Archiving the Sacred: Navigating Public vs. Private in Virginia Tech’s Condolence Archive

There is something inherently reverent about archival work. The stacks are quiet and orderly. There is an order to the rows of shelves that mimic church pews. The atmosphere seems to invite contemplation.

The 2008 film Objects and Memory is an examination of objects and the collection and preservation of those objects following 9/11. The film shows the last column of the World Trade Center, which had become a repository for messages and memorabilia, taken down and moved from the site. As it was lowered to the ground, police and fire department buglers played “Taps.” Once on its side, it was covered in black fabric and a wreath laid on it. It looked like a coffin. The column was given a funeral, a military funeral.

University Archivist Tamara Kennelly oversees Virginia Tech’s Permanent Condolence Archive Developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings. Kennelly expressed the emotional toll she felt managing the archive. She cried in the archive every day for two years. Even now, approaching the 12-year anniversary of the incident, Kennelly still fights back tears as she describing  objects in the collection.

The reverence and ritual shown the column made me consider the possibility that the act of curation itself can be commemoration. An archivists’ tears are another way the act of curation becomes a ritual of commemoration.

Material Culture scholars Barbara Babcock and Bjornor Olsen would suggest the commemoration of curation becomes another voice in the multivocality of objects as they are recontextualized. A number of objects in Virginia Tech’s April 16 Condolence Archive are everyday objects that were repurposed as commemorative objects left at spontaneous shrines or sent to the university in mourning. In their repurposing, they take on plural or hybrid meanings. The process of curation is a new reading or interpretation that again creates more complex, patchworked meaning.

These everyday objects are compelling in how they demonstrate the immediacy of responses to the tragedy — people left messages through items they had at hand and used every day. The following three items are everyday items repurposed as commemorative objects. Moreover, they are nonverbal objects that have been written on to create print objects. Both aspects must be considered.

This $2 bill is inscribed with a message signed by Mark Putnam. It was left as part of a spontaneous shrine on the Virginia Tech campus and is part of the university’s Permanent Condolence Archive developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings.

This $2 bill is interesting because the inscription offers a provenance of meaning. It was once U.S. currency that became a good luck charm for a college freshman named Mark Putnam. It was then inscribed and repurposed as a commemorative as part of a spontaneous shrine.

The object was carried on Mark’s person over a number of years. The inscription states that there is “nowhere else in the world I would rather leave this” and “I am so proud to be a Hokie.” The statement suggests that the bill has become a symbol of his experience and time at Virginia Tech and he wants it to stay with the place it has become associated with. The inscription read, “I love all of you,” which could be a message for those who were killed in the shooting or for the grieving Virginia Tech community at large.

These goggles were left as part of a spontaneous shrine at Virginia Tech following the April 16, 2007, shooting. The are inscribed to “Mike,” presumably Michael Pohle, Jr. a senior majoring in biology, who was killed on April 16. These goggles are part of the university’s permanent Condolence Archive.

In “Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and Public Memorialization of Death,” Jack Santino states that all rituals are public, but they laying of spontaneous shrines bring the private into the realm of public ritual.

These goggles beautifully illustrate the interplay between public and private at a spontaneous shrine. They offer a private message to a victim of the shooting, Michael Pohle, Jr. a senior majoring in biology. Whereas the $2 bill more connects to the experience of the mourner, these goggles make observers feel a personal connection to the victim. He wore these or ones like them in class. They contextualize his role as a student and point to what type of classes he might have taken. They humanize the victim.

Words written on the goggles are now nearly illegible. You can make out “Rest in peace” and “You will be missed,” but the words are clearly written to the deceased. A private message shared publicly.

Roger Chartier, in “Texts Forms, and Interpretations,” stresses that the reading of a text creates meaning and that the interpretation of an object carries with it meaning from the historical setting in which it is interpreted. As the red ink has faded from these goggles, except for dots at the intersections of letters, it brings to mind another famous pair of eyewear often used as part of anti-gun discourse — John Lennon’s bloodstained glasses. This is an interpretation outside the realm of the commemorator’s intent, but it is a link modern readers are likely to make, especially as the image resurfaces on Twitter. In recent years after a mass shooting, Yoko Ono tweets an image of the glasses with a death count of the number of people killed by gun in the United States since John Lennon.

