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The Year of Hunkering Down

The Year of Hunkering Down

This is a shorter version of a post I made today on my poet blog, This Poet’s Life. Since the issues discussed affected both my personal and professional lives, I’m posting here as well. So, my shameless self-promotion moves for my 30/30 poems on Twitter […]

What a Teaching Writing Online course can do

What a Teaching Writing Online course can do

Any way I look at it, teaching writing online is more work for faculty than teaching in the face-to-face classroom. It is also more work for students, but this post will be looking at it from the faculty side and counting the costs, most of […]

ENG 704: Choosing a Blog Platform

ENG 704: Choosing a Blog Platform

An earlier version of this post was done for an ENG 725 on “Teaching Writing Online.” I will be updating those posts to include what’s new since then and to better fit the new course.

In my ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online class this spring, one of the things they will be doing is reflective readings responses. That should be no surprise, especially in an online class where face-to-face discussion takes some mediated contortioning. I know blogs seem so old-school now, but really, I have yet to find anything better for reflection, for “the long thoughts.” Since my first blog back in 2001, I have tried many blogging platforms. some of which have vastly improved through the years. All are free. Some need server space (which does have a cost), but most do not, a real advantage for teachers who don’t want that annual expense. Fairly early on though, by 2003, I decided that the expense was worth it and bought my own domain and paid for server space. Besides listing different blog choices, I would like to examine that choice also.

My decision to go for my own domain was completely wrapped up in the concept of a visible scholarly and professional identity on the web. As a Computers and Writing specialist within the larger area of rhetoric and composition, I felt that it was not only appropriate but mandatory for me to have a web presence. I also realize this would not be everyone’s choice. The domain was very inexpensive and still is: $7.50 – $15.00 depending on who does it. in 2003, server space through a host service was the only way to go. Since then, several free blogging services have branched out to allow you to use your own domain for your web address on their service. For example, Blogger does this. That means you can have a custom URL like superteacher.net and not pay for anything else but the domain registration fee.

I had other reasons to go with a hosting service though. At the time I wanted to use Drupal, which was really a wonderful CMS for the time. It is still good, and I’ll say more about it and DrupalEd in my list. Drupal was download-only, so I went with a hosting service that would download and maintain it for me. It was a good choice since I did not enjoy dealing with database errors or other horrific glitches that seemed to happen regularly to my peers who did their own downloading and updating. The main reason I did this though was because I needed more than a blog. I used subdomains to separate out functions between my blog, my teaching space, and my CV. As you can see from the tabs here, I still do that.

Here are some current blog choices. I am limiting them to free services:

Old Standbys

These have been around for a while and include some of the best choices for those who want a blog that has potential to also be a portfolio or LMS (learning management system)

  • Blogger. If Blogger then was what it is now, I would have stayed with it for a long time. It lets you use your own domain (for the cost of domain registration) and it has good themes that you can go in and tweak if you want a different color or pattern combination. It also allows either group or single blogs. It is owned by Google now, and its move towards being an innovative blog space with interesting features began on its acquisition.
  • LiveJournal. I used this early on. The “friending” concept  began here, and the loose collaborative groups that develop this way are very interesting. I don’t think it is workable for academic space though. I used it for a study that was the basis for my dissertation.
  • WordPress. The link is for the .com site where people can sign up for their own blog space for free. The .org site has free downloads for the software in case you want it for your own domain and server space. The WordPress themes are the big draw here. There are so many, and so many functions come with them. This site is a WordPress blog that allows you to tab to other subdomains. The Moon City Press site, another site I am associated with, is also WordPress, but its theme has a nifty gallery that rotates the new books and announcements. This is a choice with plenty of customization options while still easy to use for beginners. You can make it as complicated or as simple as you want.
  • Edublogs. This uses WordPress, and it has the advantage of its own dashboard interface that  has hand-picked widget options that are particularly useful for teachers. The only negative I have is that when I used it for a class, they had serious stability problems. That was seven years ago now and It looks like those problems are long-since resolved, so I would not have any qualms recommending it now. If you are liking WordPress anyway, consider Edublogs first.
  • iWeb. Don’t use this. I’m not even sure it still exists except on ancient Apple computers that came with it.
  • Drupal. I still think of Drupal and now and then am tempted to use it again, espcially at times like now when I remember using its easy polls as classroom discussion starters. As a freestanding blog though, it is overkill and keeps its geeky street cred by being tweaky and difficult for many initial users to set up. It stopped having a free hosted option in August 2016.
  • DrupalEd. This was designed for writing classes by writing teachers. I used it at Missouri State for the composition classes when I was acting Composition Director. It is free, and it you have a school that is interested, I can get you in touch with people who can give you advice on setting it up. This is not an individual blog solution; it is meant for a school or program.
  • Tumblr. I think this could work. I have not used Tumblr because I am not really a snippet blogger; I use Pinterest for my short, mostly pictorial posts. This is a good place to collect things or pieces of text.
  • Ning. I really enjoyed using this for my classes in the brief window of opportunity when it was new and free, before they cut off everyone who was not willing to pay. It is a great blend blend of blogging, social media, tagging gone amuck, and pretty effective community building. Missouri State’s Ozark Writing Project used Ning, but moved away when it went commercial. I put Ning on the list because the fond memories still linger, but not enough that I’m willing to pay $25 a month for their entry-level plan.

