Wrapping Up – Using a Collaborative Blog for Teaching DH

It’s been a while since the last post was published on this site – the spring term has ended in June and it’s summer vacation now until August. The perfect time to recap the master seminar and how it was using a weblog for teaching digital humanities!

My initial idea with this site was to introduce a neat way of disseminating research that can be done relatively easily, doesn’t pose to much of a technical challenge, and provides students with skills that might come in handy later. I thought of it as the virtual classroom: where students find all the information they need for this seminar (the schedule, assignments, deadlines; the slides from each session and a syllabus) and a place to meet virtually. After all, a weblog gives one not only a platform for writing posts, but also to comment on posts.

I had designed the scope and make-up of the website prior to the seminar, deciding on what should be there and where it should be: Student engagement was supposed to happen mainly on the blogroll and in the commentary section, while the static pages were reserved for general info and the week-to-week business of the class. All students had full editing rights, though, meaning that they could create, edit and delete pages as well as blog posts – so in principle, the entire site was modifiable.

In the beginning of the seminar, I introduced the weblog – and blogging as a way of academic research and dissemination practice and students were asked to create a short profile page about themselves and publish it on the website. The goal of this task was twofold: present yourself to your classmates and the – by large anonymous – audience of blog readers, and get accustomed with the back end of the website which runs with one of the widely used content management systems for creating blogs and other websites with non-static content: WordPress.

Over the course of the spring term, I assigned three mandatory blog posts per student: One in the beginning of the seminar, one roughly in the middle, and one at the end. Blogging was thought of as an integral part of sharing knowledge in the class and getting used to producing academic texts early on. It is a challenge of many humanities seminars (at least here in Oslo, Norway), that students are expected to deliver term papers but there are no written assignments or writing tasks throughout the term. I wanted to get the ball rolling with encouraging continuous writing tasks and establishing a helpful routine of reading, thinking, and writing.

The three mandatory blog posts had different scopes:

  1. A blog post as a summary of an academic article (reading comprehension and summarizing)
  2. A blog post about using a DH tool (reporting on a practical task)
  3. A blog post about the final project, comprising of a written outline and scope (writing a short abstract/proposal for a research project)

Each blog post was supposed to be at least 300 words and at most 500 words long, a common, however short length for a post.

In addition, I had encouraged students to write some form of ‘minutes’ for each seminar session but let it go when there was little enthusiasm. After all, the seminar was relatively low in participants and I didn’t want to add too much to the workload.

All students submitted their mandatory blog posts by email first: they were assignments after all. They were later published by the students themselves to the website, which worked in most cases very well. Not all posts were published by the students, though.

The commenting function of the blog wasn’t used either, this is mainly because of me not introducing it clearly enough and not encouraging this form of student interaction enough in the seminar. The same goes for the ‘edit’ function of the blog (with versioning enabled): posts were published and then left as is.

Even though the students reportedly enjoyed writing the assignments as blog posts and found it to be useful to be introduced to academic blogging and using a content management system, I am not sure that using blog posts in this way – and using a website like this for seminar purposes – yielded the effect I had in my when I conceptualized the seminar. I believe the blogging got lost in all the other – overwhelming – new ideas, concepts, and not least: technologies that I introduced to the students and had them explore and try out.

This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend using a weblog or blogging as a classroom activity: I still think it is a sensible way of engaging with DH and getting into a reading-and-writing-rhythm. I would suggest, though, to steer to focus of the seminar more towards academic blogging in itself, in a way, making it into the core learning asset of the seminar, instead of a mere feature. This should help engaging the students in working with and on the weblog and using its functionality without running risk of becoming a nuisance or yet another ‘must do’.

Last, but not least, this is a big Thank You to all my students who made this into a great seminar and helped creating content for this website!

Annika Rockenberger

Humanities Researcher & Digital Textologist

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