Because of the intimacy of the goggles in relation to the victim, the personal message, and the unintended similarity to a famous political object, this is one of the most political objects I examined in the collection.

These are commemorative handkerchiefs sent to Virginia Tech by Florida inmate Sean Cameron Comer. The handkerchief along with a letter and envelope are part of the university’s permanent Condolence Archive developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings.

These final objects are handkerchiefs repurposed into backdrops for a commemorative poem and drawing. These items were sent to Virginia Tech by Sean Cameron Comer, a then inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections. A letter accompanying these objects states that Sean felt close to every victim even though he did not know them. He goes on to write, “Love and kindness without any expectation rubs off onto others. And always returns in other ways when we need it.”

Like the $2, these handkerchiefs are personal in their connection to the commemorator rather than the victims. They are daily objects, and highly personal in their intended use. Unlike the intimate connection both the other objects had with Virginia Tech, these objects are removed.

They are, however, intriguing. Viewers who look at them are drawn in, invited to think about the inmate’s daily life. What kind of access did he have to news reports of the incident? The letter indicates he was given 7 years for an offense connected to alcohol and driving. Did he hurt someone while driving intoxicated that makes him feel remorse for the Virginia Tech victims? In many ways these objects (although they come with an letter explaining them) raise more questions than the other two objects examined here.

In this brief consideration, there is something to glean about the proximity of an object to individuals — proximity of daily use and proximity of emotional connection. This is a proximity that informs meaning during the recontextualization of objects, and it is present in the process of curation. As an archivist spends hours, days, months, and years in an archive, objects begin to have the familiarity of daily objects. There exists a kind of tension between the commonplace and the sacred as objects are handled over and over again with the formality and ritual of archives.


Objects and Memory. Film. Directed by Jonathan Fein and Brian Danitz, 2008.

Babcock, Barbara. “Artifact.” In Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments, edited by Richard Bauman, 204-216. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Chartier, Roger. “Texts, Forms, and Interpretations.” From On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language, and Practices, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, 81-89. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997

Olsen, Bjornar. 2006. “Scene from a Troubled Engagement: Post-structuralism and Material Culture Studies. In Handbook of Material Culture, ed. Christopher Tilley, et al., 85-103. Los Angeles: Sage.

Santino, Jack. 2006 “Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death.” In Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death, ed. Jack Santino, 5-15. Palgrave-Macmillan.

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Filed under Material Culture & Public Humanities Methods

“So, what is it you do?”: The most dreaded question of our lives.


Maybe you’re at a family function, or maybe you run into someone you graduated high school with. Inevitably you’ll be asked, “So, what do you do?”

I’ve sidestepped the question by vaguely muttering that I’m “back in school,” especially when I’m around people that don’t hold college degrees. I don’t want to seem “too big for my britches.” Sometimes I avoid mentioning that I’m in a PhD or doctoral program because I don’t want to explain that there are different doctors, and that I’m going to school to be the kind of doctor that doesn’t practice medicine. I don’t want to be perceived as talking down to anyone.

With these kinds of obstacles, how can I begin to explain my research to the public, especially when I revert to glossing over the general areas using those meaningless phrases we academics use with each other — radical ecology, aesthetics, ritual studies, moral economy.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and Alda’s method, which help scientist communicate their work to the broader public, are commendable and important. There is certainly a socio-political undercurrent in the United States that distrusts science. This is a needed and exciting service.

But I can’t help wondering why the service is only directed toward scientists. It’s as if it is assumed that we humanities and arts types know how to communicate the complexities of our research to the public. Or maybe our disciplines seem less useful to the general public: “You read objects like texts? What is the point?”

I’ve been working on my “elevator pitch” about my research, but that is about quickly conveying my ideas to other academics. I want to be able to talk to friends and family about my research and be able to articulate why it matters. I’m still working on it. And I need to keep working on why I’m so hesitant to release details about what degree I’m working toward.

I think my ASPECT cohort is well suited to help each other with this problem. Our research is so disparate, we often talk across disciplines to each other — like explaining that we mean ontological in terms of history, not political science. We could do a better job of asking each other questions and making sure that we really understand each other’s research, and by doing so, helping each other articulate it plainly.