Faux Blogs (Proprietary Website Builders)

Wxi, Weebly, Squarespace, Google Sites, imcreator, and other similar sites: These are website builders, not blogs, and even when they have a free option, with the exception of Google Sites, they have several levels of pay tiers where most of the options occur. I left out the links on purpose. Please do not consider them for blogs, classroom LMS/CMS, or even what they say they are for– building websites. For one thing, there is actual blog software available elsewhere for free and you should use it. For another, if you need to make a website, say, for a web article you want to submit to a journal, you need to use Dreamweaver or other web authoring software. As an editor for a web journal, I sometimes get webtext submissions that use this kind of site and I have to tell them to build it themselves and resubmit. Web journals need to house all materials onsite for the sake of security and longevity. Sites like these may let you build a website, but they hold on to it–ownership is blurred. It is meant for small business owners who want an informational site and don’t know they could easily do it themselves for free using Blogger or WordPress.

New Kids on the Bloggy Block

I haven’t tried these, mainly because I am happy with Wordpress and truly need blog software that has paged tabs and complex choices that work for a CMS (content management system). Sometimes though, all you want is a place to write. That’s all. A place to write that other people can read. That’s all. There are some interesting new choices that will do that. Here are a few.

  • Svbtle. At first, I wasn’t sure about a blogging site so pretentious that it uses a “v” instead of a “u” in its name as if we were still Romans, but this site does have advantages for bloggers who just want to write and want to join a community of like-minded writers. It is so spare that it doesn’t even give a time-date stamp for entries, which for me takes it out of the realm of blog, but if you can work around that, it could work for a readings response blog.
  • Postach.io. Do you use Evernote to keep track of your ideas and projects? If you are, then this site would be worth trying. It integrates with your Evernote account and allows you to take an Evernote note and post it as a blog entry to Postach.io. If you don’t use Evernote, this is not for you.
  • Google+. I have this and I never, never considered it blogging. Upon refection, yes, it is blogging, blogging that met Facebook and had a baby kind of blogging. The core of Google+ is the circles, groups of other Google+ members that you add and place into “circles” that you define. For example, I am creating a ENG 704 circle for this class. I can then post and specify that the post only goes to people in the ENG 704 circle. Each post then has a specified audience, one defined by you. Most of my Google+ posts are for all my circles, but sometimes I post about things that not everyone will be interested in. An example would be my soccer posts. I only send those to my soccer circle. The posts for ENG 704 will be like that–they will only go out to class members. So, since I am making a Google ID a required tool for the class, you automatically have a Google_ page with a Google ID. All you have to do is access it and start posting. If you set up a ENG 704 circle, you can then let Google notify you when one of the circle posts. Easy-peasy. The down side of this and the reason why I never considered it blogging is that it can never be truly public. Unless you don’t use the circles or make all of your posts completely public, your Google+ page is not able to grow an audience in the way a traditional blog can. It also has no customization, which is one of the fun things about blogging.
  • Medium. This site is truly a community that you join. You post stories within categories and the site rates them. That is by definition a forum, not a blog. Quora added blogs a couple of years back, but it too is a forum and I don’t see it changing its focus.

