As part of my continuing series on student blogging, I’m focussing on a particular strand which emerged in the descriptions people sent me of their online writing. Interweaving with the various impulses which they identified behind their writing (to improve their skills, to raise their profile, to share their ideas with people who had similar interests) was a less frequent but still recurrent theme: that student blogging had something to tell the outside world. This was particularly noticeable in the Teenage Christian and Musical Musings Anonymous blogs, which both had a definite mission to reveal or explain things about students which they felt were misunderstood in society at large. The authors of those blogs have kindly agreed to discuss this aspect of their writing in more depth, and I’m very grateful to them for being so frank about the motives and the tensions it can involve.
When Ben Garry started Teenage Christian, he wanted to write from a perspective which he didn’t feel had been represented online or in other media. Though not every post is on a specifically “Christian” topic, his approach to writing online deliberately addresses perceptions of Christians in the broader culture:
Along with many Christian bloggers I am conscious of the notion that Christians, and people of a religious faith in general, are not reasonable, intelligent people. This doesn’t mean that I write every blog post in the format of a logical argument about something or other, but it means that I am aware of the need for a certain amount of thought in my writing, in order that what I write is taken in the way that I intend it to be
Thus Ben’s technique and form – as well as the content of the posts – is part of the blog’s purpose. Whilst presenting his writing in this way, he’s also very concerned that the end result is truthful: “the hardest part in all this is making sure that I actually present myself as who I am… I believe that one of the most important things about my blogging is honesty.” He cites the fact that he blogs under his own name, links to his Twitter feed, and refers to events in his own life as ways of keeping his writing honest: “Yes, I want to come across as reasonable and yes, I want to show that Christianity is not an intellectual cop-out, but I don’t want that to compromise who I am and how I come across.” It seems that authenticity is an important value in Ben’s sense of Teenage Christian’s purpose, and one which can’t be compromised without undermining the point of his writing.
As well as representing the Christian side of the title, Ben wants to show a particular side of teenagers, too:
The teenage side of it comes with its own stereotypes. Although I get the impression that most people who read my blog know that not all teenagers are incapable of contributing to society, but the perception is out there and I think that there are benefits to teenagers showing that they can engage in mature discussions. Just because we’re in education, it doesn’t mean that our opinions don’t count.
The two come together in one of the main topics which emerges in his writing: the Christian life at university, and how it may be at odds with perceptions of both students and Christians.
I have made a conscious decision not to drink alcohol and that has impacted my life at the university, but blogging about it enables me to share those experiences with other people and to show them that there is more than one way of doing uni. There is the perception that university, especially the first year, is a time to go out and get drunk and live irresponsibly for a while before the real world catches up; this is true in some cases, but it’s not like that for every student, including myself. I want my blog to be a way for interested people to read about another side to uni life, as well as possibly a way for younger people in the same position as me to be encouraged that they don’t have to fall into the alcohol/sex culture when they go to uni too.
Ben’s writing seeks to push back against the dominant images in the media of what it means to be a student and a Christian, and in the process to make different options visible. This visibility is intended to have an effect both beyond the institutional life of higher education, correcting stereotypes people may have about university, and within it, so that students have a broader sense of how one can live within student culture.
The Musical Musings Anonymous blog by Eden Bailey serves a similar dual purpose, presenting the voice of a state-educated, Northern woman which clashes with many of the media images associated with Oxford. After being involved in outreach work, and wanting to encourage school students from non-selective state schools to apply to the university, Eden began writing blog pieces with this aim in mind. She also writes on feminism and human rights, seeing this as a seamless part of a social justice agenda. Her readership reflects the dual audience of the blog, including people within Oxford and those who are not familiar with the university. Like Ben’s blog, this is heavily connected with the authorial persona which ties the posts together:
I know quite a few of my friends outside of Oxford read my blog, and they enjoy reading it as it feels like they are talking to me in person, and a couple really enjoy the style. One friend says she sometimes flicks through when she’s really down which is lovely! I also know some interested Oxford applicants read it, as they’ve emailed me questions… I’m also aware a few university staff members read my blog. This is quite exciting but it also adds a little bit of pressure- I don’t feel too free to write about entirely silly things any more!
By demonstrating that someone who looks and sounds so different from the Oxbridge stereotype of a Bullingdon boy can both get into Oxford and have a rich and rewarding academic life, Eden challenges dominant images about who “fits” in an elite intellectual environment. The fact that this effect is so located in her authorial persona can be difficult, however:
I have a slight conflict in my writing and purpose, as whilst I want to write in an encouraging way to potential Oxford applicants, particularly from non-selective state schools, if I am entirely optimistic in my writing then I am deluding myself and my readers! Last year this meant I was selective about my writing, and I wrote when something funny had happened, or something that would make a generally cheery story.
Eden found that she was carefully ordering the experiences which became part of her “Oxford Musician” persona in order to give a particular impression. She still believed in the value of her message but was finding it difficult to have to use her own life and self as evidence of the truth of what she was saying.
Whilst I originally wanted to dispel myths and make Oxford seem accessible through an accessible, hopefully entertaining writing style and everyday experiences, the issues I now want to give clarity on feel too contentious, or at least, I don’t have the confidence to deal with them publicly in writing at the moment.
This was exacerbated by the fact that her writing on feminist and social issues had prompted some negative and even aggressive responses from fellow students, both in person and online. Whilst this proved that the issues she was tackling reflected real problems, it made her more conflicted about what she wrote and how she published it. It also increased the tension between her experiences and the message she hoped her authorial persona could transmit. It made her more guarded about the effect of blogging on these questions, though she was no less confident that they were urgent and were having real effects on women’s lives:
Part of me does feel less confident though because of my online expression…I’ve definitely been unsure about the benefits of sharing my views over the past six months. Which is annoying, as I feel it should be the opposite.
Both Teenage Christian and Musical Musings Anonymous are blogs with a purpose, setting out to offer voices and experiences which their authors think have been under-represented or misunderstood. In opening up their perspectives to the world outside university and to their fellow students, the blogs involve a tension between the mass of experience which makes up life and the selection and shaping of elements into an authorial persona. This means that both authors are forced to engage conscientiously with questions of “authenticity” and “honesty”, alongside their consideration of who will be reading their work and what effect it might have upon different groups within their audience. I would like to thank the authors again for talking so honestly about their writing.