We don’t need a workshop. There is a really easy way to get a similar experience: talking to all kinds of people, people from outside academia and people from all walks of life. We just have to be willing to spend a little time really thinking about the essence of what we do.


Filed under Preparing the Future Professoriate

Musings on Mission Statements

Bluefield State College is a public, historically black college (HBCU) in West Virginia with around 1,500 undergraduate students. Its mission statement opens with a commitment to affordability and accessibility and focuses on nurturing and fostering student growth — “intellectual, personal, ethical, and cultural development.” Because of its history as a HBCU, I expected accessibility to be foregrounded. I also find their commitment to “informed citizenship” something expected for a public college.

Oberlin College’s mission statement opens with a pledge to transform and grow students in a variety of ways. Its focus on the evolution of students as individuals is similar to Bluefield’s, but what it claims to offer students reflects its liberal arts approach, including “artistic rigor,” sustained inquiry,” and “creativity.” Oberlin is a private liberal arts college in Ohio with an enrollment of around 3,000.

In a post for the London School of Economics’ “Impact Blog,” Julián David Cortés-Sánchez states that a meta-study of college and university mission statements reveals that most public universities focus on students while private universities focus on teaching or process. Oberlin doesn’t fall perfectly in line with the norm. They open with a focused statement on students before transitioning to talking about the environment and process.

Oberlin’s mission statement goes on to say, “It seeks to offer a diverse and inclusive residential learning environment encouraging a free and respectful exchange of ideas and shares in an enduring commitment to a sustainable and just society.” I found this section to be the most interesting portion of either in that it dictates the college’s expectations of campus climate. Oberlin aims to prepare graduates to “create change and value in the world.” I suspect this is a fairly unique mission statement, but it does reflect that Oberlin was founded by progressive ministers that supported integrated education and coeducation in the 1830s. It also has a tradition of supporting student political action and protest, which is reflected in the mission statement’s gesture toward social justice.

Cortés-Sánchez reveals that private colleges’ mission statements most often mention “society” while the public ones mention “community.” Bluefield and Oberlin follow this norm. I’m interested in finding out more about why this difference exists. To me, society represents a larger group comprised of many different parts while community is a smaller, more clearly defined group. One might assume that public universities are more concerned with society at large and the common good. Why, then, do they focus on community? Does the word community reflect an individual’s relationship to the world? Might community suggest a more service-oriented philosophy?


Filed under Preparing the Future Professoriate

Just do your (art)work!

This week’s readings came at just the right time for me. I needed some validation and bucking up.

My students’ final assignment is to create a work of art — collage, photographic series, painting, song, sculpture. It can be anything, but it needs to represent work, labor, or the working class and connect with one or more of the themes we wrestled with this semester. They are also required to write an artist statement justifying their decisions and do a short oral presentation to the class. To me, this is a fun project. It has some restrictions in terms of themes, but it wide open to genres and interpretations. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, I have a small contingency of students who are not enthusiastic. On Thursday, I asked them what their level of discomfort with the project was on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the most awesome ever. It’s a 1.5. They’d rather write a research paper. I almost gave in. Instead I ended up giving a spiel about the importance of humanities to foster critical thinking, yadda, yadda. I followed that up by mentioning the need for creative thinkers to solve problems in fields like engineering and science. I even heard myself say, “If you’re struggling with it, it’s probably good for your brain.” I LITERALLY just embodied my mother.

Needless to say, I found this week’s readings validating, but I have a few takeaways for future semesters:

  1. Dan Edelstein uses the word innovation. I should use that. Innovative thinking is a phrase that likely carries more meaning and weight to science-types than creative thinking.
  2. I need to be more transparent with students throughout the semester about the value of art, literature, film and music. I often expect students — as we talk about constructed narratives, social change, and the arts — to come to an understanding about how the arts shapes our lives in real and important ways. I need to be explicit.*

*Full disclosure: I said the phrase “Let me be explicit …” in class last week and they snickered at me. Then I made them look up the definition of the word on their phones. Then we talked about why it has come to mean graphic or offensive. This is an example of why I am not the cool one. So uncool.

  1. I need to stop thinking about the loftier reasons for humanities’ importance (citizenship! Empathy for others!) and learn to better justify it, like Edelstein says, in terms of professional success. I believe in the arts and in their importance. I should be ready to fight for them.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

Curiosidad! Educación! Libertad!




