Blogging


For the five of you who read this on a regular basis, I’m still here! Look for more posts in the very near future!

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I feel a little funny broaching the topic of the war in Iraq because I’m not sure that I’ve done anything to earn the right to weigh in substantively. It’s easy to approach such topics from an academic standpoint (and I’ve done so myself in a previous post on The Bourne Supremacy): issues are cut and dry, not confused by emotion, personal opinion or those sticky moral questions of right and wrong. Even when someone on the outside has the foresight to acknowledge things in shades of gray, theirs is still only a two-dimensional view. The following article about the U.S. death toll in Iraq published in the New York Times reminded me of the distance that always exists between writer and subject.

Only this time, things are a little different. Reporters Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren didn’t take the usual route to mark the new U.S. death toll high in Iraq. Instead, the authors chose to focus upon four U.S. servicemen who died while on duty in Iraq. And rather than tell their stories for them, Alvarez and Lehren integrated the words of these men right into the body of their own report. This had two impacts: first, it was a painful and effective way of reminding the reader that although these guys were in some way speaking, their words were all that remained of them. And second, the integration of the men’s voices into the piece communicated the significance of the number 4000 in way that resonated so much more clearly than a traditional straight news story ever could.

I’m going to include an excerpt here, but I would really encourage you to read the story in its entirety. It’s incredibly powerful. The first paragraph is written by the reporters, the second is taken directly from Myspace and incorporated into the body of the news story.

For the soldiers in Iraq, reconciling Adhamiya with America was not always easy. One place was buried in garbage and gore and hopelessness. The other seemed unmoored from the war, fixated on the minutia of daily life and the hiccups of the famous. The media was content to indulge. …

I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low. To all Americans I have but one phrase that helps me throughout my day of constant dangers and ever present death around the corner, “WHO THE [expletive] CARES!” Wow America, we have truly become a nation of self-absorbed retards. … This world has serious problems and it’s time for America to start addressing them.

Ryan Wood, Myspace blog, May 26, 2007

The other reason I’m struck by this particular story is that it reminded me again of the ways that our social, cultural, and educational landscape is rapidly changing. I have spent the past couple of weeks preparing for a presentation on integrating blogs into the language arts classroom. As far as my content area goes, this is kind-of a no-brainer: I teach writing, blogs are a vehicle for just that. But they would hardly be worth going to all the trouble of using if they were little more than journals. What makes blogs blogs, so to speak, is the ease with which they allow the writer to synthesize ideas from various sources and provide a digital record of that thought process through links.

What does any of this have to do with a news story on U.S. death toll caused by the Iraq War? The reporters supplemented their story with excerpts taken from texts written by the soldiers themselves, including letters, emails, and Myspace. The Myspace accounts written by the soldiers are particularly interesting because they mark a dramatic shift in the way we communicate and receive information. Previously a soldier’s personal thoughts on the war would have been known only to those people close to him, but with the advent of Myspace, those opinions are accessible to anyone with a computer. In this particular instance, they have been transcribed from Myspace into the body of news article published on the New York Times.

Before Myspace, could this have been accomplished in another way? Certainly. The reporters might have interviewed Specialist Wood and then integrated his comments into their news story. However, Woods’s words are especially poignant this time because he can no longer share his thoughts with the reporters personally.

Besides the tremendous emotion and power that the soldiers’s words carry, what strikes me most about Alvarez and Lehren’s choice to include block quotes from the soldiers themselves is the way that they are mimicking the way that Web 2.0 has revolutionized the web in their print news story. I applaud their choice because I think it makes for interesting reading, and as an educator I must also take note of the way that the digital revolution is changing the way information is exchanged, even in print.

As you well know, I’m a New York Times junkie. Admittedly their coverage of upstate issues is a little weak, but I’ve always considered them a national news source and never held this against them.

I religiously read the Times‘ book review, front page stories, opinion pages, education section, and Judith Warner’s blog, “Domestic Disturbances.” Other sections are hit and miss depending on topic. So it was in this vein that I was pleased to see the formation of yet another new blog, “Slapshot.” I’m not much of a hockey fan myself, but I was excited to share my find with pretty much everyone else I know, because they are some of the most passionate fans in the league. (I live in Buffalo. It’s cold here. Hockey keeps you going through those long gray days.) But lo and behold, the Buffalo Sabres failed to even make the tagline of this New York-based blog that even includes the Devils! Are we so invisible? Do anyone remember our season last year? We nearly went home with the Cup!

I’m not one who unrealistically believes that winning a national championship will change the face of Buffalo forever, especially since outside of Western New York, this team rarely gets the credit it deserves. I’m sorry to say that my latest discovery only reinforces my belief that bringing home the Stanley Cup will not work miracles. So, if you are local, forgive my rant–I know I’m preaching to the choir, but if you happen to be someone who doesn’t live within a one hundred mile radius of the City of Buffalo, then please take note, we do exist!

I’m in favor of keeping my soapbox, even if it means I’m contributing to the “vitriolic” national political discourse. And against all odds, Karl Rove and I apparently see eye to eye on this issue, though for very different reasons. He believes blogging helps the Republican cause; I believe blogging gives voice to the individual voter regardless of her political persuasion. Last week the writers of “The Opinionator,” a blog co-authored by Tobin Harshaw and Chris Suellentrop, staff editors of the NY Times Op-Ed pages, made mention of Rove’s recent comments on the accessibility of a pulpit to every angry citizen with internet access. Well, hallelujah. It is high time we leveled the playing between those with a voice and Washington and everyone else.* Because it’s short, I’ve included the text of the entire post directly below.

