Baynard Bailey, Vassar College
Natalie Friedman, New York University
A faculty member and an instructional designer discuss their incorporation of WordPress in a sixty student literature course.
In our experience, teachers at small liberal arts colleges, in our case Vassar College, place a great emphasis on classroom instruction. As a result, faculty are sometimes suspicious of introducing new technologies into their classrooms, worrying that the medium will obscure the course content or that maintenance will take up too much time. These fears can lessen with the support of an educational technologist who understands the pedagogical aims of the course and who can also offer his or her own vision for learning outcomes.
In this article, we will explore our experience using a form of media–the digital publishing platform WordPress–to enhance a lecture course in the humanities. For the instructor, the most salient outcomes were tied to the students’ written work and their facility with the technology; the medium itself enabled students to approach writing with a more open attitude and less apprehension than they might approach a traditional essay. In fact, one of the comments that students made repeatedly in the post-course survey we administered was that the blog afforded them multiple chances to express themselves, that it was less intimidating than a big paper, and that the semi-public nature of blogging allowed them to see what other students were thinking. For the technologist, the positive outcomes were tied to student satisfaction, and also to the potential for using feedback from students to further discussions about writing with digital media across campus.
What follows is a description of our methodology for creating our course-specific digital publishing tool, as well as our rationale for the choices we made, told in each of our respective voices. Throughout the remainder of the article, the initials “N.F.” stand for Natalie Friedman, the instructor for the course, and the initials “B.B.” stand for Baynard Bailey, the technologist who helped co-create the syllabus and instructed Natalie and her students in the use of WordPress.
I. The Course, the Blog, and the Whale
N.F.: The course in which we used WordPress was rather particular to my institution. I taught it once each semester in 2009-2010, under the auspices of the English department. Geared toward non-majors and open to students of all levels, the course was ungraded and worth only a half-credit because it was only a half-semester course; it was titled, “Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.” The sixty registered students read only the novel Moby Dick for the entire six weeks, and there was little room for discussion during the seventy-five minute lecture.
The first time I had taught this course, I made the mistake of creating rather traditional written assignments: one short essay and individual “readers’ journals.” I was disappointed by the poor quality of the papers and journals that I received. The essays often lacked direction, and they showed very little original thought. The journals, likewise, were hastily dashed off. I felt that the students were not taking the written assignments seriously, and needed to find a new way of following their reading progress, making sure they were learning something, however basic, about literary critical practice.
B.B.: Vassar College has a department called Academic Computing Services; I am one of four educational technologists and the liaison to the English Department (and thirteen other departments). When Natalie contacted me, I suggested using WordPress, an open-source digital publishing platform. The college has an instance of multi-user WordPress running from a local server, with its domain located at blogs.vassar.edu, which we use to create sites for faculty and students. Requests range from professional pages to class projects. Members of the faculty had successfully used WordPress in the sciences and social sciences, but we were unsure of how it might support the course goals in a discipline where students are not using it for information gathering, field notation, or observation. How could Natalie get students to use WordPress as a space for critical practice, but also to hone writing skills?
N.F.: Luckily for me, Baynard had been a teacher in the K-12 system, and he thought like a teacher: he understood that I needed to articulate learning goals for my students. To figure these out, Baynard and I relied on the technique of “backward design” lauded by educational theorists such as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, L. Dee Fink, and others. We started by articulating what we wanted students to learn, using certain key ideas from Fink’s “taxonomy of significant learning” (27-30), such as “foundational knowledge” (reading and understanding the novel and its historical contexts) to “application” (using WordPress and writing in this new medium to improve writing and reading skills) (31-38). Once we figured out that we had these goals in mind–literary analysis, good writing, and technological literacy with WordPress–we felt ready to continue, which meant that I had to become literate myself in the world of digital publishing.
B.B.: Natalie and I only met a couple of times in preparation for her course, with the total time spent together for the semester coming in at less than three hours. I think we both considered it time well spent. In WordPress, web design often starts by picking a “theme” for the look and feel, then building a structure composed of pages, posts, categories, and widgets. To start, we browsed a few themes. Natalie picked the SeaShore 1.0 theme, created by Sadish Bala, as it had an oceanic flavor, perfect for the Moby Dick course. We completed some of the administrative work asynchronously (student accounts, content creation and course support). Account creation would be very easy, as all students registered with the course would be sent an email inviting them to set up an account in WordPress.
Once students logged in, they could see the blog as we had set it up for them, with all sorts of supporting or “scaffolding” information, such as the names of categories within which to post (more on that later), instructions for posting, and helpful links. The actual content of the blog –the posts, comments, images, or other support content– would be written and provided by the students as the semester went on. I was listed as a co-instructor, and the students had my email if they needed technical support. I counseled Natalie to provide clear expectations to the students. Creating guidelines for quality blog writing was in keeping with her overall philosophy of explicitly stating her learning goals.