I’ve always felt passionate about teaching, reflecting on my own process, and striving to improve the content and experience of coursework. I’ve always strongly believed that education is crucial to critical inquiry, personal growth, social responsibility and societal change, but I’d never read about Paulo Freire directly (although I suspect I have read devotees of his work).

Freire’s assertion that teaching is a political act that can lead to liberation (economic, political, social, emotional and mental) is inspiring and empowering for teachers. My hope is always to create a classroom environment where students have those nearly tangible ah-ha movements, but it is hard to know if the practical, day-to-day classroom experience is fostering critical engagement. In the video interview with Freire, I think he gets to the heart of his pedagogical belief: eternal curiosity must nurtured. Curiosity — the asking of why, how and so what? — is a radical act that challenges the dominate culture. He remarks that he, too, has remained curious in old age. This calls for teacher to remain curious students, open to the process of lifelong learning as our teacherly, scholarly, personal selves continue to grew.

belle hooks adds to this conversation, suggesting that teachers who are in tune to society at large and are humane will help students question and challenge the dominant, oppressive socio-political structures in their lives. Students can help change the world, but first we have to see each of them as unique, individual, human. I began this semester giving myself a pass on learning my students’ names. I’ve ALWAYS done this in classes that were much smaller, but this time around I thought, “I’m in school too. Learning their names is less important than connecting with them. Just let it go.” But a month in, I felt a disconnect with them, and I think it might have been emanating from me. For me, putting forth the effort to know their names is one way I build a relationship. So, I started learning their names. In a class of 38, it has taken me some time, but I can do it (and I’m really bad with names). In the future, if I teach larger classes, I might have to find ways to better connect with students in a different way, but, for me, asking their name and calling on them in a personal way seems to remain crucial.

Ultimately Kinchloe states that some teachers depoliticize and water-down Freire’s work, focusing on the self-directed aspects. Others focus more on the political nature, ignoring the need for deep scholarly engagement. I can identify moments in my own teaching experience where I’ve run the gamut of this polarities, but giving them a context helps me to better navigate between them. Sign me up, I want to be a card-carrying member of Freirean Pedagogy.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

Sarah Deel gets me, she really gets me.

I’ve been asked what I teach, how I teach it, what my teaching philosophy is, but I’ve never been asked, “What kind of teacher are you?”

I’m “self-reflective,” “passionate,” “dedicated” and “nerd-funny.”

I can’t express the number of ways Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” resonated with me (Seriously, we’d have so much to talk about). I, too, am from a small liberal arts college. The largest classrooms I’ve ever been in (either as a teacher or a student) was this past fall as a GTA for RLCL Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There were 70 students. This semester, at 40, I am teacher of record for the second largest lass I’ve ever experienced.

When I first started teaching in 2008, like Deel, I looked to the professors that I loved most, but many of those professors were sages on the stage. Their lectures were powerful, interesting and insightful, but I knew that I am atypical in that I learn well listening to a lecturer. I’m happy to curl up and read for hours or listen to a long podcast. Most people don’t learn like that anymore. Fortunately, I started out teaching Freshman Composition, which lends itself to group projects, collaborative writing and discussions. I was cast out to sea and left to figure out what swimming strokes worked before for me.

The challenge I face this semester in HUM 1324 is finding a way to navigate the space. It is a small classroom in McBryde with 40 students crammed into rows with aisles so narrow they have to navigate them sideways. There is no room to circle into groups, no room to make a large circle that I can join in for discussions, and the impact is apparent. This has been one of the hardest classes I’ve had to facilitate discussions. And, honestly, facilitating discussions is my strongest suite as a teacher — asking the right questions, waiting patiently for responses, teasing out a student’s point when they’ve rambled, noticing when a student wants to say something and needs the encouragement of being called on.

The space is also challenging for me when I lecture. There is a giant lectern beside a table where computers are connected to the projects beside a shorter full-sided desk.  When the projector is on, I have a path behind the lectern that is about three feet wide to move in or else I’m blocking the power point. And there is no room for a path between all the furniture and the desks for me to come out and walk in front. It is challenging. Generally, moving around helps me feel stronger and more in control, and it keep my voice upbeat and strong. (*I have a tendency to have a weak voice, more about that later.)