 

“The Web has given angry and vitriolic people more of a voice in public discourse,” former top Bush aide Karl Rove told an audience yesterday, according to The Washington Times’s Fishwrap blog. Rove observes: “People in the past who have been on the nutty fringe of political life, who were more or less voiceless, have now been given an inexpensive and easily accessible soapbox, a blog.”

Wait, is there supposed to be something wrong with that?

“The [Internet] is not the reason hyperpartisan politics have been elevated; people like Karl Rove are,” writes Amanda Terkel at Think Progress:
“Rove admitted that despite the coarseness of the political debate, he hopes the netroots ‘keep at it’ because it helps Republicans. If only the blogosphere were as civil as Karl Rove.”

Sometimes, perhaps, the pot deserves to call the kettle black.

In my relatively short lifetime, I have seen the influence of the individual voter, ostensibly the one who holds a member of Congress accountable to his or her votes, eroded by the influence of those with a voice in Washington, insiders and special interest groups. As an insider, Rove naturally enjoyed such privilege. By default a blogger (especially one with a devoted fan base) makes insiders nervous because he or she erodes away some of the power bestowed upon him by his insider status. I teach English. I live for free speech. So, I can’t imagine myself feeling anything but support for another voice, but seven years ago I might have voiced caution when reading unreviewed material, much in the same way that I caution my high school seniors about considering their sources before subscribing to their arguments. However, during the past seven years we have been fed so many disingenuous “truths” by the Bush administration that I cannot, with any honesty, say that Rove’s word is any more reliable than Joe Blogger’s, though they may warrant close scrutiny for different reasons. It is within that close scrutiny that lies the most valuable message I can impart to any student–read skeptically. Long live free speech and perhaps just as importantly, readily available free publishing (thank you, WordPress).

As an addendum to this piece, I might also add that the formal publishing world is making way for this medium in unprecendented ways. I remember back when Andrew Sullivan left his position as editor at The New Republic to devote himself fully to his own blog. Not being a reporter, I did not yet realize how heavily regular reporters relied upon the efforts of bloggers, who had much greater freedom to go and say whatever they pleased. That process is only becoming more transparent. That bastion of old school news itself, The New York Times, has done two things of late that are worth our note. First, they dissolved their online pay-per-view program, Times Select, explaining that the current trend of the internet news sources rendered such a system obsolete. Second, they have continued to expand the blog section of the Times online, inviting renowned bloggers such as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner to post their blog, Freakonomics, under the auspices of the Times banner.

*Do not misinterpret my sentiments as some foolhardy desire to dismiss Congress. That’s not my point at all. While I find our voting system problematic and the electoral college outdated and unfair, I by no means wish to do away with the structure of our government. The House and Senate are essential and must remain so. That being said, historians have argued that our founding fathers really had no desire to blindly hand over power to the populus, hence the unusual institution known as the electoral college, but this only makes individual voice more important.

Writing does not receive the credit it deserves. (I mean, it’s not like it’s rocket science. You’ve been doing it since you first put crayon to paper in kindergarten, right?) But in my experience, the words rarely seem to lay themselves out on the page in a way that’s coherent–read, lots of backspacing, cutting and pasting, and rewriting–but writing is easy breezy, right? I’ve come to recognize this awkward struggle to find a way to say something is writing. The stuff that finally makes its way into being, well that’s the finished product. Writing is the struggle.

HF and I conceived the blogging writing assignment at the end of the’06-’07 school year. I’ve been teaching Senior English for three years and had yet to find a satisfactory method of preparing students for their final exam–an eight-page senior thesis. No matter how much hands-on assistance I provided or how carefully I staged the assignment, the overall results were lacking. Naturally there were exceptions, but by an large I always came away disappointed. Another person might have walked away conceding that it was unrealistic to expect much from students on their first major research paper, but I concluded that the disorganized, poorly executed, sometimes just plain awful writing was the result of my failure to adequately prepare them for this task. Which brings us to today. Blogging is writing, but with a twist. In a blog it is easy to connect your ideas to someone else’s, because rather than relying on an antiquated system of creating a Works Cited page that would have the reader scurrying off to the library to find your source–don’t worry we’ll get to do one this Spring anyways–the writer simply provides a hotlink that takes the reader immediately to the text in question. Guess what? This (without the fun hotlinks) is what writing a research paper is all about.

I know what you are thinking: Yippee skippy. Who gives a hoot (or something less savory) that I can provide some stinkin’ digital link to some other page on the world wide web? However, as far as educational theory is concerned, by reading, understanding and analyzing or evaluating what someone else wrote and then incorporating their ideas into your own to form something new and original, you have reached thought processing nirvana. In 1956 an education researcher, Benjamin Bloom, devised a schema (pictured below) to describe the types of intellectual behavior important in learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Here’s the scary part. He also discovered that over 95% of the questions students encounter prompt them to think only at the lowest (easiest) level of the spectrum. I don’t know if he speculated why, but here’s my take. It’s easy on the everyone involved. If the students can spit back the information the teacher, they are happy (good grades and that nice warm feeling of getting the answer right) and the teacher is happy (she must be good at her job, the students know all the answers = more warm and fuzzy feelings). Unfortunately warm and fuzzy doesn’t equal education that’s worth anything; after all, a parrot can repeat back information it hears.

So, what’s my point? Blogging is a challenge because to do it well you must engage at least three of Bloom’s levels of understanding: comprehension, analysis and /or evaluation, and synthesis. Notice how you’re not spending much time at the bottom of the pyramid? That’s good news for your brain, not so good news if decided to loaf through this year. But if I were you, I’d be pissed at anyone who didn’t challenge me to stay at the top because they’d be wasting my time.

Sources: The image of the Bloom’s pyramid came from this website. And if you want to read more about Bloom’s theories, see the following paper by Mary Forehand from the University of Georgia.