NF: The guidelines we created as scaffolding to help student reading and writing were a combination of explicit directive–this is what a blog post looks like–and general, basic literary analysis–this is what one ought to say in writing about a novel. These guidelines gave students a structure within which to play with their ideas.
B.B.: The blog was made publicly readable, but only students who were registered and logged on to the blog could post and the site is not detectable by search engines. In order to aid with site organization, we created categories in WordPress which would act as “sorting bins” for student posts. All students would be writing posts of their own, representing their own ideas, but having all the posts go uncategorized would create an unnavigable swamp of content. Categories are useful in sorting because they can create taxonomy and hierarchy, which can lead to better site design. The categories were: characters and characterization, the environment, gender, labor/work/slavery, literary allusions, narration/narrator, race, religion/Bible, science/cetology, whaling. Students could post to more than one category.
N.F.: The categories were broad enough so that each portion of the novel assigned for a particular week touched on them all, but they were narrow enough that a student could scan the week’s chapters looking only for one theme. Each student would, in effect, become a “blogger” for a particular “theme” within the novel, and would need to write a weekly blog entry. This kind of dedicated blogging allowed me to track their reading progress.
In addition to the weekly posts, I also needed to see if students were being responsible and accountable to each other, and that they weren’t just posting in a vacuum. Baynard and I decided that each student would be required to comment three times during the semester on three different blog posts written by their classmates, thereby allowing the in-class lecture or conversation to continue in virtual space.
B.B.: The next challenge, after setting up the blog, was ensuring that the students would feel comfortable using the technology. Natalie scheduled a short workshop near the beginning of the semester during which I demonstrated how to create posts, edit posts, and add links, images and videos. In order to facilitate the online discussion among the students, we enabled the built-in WordPress comment feature, but limited the comments section only to registered students..
N.F.: The results of the blog were, to our minds, enormously successful. The fact that the students were posting for their peers required their writing to be careful and considered, since their prose was semi-public, and the professor was no longer the sole audience. Michael Roy, in his lecture “Is Linking Thinking?” (2002), suggests that the importance of “scholarly hypermedia” is that students learn to challenge received forms of scholarly expression–such as the traditional paper–and thereby free themselves to think more critically. The blog posts became a space for scholarly debate, but also a kind of intellectual brewing system where students could “try out” various modes of analysis safely (without the burden of writing a long paper).
One way to measure student writing development was to study the weekly posts; another was to see the reactions of his or her peers in the comments section. Each student would post a page-long mini-essay weekly, and then students could choose to respond randomly to any weekly post, as long as they did so three times during the semester. One student–I’ll call him “Keith”–posted two mini-essays in the first two weeks of the semester in the category of “Literary Allusions,” looking for and making comparisons between Melville’s novel and Shakespeare. Although Keith’s first two posts were quite long, they did not say anything strikingly original, and were not very well written; they seemed tangential and wordy, and the comparison between Ahab and Macbeth and their bloody thirst for revenge has been floating around in criticism of Melville’s novel for a long time.
But in week three, Keith suggested that the first mate, Starbuck, was a lot like Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Keith wrote, “Brutus and Starbuck are, in their essence, the same character; they are men trapped in an impossible situation, stuck between duty to follow orders and good sense and honesty. Their only major difference is that Brutus goes forth with the assassination of his close friend and leader, while Starbuck lets Ahab drive onward” (3/3/10). Although this idea is not quite an argument (it is more of an observation), it was far more original than what he wrote previously, because it contained an interesting hypothesis: what would have happened if Starbuck had killed Ahab?
Keith’s post stimulated the other students in the course to think through this comparison and continue to develop the idea. For example, one student responded to Keith this way:
This is one of the best analyses I have read thus far. Starbuck as Brutus! I can just picture Ahab sputtering: “you too, Starbuck?”, as he succumbs to the bullet wound suffered at the hands of his first mate. How different and happy would this tale have concluded if only Starbuck had the balls of Brutus.
This student (Student A) finds the very idea of comparing Starbuck and Brutus (and therefore, by implication, Caesar and Ahab) as an apt one, and he goes on to imagine the outcome of the story had Starbuck indeed acted as Brutus had. He suggests that a mutinous Starbuck who goes through with his fantasy of killing Ahab might have been the catalyst to a much different book; Student A even suggests that the book might have had a “happy” ending. A couple of days later, Student B posted a response:
Perhaps they would not have all died at the end if they had not chased Moby Dick; perhaps everything would have been alright. But I wonder how the members of the crew would really have felt if Starbuck had killed Ahab and tried to take over as captain. Would they be glad? Would they follow his orders? Would they do so begrudgingly?