So, most classes I have a short lecture, we might listen to a podcast or watch a short video, maybe there will be a short group assignment (with them working only with those they sit beside, and then some discussion). It is working, but it isn’t working really, really, well. I’ve been considering places I can take my class outside on beautiful days, which I hope will help better facilitate the discussion portion of the class.

*I want to mention vocal health because it is something I find really helpful. I’ve always felt like my voice was really weak, maybe too high to be taken seriously. So, I often speak in a lower-than-natural register when I’m teaching or public speaking. In the past when I was teaching three courses, working a job where I was talking to (interviewing) people, I found that just an additional long phone conversation could make me completely lose my voice. Last summer I talked to my brother about his. He’s the Director of Choral Studies at University of Louisiana and is the vocal health guru. He pointed out that when I drop to a lower register, my sentences often trailed off into vocal fry, which is very stressful and bad for your vocal chords. It was that strain that made me lose my voice so often. (There’s a lot of say about vocal fry and gender i.e. why so many women have it and are hated for it, but that’s an entirely different can of worms.) So, I’d inadvertently trained myself to speak in a way that was harmful to my vocal health. It has become so ingrained that I have to consciously speak in my normal register…and it’s been a journey of accepting my natural voice and asserting authority and confidence in my natural higher, more feminine register. #NoMoreVocalFry #AuthenticVoice


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

Keep Calm and Dismantle the Grading System?




Last semester a student came up to me after class upset over receiving an 85 on an assignment. She was a senior and didn’t want to end up with an A- or B for the course after three years of a stellar GPA. She was nearly distraught. I wanted to tell her 100 things about how one (still good) grade for one course in undergrad means very little in the grand trajectory of her life. But it wasn’t the time to belittle or minimize her emotions. I told her to rewrite the essay, an offer I extended to the entire class, and she pulled her grade up to an A. But her rewrite wasn’t at all like I’d hoped. I could tell she went through the motions of adding in my suggestions with little growth or depth of thought.

In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn offers an example of how to give feedback and determine a final grade (as require by the institution) without actually assessing and offering letter/number grades on individual assignments. During the semester one professor offers students feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on, making notes in his grade book. At the end of the term, Kohn said this professor meets with each students and asks them what they learned and how they learned. He then asks them what grade they believe reflects their work, and they arrive at that value collectively.

I love this idea, in part because I love working on larger projects with students — longer papers with several peer reviews and revisions or projects with video editing — but students hate having their grade rest on one single assignment, even if I grade multiple drafts or aspects of the assignment throughout the semester. This kind of arrangement would (hopefully) allow students to feel less pressure about meeting the marks and focus on their project by focusing on what they learned/gained through their work on the project.

I want to find out more about this system, like how open the professor was in explaining how the grades would be assigned at the beginning of the course and if any students bucked at the system.

This is absolutely the kind of system I would love to try, BUT what are the implications for a doctoral student or a new professor? How might my department feel about this, especially if a student (after the fact) challenges their final grade? Would I be left defending (instead of the grades I’ve assigned on concrete assignments) an entire teaching philosophy? Is this the kind of grading system that only tenured professors secure in their positions feel comfortable trying? Has this grading system ever been implemented at Virginia Tech?

I’m interested. I want to do it. But there takes a certain nerve to pull off something like this, and I’m not sure I have it yet.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

Can multi-taking be mindfulness-making?

In Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer outlines four myths that hurt education. Of the four myths, the one that most immediately spoke to my own journey to become a better teacher was myth number two — “Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.”

I’m one of those children of the 1980s who had parents who went to great lengths to raise me away from TV and, later on, the Internet. But practice sitting still and being quiet isn’t a prerequisite for learning. When we worry about our students being distracted in class, it is because we assume they need to focus their attention completely on one thing to be able to learn.

For better or worse — and I think there is room for debate there — that isn’t the background of today’s undergraduates. For the simple reason that the pace of our culture has changed, today’s students are equipped to change topics, mediums and multi-task much better than their parents.

So, breaking this myth helps us to think about teaching in a new way. How can we use our students’ ability to quickly move between mediums and multi-task? I often combine lecture, writing assignment or project, a video/audio piece and discussion in every class. But each of these are done consecutively. I’m left wondering how I could use multiple mediums at one time.

