television, online platforms, and publications shape our collective understanding of contemporary art trends and practices. Effectively, I asked students to consider the roles of institutions, critics, artists, television producers, and online publications in shaping the conversation around contemporary art. My goal was that this series of assignments would encourage students to “enter the conversation” and become engaged practitioners in writing about contemporary art. In this post for AHTR, I will share what I learned from this experience, including both the positive outcomes and the things that I would do differently next time.
Art Since 1945 was an intimate advanced course with 16 students. The majority of the students were Fine Arts majors, pursuing degrees in graphic design, photography, or studio art. The course was also cross-listed as a graduate option for our Master of Liberal Arts students and drew a handful of them as well. On one hand, the short writing assignments on the course blog seemed like a relaxed way to encourage students majoring in the fine arts to write critically about contemporary visual art and culture in a public platform. The revolving blog format lessened the pressure, since new posts would push old content further down the page. On the other hand, as permanently accessible online writing the stakes of these small assignments were also raised. Each student had to sign their posts encouraging personal investment in their ideas and public ownership of their writing.
To begin, my plan required that I spend time building the WordPress site before the semester started. While I am not the most technologically savvy (some might call me a luddite), WordPress makes designing a blog relatively easy and it’s free. I also use WordPress for our University gallery website and, therefore, did not consider using another platform (such as Weebly, Wix, or Yola). On the site, I created pages for our class activities, the four individual prompts, and a home page. The one thing that I wish I had been able to do was create multiple blog feeds so that each of the four prompts had its own feed where students could post, akin to separate discussion threads on Blackboard. Instead, what we ended up with was a single running blog that shows the most recent posts first and necessitates lots of scrolling to find the first posts. Because of this format, it is also impossible to indicate where the four different topics begin and end. Criticisms aside, WordPress proved an easy site for the students to use, as the post functions are quite clear and the backend of the site is relatively simple to navigate.
In addition, anxieties over image captioning, rights for reproduction, and student privacy also made some aspects of managing the blog stressful. To alleviate concerns over rights, students were asked to include hyperlinks to images whenever possible, and/or include appropriate caption information for embedded images. This requirement necessitated some “policing” of the site, which I did not enjoy. In future, I will be more transparent about image rights issues during the discussion of our assignments so that students clearly understand the stakes of image citation. Hopefully CAA’s Fair Use Curriculum Development committee (whose 2016 survey is here) will produce useful pedagogical materials to teach students about these issues. Finally, at the end of the semester, I had students sign a form giving me permission to administer their posts on the website. They also had the option to include either their full name or just their first name in their post signatures. After a discussion about resume building and professional writing, some students chose to include their full names with the intention that they would cite their online writing in their artist resumes.
In the overall course, the four blog posts comprised 20% of the students’ total grade. Students balanced formal papers, course readings, class presentations, and a final examination with their blogging. Over the semester, participation was a slight problem. Of 64 total posts (# of students x 4 posts), 86% of the posts were completed. Initially, I thought that the percentage weighted towards the blogging (too low?) or the casual nature of the posts may have deterred some students from taking it more seriously. However, after reviewing the results it is clear that participation was skewed due to the number of graduating seniors in the course who were also balancing their senior exhibitions (a graduation requirement). Perhaps conversations about the importance of these exercises will encourage increased thoughtfulness and induce full participation next time.
Art Since 1945 was designated a “writing-intensive” course. Although these were short c. 350-word posts, extra attention was paid to the mechanics of writing throughout the semester. Therefore, before the first post deadline students were encouraged to participate in a peer-review workshop led by a student Writing Intern (learn more about AUM’s Writing Across the Curriculum program here). This gave students the opportunity to receive draft feedback. After the posting deadline, I evaluated the posts and offered suggestions for improvement. While each of the student posts received comments from me in hard copy, next time I utilize blogging in a course I would require that students comment publicly on each other’s posts. This integral feature of online blogging – the comments section – was, unfortunately, one that we did not utilize.
By and far, the majority of students in Art Since 1945 produced thoughtful and well-written assessments of their chosen topics across the four posts. Indeed, I enjoyed seeing how different students responded to the same artist’s text or exhibition review and how they developed a distinctive posting style over the semester. On occasion, I was also surprised by the popularity of one theme or writing option over others (Xu Bing was a definite fave for Post 2). Unlike in their formal papers, in these shorter writing assignments students were more apt to reveal personal opinion and individual interest, express themselves creatively, be humorous, connect multiple themes across their posts, and generally “let loose” and have more fun with their writing.
For example, in Post 1: Artists, Benjamin-Dieter Koch responds to James Turrell’s 1987 artist statement in “Lights! Camera! Action?” and describes Turrell’s work in relation to science, the viewer, and the photographic medium (his major), Regine Lawson gives a detailed inventory of Allan Kaprow’s 1965 “Guidelines for Happening” in “The Happenings: A How to Guide in the Art of Mutability,” and Amy LaPointe, in “Stencil, Paint, Repeat: The Method and Reasoning of Warhol,” raises useful questions about Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962). For Post 2: Exhibitions, Nalin assesses Jennifer McCabe’s review of Betty Saar’s exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, stating that it “puts me right in the middle of the museum,” while in “Grandeurs and Glooms” Danielle Riggs describes her disappointment at learning, after reading Laura Cumming’s review of the 56th Venice Biennale, that it “turned into yet another grand event taken over by money.” In “Re-purpose & Re-assign,” for Post 3: Art 21, Joseph Warren encourages us to overcome stereotypes about Mexico City, stating: “Living in Mexico City may seem calamitous to outsiders… In fact, a beautiful city lies beneath the surface of all that prejudice and political turmoil. Art thrives in Mexico City and is the driving force of every movement worth fighting for and worth dying for.” Likewise, Catherine Harbin found inspiration in “Chicago,” connecting her first post on Ellsworth Kelly to the theme of the episode, “creating art instead of mimicking preexisting objects,” and writing that it “compelled me to believe in my own artwork.” Finally for Post 4: News, Chelsea Joffrion describes Valerie Hegarty’s works as “Satirically Kitsch” and Jwan Boddie, in “Art and Power,” connects Trevor Paglen’s work to those of Paul McCarthy and Takashi Murakami.
For myself, it proved useful to actively reflect upon my pedagogical practices throughout the semester, knowing that a public audience might read the blog and that I would be writing this assessment for AHTR in the spring. Writing about our in-class discussions and learning exercises also made me more invested in the website and created a shared experience between the students and myself: we all contributed to the blog together, it was ours. For my students, the length of the c. 350-word informal posts gave them a new format to explore certain topics and lessened the fear they often felt regarding longer writing assignments. In order to make full use of the opportunities presented by an online platform, students were encouraged to include hyperlinks to outside material in their posts. In connecting the subject addressed to information they found online, I think that students were able to take ownership of the content and “teach” their reader. While some posts were less successful than others (mine included), for the most part we had a lot of fun with the blogging. Indeed, students enrolled in my advanced class this semester (spring 2017) were disappointed when they learned that we would not be blogging!
In conclusion, while some elements of our blogging in Art Since 1945 were more successful than others, the students’ enthusiasm about the experience expressed at the end of the course, and the positive effects of maintaining an online record of our course activities and writings outweigh, in my mind, any drawbacks encountered during the process. I would truly welcome any ideas from readers about alternative online platforms or ways to trouble-shoot any of the problems outlined here, as I start to plan blogging for future courses.