Student B questions the line of thinking of Student A and of Keith; she seems almost to side with the Melvillian viewpoint (or at the very least, Starbuck’s) that to kill a ship’s captain is to break the code of the seamen, and therefore to upset the order of things to such a degree as to cause more unhappiness and disorder. The fact that Students A and B extended Keith’s original post and turned it from mere comparison to deeper analysis of the characters was very gratifying to me, as they not only continued the conversation, but they also seemed to be encouraging Keith to rethink his position.
As Keith’s weekly posts developed, they became braver and bolder, moving away from mere comparison into more of his own hypothetical ideas; for example, his very first post began with a rather general observation that did not contain much analysis. He wrote: “Throughout Moby Dick, Melville repeatedly references the plays of William Shakespeare.” This sentence, whether one agrees with it or not, is merely Kevin’s observation–it does not contain any kind of argument, and it does not hint at a rhetorical position. The very last post, however, begins thus: “In my last post, I discussed the implications of Captain Ahab as a fallen priest, leading his flock along the path to perdition. Yet there is another perspective on this topic…Moby Dick is not a false idol, but actually God…in this reading, Ahab is no longer necessarily the antagonist.” These opening sentences to his final post hint at a maturing voice: he uses the “I” quite boldly, he makes a daring claim about the whale as symbol of God, and he casts Ahab in an uncharacteristic role, suggesting a real attempt at analysis and interpretation. The writing is more vivid, too, with the phrase “leading his flock along the path to perdition” a very fine example of colorful prose.
The same arc of improvement was true for other students; while at first, many of their posts were quite formal, even boring, their later posts showed personal flair, and drew many interesting comments. One student embedded a scene from the 1956 movie version of the novel (starring Gregory Peck), and then speculated about how one might modernize the novel in a contemporary film. He linked his question to a question about the representation of masculinity in the novel (and in the movie), which elicited a series of excited responses from several students who wanted to continue this line of thinking: if Starbuck is represented as a foil to Ahab, who could make a good Starbuck in a movie? The students thought of some recent Hollywood leading men, each representing a different kind of masculine ideal. While seemingly trivial, the playful comments section showed a growing understanding of novelistic representations of gender tropes.
II. Assessing the work
N.F.: I found the WordPress format to be incredibly easy to evaluate and assess, especially with such a large class. The small, frequent writing assignments (the posts were about 1-2 pages in length, and the comments were usually never longer than 2 paragraphs) enabled me to get to know my students’ writing abilities early and well, so that I was familiar with their strengths and weaknesses immediately. The comment function also enabled me to give nearly instantaneous feedback to their posts, reminding them to refer to the text, analyze key words and phrases, and use the first person. Eventually, as they began writing better posts, my comments became less directive, and less frequent–Baynard called this “frontloading the assessment”–or, in other words, assessing the students’ work more aggressively in the beginning of the semester, when they needed more help, and easing off as they improved.
After the course was over, Baynard and I sent the students a survey, asking them to share their opinions and views of the WordPress site. In answer to the question, “How do you think the blogging helped you to read or understand the novel?” students said, “It made me see so many more themes, symbols, etc. then I normally would,” and “It let me see a smattering of perspectives on various topics…the bits I read were helpful.” These responses helped me understand, again, that the students enjoyed reading one another’s written work, and that reading others’ writing enabled some of the students to learn how to analyze the novel in different ways. Students often feel isolated when writing papers, but the blog allowed them to feel a part of a writing and reading community.
B.B.: Working with Natalie on this project employed instructional design “best practices.” As a former schoolteacher, I knew that we needed to incorporate the learning and teaching methods with the practice of assessment by using a “before, middle and after” structure. At the beginning of the class, we discussed the objectives with the students. In the middle, we checked in with them periodically to see if they were doing their work, and they were. Training the students directly empowered them to succeed on a technical level. A final meeting at the end of the semester gave us a chance to debrief and assess our efforts and the students’ feedback. Natalie enthusiastically shared her positive experience with other faculty, which led to many fruitful projects in different classes. As an educational technologist, this is an ideal scenario.
N.F. As a faculty developer, I was able to give other faculty members advice on incorporating multi-modal media into their classrooms. Having the students’ comments–and my own satisfaction–as evidence of learning and good classroom management, I was able to convince faculty that were skittish about learning a new tech tool that there was a good way to use the media beyond simply teaching students to use media. I also was able to point out the ways in which having a collaborator in the form of a pedagogical technologist helped not only the students, but the teacher. Both the students and I grew to embrace this new form of digital publishing, and I am eager to use it again in the future.