Reinvigorating the Creative Writing Workshop Using Blogs

Monday, April 23, 2012

This is the third in a series of four essays adapted for TriQuarterly Online from the panel “On Reinvigorating the Creative Writing Workshop: Four Bold New Approaches,” originally presented at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference on March 3rd, 2012.


Recently I taught a 400-level creative nonfiction workshop, and instead of having students turn in traditional hard-copy essays for workshop, I required them to create blogs and post everything there. I also required that the blogs be completely open to the public and without restrictions. Here are a few of the logistics.


1. For consistency and ease, all students were required to use I did not want to use my university's Blackboard system, because I wanted their writing to be truly public and not under any university restrictions.


2. Each student had to post something on his or her blog every week. Weekly posts could be short (100–300 words), with no topic restrictions.


3. Each student had to post two longer “workshop essays” on his or her blog over the semester. These were critiqued in workshop discussion.


4. Each student was required to read other students’ blog posts and comment on half of them every week, then alternate to the other half the following week. Students did not write critique letters for other students beyond commenting on their blogs.


5. Because I’d never used such a format before, I used a contract grading system in which students would automatically receive a B if they followed the basic contract of the course, but they would quickly fall below a B if they broke the contract.


My rationale, as stated in my syllabus, was as follows:


Public blogs provide students with opportunities to get response and feedback not just from other students but also from a wider audience. The social aspect of blogs creates a greater sense of community for students, since blogs act as a “middle place” between the classroom and the rest of the world.


My experiences using this blog format in the creative writing workshop were admittedly mixed. Several things surprised me, and I want to share what I learned from these surprises, as well as offer some ideas for how to use blogs effectively in your own workshops.


Surprise #1

Students were primarily worried about their privacy. I have to admit that in an era of Facebook-Twitter-Tumblr-O-Mania, I hadn’t seen this one coming. Privacy? This from students who had extremely loud “private” cell phone conversations right outside my office door? From students who weren’t shy about yanking up their shirts right in class in order to show off their most recent tattoos? When pressed to explain further, one student said: “Well, what if someone links my blog post on their Facebook and then their fourteen-year-old cousin reads it?” After heated discussion, someone suggested the use of pseudonyms in order to ensure their privacy. I was leery of this, partly because it was a nonfiction workshop. But I acquiesced. “Okay, fine,” I said. (And may I mention here some of the pseudonyms chosen: Tiffany in the Lost & Found, Cecil Brooks, M.S. McKibbin, J Scatter.)

Students, it seemed, not only liked, valued, and were familiar with the “safe,” insulated workshop environment but had come to see it as a sanctuary from all the Internet babble out there. “Plus,” one student said, “this is a class. And we’re doing this for a grade. So we don’t just want some perv looking at our stuff online and commenting on it.”

Still, I pushed on, challenging them to examine their notions of audience. Why “perv”? And why did students in general not want outside audiences for their work? Was it because they wanted to be writers but not have to face the hard issues of having “real” readers with sometimes unsavory opinions about their work?

Also, I realized my students had unrealistic ideas about what it meant to throw their proverbial blogging hats into the ring. One student said to me, “When trying to think of my first blog post, I was stuck for a while, maybe because I was worried about it being read by millions of people, but once I got going I realized it’s kind of cool to have my own site.” Millions of people? Really? How would that happen? Perhaps they’d seen too many movies like Julie & Julia. Perhaps they were just young and idealistic.

But this quickly led to the second surprise.


Surprise #2

Students were also concerned about censorship. One said, “What if I want to write about drugs and orgies and stuff? Or what if I want to swear?”  There was laughter but also real concern.

“Well,” I said, “would you write about those things in an essay and turn in hard copies of it to the class?”

Sure, they said, but that was just for the class. This was different. “Why?” I asked.

“Because,” someone said, “no one in here would judge you. But if you throw something out there on the Internet, who knows who might read it, and then what if someone writes a really nasty response to my blog post?”

Ah—I was beginning to understand. They were not just concerned about who might be reading or sharing their blog posts but with how someone out there might comment negatively and make them look bad. Valid concerns, certainly, but not deal breakers.


