TITLE: When Blogs Do More Than Steal Time AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 17, 2004 1:12 PM DESC: Reading a student's blog got me to thinking about how blogs can change the nature of dialogue at the university. ----- BODY: I often read about how blogging will change the world in some significant way. For example, some folks claim that blogs will revolutionize journalism, creating an alternative medium that empowers the masses and devalues the money-driven media through which most of the world sees its world. Certainly, the blogosphere offers a remarkable level of distributivity and immediacy to feedback, see the Chronicle of Higher Education's Scholars Who Blog, which chronicles this phenomenon. As I mentioned last time, I'm not often a great judge of the effect a new idea like blogging will have on the future. I'm skeptical of claims of revolutionary effect, if only because I respect the Power Law. But occasionally I get a glimpse of how blogging is changing the world in small ways, and I have a sense that something non-trivial is going on. I had one such glimpse this morning, when I took to reading a blog written by one of my student's blog. First of all, that seems like a big change in the academic order: a student publishes his thoughts on a regular basis, and his professors can read. Chuck's blog is a mostly personal take on life, but he is the kind of guy who experiences his academic life deeply, too, so academics show up on occasion. It's good for teachers to be reminded that students can and sometimes do think deeply about what they do in class. Second change: apparently he reads my blog, too. Students read plenty of formal material that their instructors write, but blogs open a new door on the instructor's mind. My blog isn't one of those confessional, LiveJournal-style diaries, but I do blog less formally and about less formal thoughts than I ordinarily write in academic material. Besides, a student reading my blog gets to see that I have interests beyond computer science, and even a little whimsy. It's good for students be reminded occasionally that teachers are people, too. Third, and this is what struck me most forcefully while reading this morning, these blogs make possible a new channel of learning for both students and teachers. Chuck blogged at some length about a program that he wrote for a data structures assignment. In the course thinking through the merits of his implementation relative to another student's, he had an epiphany about how to write more efficient multi-way selection statements -- and "noticed that no one is trying particularly hard to teach me" about writing efficient code. This sort of discovery happens rarely enough for students, and when it does happen it's likely to evanesce for lack of opportunity to take root in a conversation. Yet here I am privy to this discovery, six weeks after it happened. It would have been nice to talk about it when it happened, but I wasn't there. But through the blog I was able to respond to some of the points in the entry by e-mail. That I can have this peek into a student's mind (in this case, my own) and maybe carry on a conversation about an idea of importance to both of us -- that is a remarkable consequence of the blogosphere. I'm old enough to remember when Usenet newsgroups were the place to be. Indeed, I have a token prize from our Linux users group commemorating my claim to the oldest Google-archived Usenet post among our local crew. New communities, academic and personal, grew up in the Usenet news culture. (I still participate in an e-mail community spun off from rec.sport.basketball, and we gather once a year in person to watch NCAA tourrnament games.) So the ability of the Internet to support community building long predates the blog. But the culture of blogging -- personal, frequent posts sharing ideas on any topic; comments and trackbacks; the weaving of individual writers into a complex network of publication -- adds something new. And those personal reflections sometimes evolve into something more over the course of an entry, as in Chuck's programming reflection example. I do hope that there isn't some sort of Heisenberg thing going on here, though. I'd hate to think that students would be less willing to write honestly if they know their professors might be reading. (Feeling some pressure to write fairly and thoughtfully is okay. The world doesn't need any more whiny ranting blogs.) I know that, when I blog, at the back of my mind is the thought that my students might read what I'm about to say. So far, I haven't exercised any prior restraint on myself, at least any more than any thoughtful writer must exercise. But students are in a different position in the power structure than I am, so they may feel differently. Some people may worry about the fact that blogs lower or erase barriers of formality between students and professors, but I think they can help us get back to the sort of education that a university should offer -- a Church of Reason, to quote Robert Pirsig:
[The real University is] a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.
The university is to be a place where ideas are created, evaluated, and applied, a place of dialogue among students and teachers. If the blogosphere becomes a place where such dialogue can occur with less friction -- and where others outside the walls of the church building itself can also join in the conversation, then the blogosphere may become a very powerful medium in our world after all. Maybe even revolutionary. -----