The choice is yours. This is one time when free options may really be the best options. If you want to jump ahead to an article that goes into blogging more in-depth, skip ahead to one of your later readings, Why I Still Blog, from the Praxis section of Kairos 19.1.

After the conference

As it turned out, The Computers and Writing conference really did what they could to allow me to get around with my very limited mobility. The kind people at St. John Fisher College found a golf cart and ferried me from building to building, so […]

Conference Fear

I really should be excited about going to Computers and Writing, and a part of me still is. It is the absolute best conference for people like me who are obsessed with rhetoric, composition studies, and all things digital. However, this time I am feeling […]

About expectations and required composition classes

About expectations and required composition classes

Writing I and Writing II are required as part of the gen-eds, a fairly normal thing for all universities. This universal requirement means that students who fear writing or who simply do not value writing as a part of their future must take it anyway. Enforced education is problematic and leads to resistance. I could expect a certain percentage of “problem” students who resist the course in some expected and unexpected ways, some fairly creative. Despite past experience, I choose to expect the best, most motivated students instead. They will aim for writing that connects to their interests and they will have interests. If they don’t, the class will be the place where they discover their academic interests through writing about them. It may well mean a change of majors, a small thing weighed against a lifetime of working at something they are indifferent to or actively don’t like just for the money. They may learn to like writing, be seduced by its ability to lead to new insights or to a greater understanding of self. They may not and continue to dislike it, but even then, they can gain the comfort of feeling competent at writing, an assurance that whatever writing task shows up in the future, they can analyze what is needed and succeed. This is what I expect and most of the time I get it.

Each semester the dance between expecting the best and the unexpected roadblocks play out. There are times teaching composition is a long, hard slog, and the last week of classes and finals week can lead to despair. Students that disappeared because of a heavy class and work load reappear in a panic. Students on the edge between grades begin to negotiate, give reasons why work “is not that bad” or question assessment categories such as audience. These truly are the weeks that define them, but it is also when I especially need to stay true to myself, to be the writing teacher I aspire to be. I vow to be that teacher. I must also acknowledge though that students need to bring a reasonable amount of effort to the class too and if they don’t, it is their choice. In order to stay fair to the students who did put in the time and effort, I need to play fair there too and have clear vision when assessing work.

Today is the last day of classes for my university, a good day to look back and think about my classes and the last things that need to be done. It is often a time for regrets and occasional triumphs. For example, I also teach a Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature class this semester. Its primary mode of assessment is writing, with fairly spirited discussion about the readings leading to that writing. They were engaged with the material and developed the habit of leaving the class together and continuing the conversation as they walked, settling in a spot across from the student union to talk more. This is not a required classes for anything, but it does fulfill a need for a certain number of hours of 300-level and above courses to meet the requirements for the B.A. Thank you, degree requirements. I have to ask myself, could this happen with composition? Could the academic writing approach (WID) engage students just as thoroughly as this class where students admittedly have a prior interest in the material?

My answer remains yes and no. Yes, they can be engaged in writing about the hot topics in their field, in building an approach to a subject that is uniquely theirs, However, not all Writing II students are passionate about their major, and preprofessional majors will always be difficult to write about on the undergraduate level. That is why that even though I stay with a WID approach in Writing II (modified WID in Writing I), the assignments are designed to give students experience in different kinds of writing that they could reasonably encounter later, either in future undergraduate courses, in graduate school (the focus of my 300-level Writing II), or in their work life post college. Postponed rewards are not always appreciated, So this day, a day of grading for me, I will celebrate what they have done and attempt in my comments to express and celebrate the progress they’ve made. Every single student has made progress, even the ones who stopped coming because of hard times and enrolled with me for a second try in the fall. That too, is a victory.

 

About DMAC

As usual, I hate how I look in photos and video, but this is a good interview video, taken at the Digital Media and Composition Institute. I wholeheartedly recommend their summer institute for any writing teacher who seeks more innovative teaching in 21st century literacies.

More LMS review

After the great Moodle breakdown last semester, I had to scramble to find something to replace it that did not require me to do the upkeep. The one-click options that remained with my host were not going to work. Canvas has changed its terms. I’m […]