Surprise #3

Students were concerned about the length of blog posts. Normally when students ask me how long their short stories should be, they’re asking because they tend to err on the short side, but with blogs the concern was reversed. Since studies have shown that the average Internet user changes activity at least every three minutes, how long could student bloggers expect to hold their reader’s attention? “Let’s say two to five pages,” I said, but then realized that seemed too skimpy for an advanced workshop requirement and yet too long for a blog post. Also, blog posts aren’t measured in pages but in—what? Inches? Paragraphs? Screen length? Word count? What to do?

We decided that everyone should use their own best judgment, but that since it was for a class, to err on the long side. And speaking of class, this led to the fourth surprise.


Surprise #4

After a few weeks of workshop, some students declared that blogs didn’t feel “academic” enough. One student said that blogs “make me write more but write worse”; another agreed that blogs “make me write less carefully.” Though there were a few who credited the blogs with making them write “freer and more candidly and genuinely,” the majority of the class expressed concern with how “casual” and “loose” blogs made their writing. As one student put it: “Too much liberty for me is death.”

What I gleaned from thinking over these comments was twofold (and contradictory, I might add):


1. Even though in regular, nonblog workshops I rarely gave specific writing topics to students, I'd never once received a complaint or a comment that they were too loose or casual or free.


2. Students do not take very seriously writing that they (or others) do online.



Despite how conflicted these responses might sound, as time went on I discovered great pedagogical value in using blogs in the workshop.


1. Using blogs engendered more journalistic, sociocultural writing than I’d ever seen in a creative nonfiction workshop. If you teach CNF workshops, you know what I mean: if not instructed otherwise, students will most often write about their childhoods, their parents, a bad accident or breakup, or (fill in the blank). But there was something about the blog’s wider audience reach that pushed many students toward topics beyond the personal. One student wrote a post titled “Music and the Fate of Modern Girls” in which she deconstructed Taylor Swift’s song lyrics as unempowering to young girls. In the process she also wrote memoiristically about her own female music idols while growing up. Another student wrote a post titled “I Think I’m in Love with Clint Eastwood,” in which he compared the animated children’s film Rango to old spaghetti westerns. He situated himself as a narrator who'd been in love with movies from a young age. I can say with 98 percent certainty that these essays would not have been written for a regular nonblog workshop by these students.


2. Students who did write in a more autobiographical way used the blog to take more emotional risks. One student, who had spent all semester playing nervously with a deck of cards in class, outed himself as autistic in a blog post but did it in an oblique way by utilizing second-person narration and a series of poker hand combinations presented visually. In his case, the blog format allowed him to tell it "slant." Another student wrote about his obsession with playing paintball by using short clips of paintball footage, collaged with literary quotes about war, footnoted with his own asides about how embarrassing and juvenile paintball wars are. The blogs, in his case, allowed him an multimedia outlet to express emotions he would not have been comfortable doing with straight text.


Some Blog Dos

1. DO mention early on that students can and should use images, weblinks, audio, video, and anything else blogs allow that they couldn’t do on paper.

2. DO allow them to use pseudonyms.

3. DO require hard-copy story critiques if you want your students to give each other astute and useful feedback.

4. DO set a word-count limit for blog posts. Include students in that discussion.

5. DO establish firm standards (be specific and descriptive) for what type of feedback is expected when students comment on other students’ blog posts.

6. DO use a textbook or anthology in a blog course. It keeps students grounded.

7. DO provide writing prompts and possible topics for blog posts. Students feel oddly lost when writing blogs.

8. DO plan to spend roughly 20 percent more time at your computer than you would in a regular workshop.


And Some Blog Don’ts

1. DON’T expect every blog post to be great. It’s the nature of the beast.

2. DON’T require students to provide feedback to everybody’s blog post. Two to four each is adequate.

3. DON’T let students who already have blogs use those. Require them to make a new one just for the class.

4. DON’T get too bent out of shape about occasional typos, misspellings, and the like. Again, it’s the nature of the beast.

5. DON’T allow students to revise their blog posts until after the class has discussed them. Otherwise you will all be reading different versions.


I plan to use the blog format again, with gusto, now that I know what I need to tweak and adjust. I hope you’ll plan to try it as well.