By Janette Tilley
One of the great challenges that comes with undergraduate academic writing in the disciplines is the question of genre. Just what is a good research paper and do students know what this genre looks like? Where would they read good models? Sending them to the elite academic journals of my discipline (musicology) is unlikely to inspire confidence in budding writers and musicians. Fortunately for me, nearly everyone is interested in reading about music in some way or other, so there is plenty of engaging writing to be found on the internet, and models of highly informative, well-researched, and carefully crafted pieces abound.
With that in mind, I developed a course on the CUNY Academic Commons that would use the natural blogging feature of WordPress to permit students write about music in a way that might be seen as more “natural” to them. I hoped that by creating a community of writers on a public platform, there would be less friction between what students read and what they wrote. I hoped they would find models not only of writing about music, but writing in a digitally-engaged way that would develop skills valuable well beyond semester’s end.
My decision to use a public, open, and accessible platform was also informed by the course topic: Music Since 1945. CUNY students are incredibly fortunate to live in what is arguably the most exciting city for new music. My goal with this course was to give students opportunities for meaningful experiences with the new music scene and to engage with that music deeply and personally. By writing reflections about concert experiences, recording reviews, and musician profiles, I hoped to make this course integrated with the New York scene and help them feel connected with a community of musicians and listeners who care deeply about music—not just an arcane topic sequestered in a classroom in the Bronx.
The CUNY Academic Commons fit this course perfectly. I organized the website with a detailed menu that included all of the usual course items. Students especially appreciated that the weekly listening assignments came from YouTube, and inserting videos into pages on the CAC could not be easier. To help students find concerts, I created an events calendar that would list upcoming concerts in a side widget on the main blog page, but also all events in a larger monthly view. Having a calendar that I could update regularly with new events was very helpful for them. I won’t lie: it took a few hours to enter events, but after the initial push, I could update it with new events as I discovered them. Still, entering details was tedious; won’t someone write a script that will import calendar items (ical or google calendar)? Or batch create recurring calendar items?
I “check in” with my class regularly using an iClicker system to get anonymous feedback that students might not want to volunteer. A few things I learned: most of the class did not follow a blog or read blog posts regularly before taking this class. None had written for one. So much for my theory about having students write in a more familiar genre! I had left the first month’s post entirely up to them, to see what formatting and media they might be able to add on their own. My own first model post had included many active hyperlinks, text styling, and some images. None of the students did this. Over the next couple of months, I began to demonstrate in class how to apply various styles and images to posts, first by looking at what we have quickly come to expect with online reading (hyperlinks not long URLs, embedded videos, headings) and then how to achieve these ends. I added a few tips in the Q&A Forum. The level of engagement on the part of students quickly rose, and by the end of the semester, the all students challenged themselves with sophisticated integration of audio, video, and a variety of active links to sources well beyond what I had hoped. The WYSIWYG editor in the CAC is relatively intuitive, but first-timers could use a primer in what the various symbols in the editing window mean. Embedding YouTube videos is remarkably easy and students figured out how to upload their own pictures and embed them in their posts without any coaching.
By the end of the semester, 2/3 of the class reported that they preferred writing in a blog or electronic format compared to “traditional” papers. Modelling, which played a role in my decision to use a publicly accessible platform, seems to have also been meaningful as most of the class agreed that they took ideas for formatting and organization from posts that they deemed excellent. The class nearly unanimously agreed that writing blog posts was easier than “traditional” essays, even media-rich and well-researched ones as I saw in the last month of class.
Though they seemed to leave the class with positive responses to digital writing and the CAC more specifically, I noticed that some students struggled with the loose deadlines related to blog work. I assigned two sorts of writing: one, a weekly “private” post that only I could see, assessing their engagement with each week’s topic. This was typically done on time. The second type of writing was their formal, public post related to concert attendance and thus had variable deadlines. I assessed the public work on the blog each month, reminding the class each week that they needed to attend an event and write about it once each month. But this loose deadline left some of the students adrift as procrastinated days turned into weeks and suddenly the month had passed and they had written nothing. Perhaps the connection between writing on the blog and the course grade was not as persistently obvious as it is in a typical course management system where students see their gradebook whenever they log in. Might I also dream of a gradebook and rubric generator for WordPress? The “Reckoning” Plugin for WordPress was a real timesaver when accounting for the weekly posts and comment activity.
Working with a public blogging platform permitted an impressive level of musical engagement and encouraged students to extend themselves well beyond the textbook to the larger “real” and “digital” worlds. They responded to each other in the comments, bringing up thorny issues that they seemed uncomfortable speaking about in class. For this course at least, the blog seemed a natural extension of the classroom. The CAC’s ease of use played an important part in this. Not having student work hidden behind a login meant that the stakes were higher for writing, but they could also read each other’s work without the barriers of a traditional course management system—new posts were sent directly by email and the mobile-friendly site meant work could be read on any device. I had hoped for a “frictionless” digital experience for my course, and I’m happy to say that the CAC met my needs entirely.
Janette Tilley is an Associate Professor of Music at Lehman College.