I’ve been delighted by the responses to my piece asking students about their blogging. A slew of people have emailed me to give insights into the reasons and methods behind their blogs, and I’m still eager to hear from more. So if you’re an undergraduate student with an online site, I’d be very grateful if you’d get in touch. In this series I’m going to chew over a few of the ideas that have been shared with me: the various uses blogs are put to, the differences and similarities, the motives and methods. This was not a scientific survey or in-depth study, but nonetheless some very interesting themes emerged which I would welcome people’s angle on. Blogging can be a fraught subject in just about every part of academe, and I am not suggesting that the responses I have received represent either the state of the online sphere, nor that they provide a model which should be followed by other bloggers. Still, I hope that reflecting on the ways in which undergraduate students blog might spark some ideas.
One of the most striking common features I noticed was the absence of blogging which lined up with the academic work the authors were doing. I’m not suggesting that no-one blogs about their course, but the responses I received described blogs which circled around the university course, without ever lining up with it. Alex Cowan outlined his like this:
For me, writing is a tool that helps give clarity to my own often vague thoughts and feelings; especially on topics that I’m given little time to formally consider. Hence, the topics tend to be ones that are broadly related to my field of study (musicology & cultural theory) that aren’t dealt with explicitly in the course of the degree, such as music in video games, or broader gender/political themes.
This theme was echoed by Rebecca Day (an MA student), who started her blog “mostly as a way to get down ideas that I wanted to write about but that I didn’t have the space to do in my assessed academic work.” Though Ben Garry’s pieces are influenced by his studies, he makes sure they don’t remain tied to his course:
The subject itself also comes into the blog, but not as obviously. I write a few book reviews, and many of my posts are inspired by topics that have come up in lectures/seminars. That said, I don’t always advertise the fact as many of my readers are not English students and so would not find that sort of thing overly interesting.
The blog most tied to a particular course of study was Laura Nunez-Mulder’s Life Is A CV, set up as part of a project to develop her profile as a potential medical student and secure a place at university. So the most course-based student blog I have come across so far is by someone not actually at university, but demonstrating their ability to pursue a particular subject. Eve Houghton referred to her activities on LiveJournal, which involved authors such as Shakespeare and Spenser, in a way which made them sound like a parallel universe to the more visible academic world:
It seems to me that these fandom spaces exist as counterparts to the world of public academic blogs—it would not at all surprise me if people I know on Livejournal or Tumblr also maintain professional forums to write about their research. I do have plans to eventually start a public, “legitimate” academic blog, but by saying that I don’t mean to privilege those sorts of online presences over a community like Livejournal.
As she points out, it is not customary for official academic articles to argue “why we should all ship Redcrosse Knight/Duessa”, though this is still a creative and critical engagement with Early Modern literature.
I thought it was worth noticing that shared theme because it contrasts so noticeably with many of the student blogs I’m more familiar with: those of MA or PhD students which often discuss their academic work. There are obviously reasons for this, such as the need for aspiring academics to “perform” the carrying out of their daily work to build a profile, or the fact that the kind of thinking involved in research is more likely to fit with the contingent, exploratory tone of blogging than writing essays would.
Nonetheless, the way in which the undergraduate blogs I have discussed fail to map across their author’s courses (though they may fit within their subjects) interests me, and also fits with my experience. Universities I’ve worked at have used forums and blogs as ways to stimulate discussion of course topics, with various levels of success. I helped start a blog last year for one of the core first-year courses in the English department, which surprised us by not taking off in the way we had expected. Despite the verbal energy and intellectual ingenuity of our students in the seminar room and on their own blogs, there seemed to be little appetite for a blog which allowed them to carry on seminar topics and discussions further. This might be partly explained by the “angle” at which the blogging students set their writing, using it to explore parts of their subject, their thinking, their lives or their reading which their course has not covered. I wonder if this chimes with the experience of my readers, or whether they have instances to the contrary? I’d be keen to hear, either way.