How should we evaluate blogs?

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[This post was originally published on August 30, 2012.]

I’ve been following a conversation on the WPA list that you may have seen too:  a colleague had written in to ask for advice on queries she was getting from fellow faculty members about how to evaluate blogs.  She got many fine responses to her query, but the one that struck me as most valuable was posted by Jerry Nelms, from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Ohio State.  Here’s what he had to say:

. . . to a faculty member asking me about assigning blogs:  What are the goals and learning objectives of your course and how does a blog either help students achieve those goals and learning objectives or assess students’ progress toward achieving those goals and learning objectives?  Are we talking about blogs that set forth arguments?  Blogs that are exploratory or reflective?  What are the learning objectives of the blog assignment—that is, what should the student blogger be able to do in her blog?

Blogs can be one way of getting students engaged in what I want them to learn, but just arbitrarily assigning blogs without thinking about what I want students to learn from writing the blog can be a disaster, if for no other reason than that the students may have conceptualized “blogs” in ways that are different from the way I have conceptualized them.  In other words, I don’t see a big difference here in terms of the best practices in assigning writing between a blog and a report or an essay. So, I’d try to get the faculty member to see that

  1. The writing should be contextualized in ways that reveal how the writing will be relevant to future writing contexts.
  2. The writing should have a purpose and an appropriate audience.
  3. The writing should reveal an appropriate ethos.
  4. The assignment should clearly lay out any organizational or stylistic conventions that the writer needs to adhere to.
  5. The assignment also needs to clearly communicate any processes that the writer should adhere to (e.g., number of drafts, getting feedback, what to do with feedback, and so on).

These “norms” seem to me to be a decent framework for creating a rubric for any academic writing, and so, if the faculty member wants to use a rubric for this assignment, I think that, together, we could make a good start at one in just a one-hour consultation.  But if the faculty member is looking for some “universal” blog rubric, I’m afraid I would disappoint her in my insistence that rubrics need to be specific to a particular assignment.

Nelms makes a number of important points here, beginning with his reminder to us that students often do not conceptualize assignments in the same way we do, or even define words in the same way we do.  In the 1980s, Linda Flower’s research revealed that students often have a discourse pattern that has been successful for them and, if so, they tend to apply it in almost any situation.  The one I remember from Flower’s research was the “gist and list” strategy for approaching an assignment:  a number of students in her study fell back on this strategy time and time again, even when it was not at all appropriate for the assignment.  Thus our first goal in giving assignments in our own classes, or helping fellow faculty members with theirs, is to get major terms out on the table for discussion—even one as ubiquitous as “blog.”

I also agree with Nelms when he recommends returning to fundamental rhetorical categories when assessing any piece of discourse.  Attention to purpose, audience, ethos, and kairos will always help to clarify assignments—or to carry them out.  In addition, he is spot on when he suggests that assessment rubrics should always grow out of the discussion of goals, purposes, and so on.  The rubric should always reflect the assignment, not the other way around.

In my own classes where I’ve used blogs or wikis, we have needed to be very explicit about WHY we were using these forms of communication and to work together to understand what would represent excellence in their execution.  It’s been a huge learning curve for me since I first began working with new media writing in my classes—huge in the sense that I had to learn how to do such writing myself and that I had to think long and hard with my students about how such writing would be evaluated.  I could never use the same rubric for, say, a written academic argument, an oral performance, or a Website—unless the rubric were so general as to be pretty unhelpful.

So—if you’ve been thinking about this question of evaluating blogs or other forms of new media writing, please chime in with your best thinking!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.