For instance, if students had an essay question that required them to respond to a video, could they record their reactions in real-time and then tidy up the essay afterward?

As a reporter, I live tweeted meetings I’ve attended and use those tweets to help reconstruct my articles. If every student were live-tweeting a lecture, using a hashtag, might they be able to use their collective tweets in lieu of note-taking?

Would having an activity to accomplish during what are typically passive moments in the classroom help them be more mindful learners?

I’m not sure, but I think it would be worth trying. And I think student feedback will be key. I find that students are very honest about what works and doesn’t work when asked. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown summarize this struggle succinctly in “A New Culture of Learning”: “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” (49). But the first step to creating something new is being willing to try.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

Prepare, plan and expect (revel in) the unexpected


Don’t lecture. Use technology. Technology is distracting. Lecture sometimes. Give students freedom. Be accountable for educational achievement.

The thing about education is that everyone has an opinion on how it should be done, which sometimes leaves those of us in the trenches feeling as if we are wandering the countryside divining for water — we know it’s worked when it has. But just because we know when a project or activity has worked doesn’t mean it will next semester.

One semester I had students imagine they were artistic directors for a theater. They had to present a group of plays to their theater’s board of directors, which means they had to talk about the plays, interpret them, share their inherent value, and explain how they could be staged meaningfully for modern audiences, etc. The first semester I did the projects students were completely involved, adding advertising materials, sketching out stage designs and responding critically to their peers. It was magic. The next semester the students went through the paces and fulfilled the projects, but I hadn’t captured their imagination.

We’ve all been there. We feel responsible, but there are aspects of the class dynamic (interpersonal relationships, exhaustion, hunger, time of day, yadda yadda) that are beyond our control.

Mark Carnes makes a great case for a type of curriculum called Reacting To The Past in his article “Setting Students Minds on Fire.” Students who participate in Reacting To The Past-style seminars assume the identity of characters from history and must understand their lives and the historical context to understand the characters’ motivations as they immerse themselves in the past. It sounds amazing. But does it work every single time? Is there always that magical moment of kismet as students become so involved in the course that they stay up late discussing the lives and times of their characters? In other words, does it always find water?

I imagine not.

Moving forward, I think the best thing educators can do is admit that there can’t ever be one prescription to cure the ails of classroom drudgery. Instead of feeling disempowered as diviners, we need to trust our own instincts and skill. In our search or thirst-quenching moments of fully-involved students, we have to be willing to change course during the semester. If students are responding strongly to one theme or text, we should stay with that topic ‑ ditch the class schedule/calendar or find a way to cover the next prescribed topic by expanding discussion/projects/involvement with what students are enjoying.

In “A New Culture of Learning,” Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describe giving students freedom within bounds — play with rules — as a way to grow student passion. I’d suggest that we need to enter a classroom without knowing what all those rules are. We need to be freed enough ourselves to set boundaries as they need to be set and do away with others when they begin to constrict. Each semester is a new game and the rules should never be exactly the same. Educators should feel the confidence they need to feel the subtle movements of the diving rod and adjust accordingly using an assortment of tools (including technology and lectures) in the never-ending search for water.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

To Blog or not to Blog

In Composition Pedagogy, a pedagogy class I took as part of my M.A. in English here at Virginia Tech, our class often discussed how teachers might develop projects that gave student writing a meaningful, real-world audience.

While teaching writing I often had students write Letters to the Editor. But just changing the genre of an assignment — from persuasive essay to Letter to the Editor — doesn’t automatically give students a real-world audience or experience. I would frequently require students submit their letter to a local newspaper, making the assignment something that existed outside the classroom bubble.

A blog could offer the same kind of opportunity, but unless students can identify a real-world audience the blog would continue to be just another assignment. After all, just because a blog exists on the internet does not mean it will be read.

So how can a class assignment become a real-world blog for undergraduates? Students automatically have an audience of their peers and friends via social media, but I don’t expect students to share a school assignment unless it is something they are both passionate about and proud of. So, my question becomes: How can students become passionate about blogging? I’ve taught 200-level and 300-level literature courses. Generally, students in those courses are already excited about what we are learning. But can teachers help students get excited about introductory or required courses? Within the context of what we cover in the course, there must be enough freedom for students to find something that sparks their interest, and how they are directed to respond to the content must be permissive enough not to restrict their interest.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018