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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Tumblr-ing Into the Semester
January 9, 2013 - 8:01pm

I am crossing over to the dark side. I’ve decided to incorporate a class Tumblr into my creative writing course this semester.

I feel like it’s the dark side, because while I use lots of technology and social media and the like in my daily life, at heart, I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to pedagogical issues.

In class, I ban cell phones and even laptops for the purpose of notes. I believe that attention takes practice and active listening and that class is a good time to engage in that practice. Students receive grades, rather than "leveling up." Instructors who encourage their students to live tweet during class sound like crazy people to me. I don’t mind if the learning is fun, I encourage it, in fact, but at the same time, it isn’t a game.

But I’ve been reflecting on my goals for my fiction writing course and realized that a class blog may be a useful tool in achieving those goals.

The chief goal is to foster a climate where we feel like we’re having a semester-long conversation about the writing and reading of short fiction, and even literary art in general. This is how class periods are structured. It’s the aim of the assignments. I even ask them to try to “keep their head” in writing for some part of every day.

I’ve been skeptical of tools like Facebook and Twitter to foster “meaningful” discussion. 140 characters is a terrible way to have a discussion or debate, and Facebook comments often devolve into lowest common denominator sniping, but what I’ve slowly, and finally come to understand is that these technologies don’t need to substitute for something like an in-depth class discussion, or critical essay, but augment them.

This was illustrated to me just yesterday, when my friend and former editor, and current online editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Jane Friedman, posted an interesting essay about “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction.”

I saw her link in her well-followed Twitter feed and immediately read the piece. It was filled with some things I agreed with, some I disagreed with, and others that made me kind of mad.

I tweeted back a comment, and we were off and running on a discussion/debate. Soon enough, we were joined by Cathy Day, a writer and professor at Ball State whose writing I’ve admired for many years, and whose blog on teaching writing I read and even include as part of my courses.

It was hard to cover all that much conversational ground in these short bursts, but in the span of 20 or tweets, my brain was ignited as to the things we were talking about: audience attention, different kinds of engagement depending on the media, evolution in storytelling forms, etc… I spent the rest of the day mulling these questions on my own. This morning, I returned to Jane’s original post and read through the 60 plus comments from writers and editors, which provided even more food for thought.

I realized this isn’t the first time this has happened, that a stray Tweet or Facebook post or blog has sent me off on a search through my own thoughts and interests. Sometimes, these things are distractions from what I should be doing, but often enough, they wind up enriching some aspect of my work as a teacher, writer, and editor that I’m clearly benefitting.

So why not try that with my students by asking them to share thoughts, information, and assignments on our group blog? They already see the fruits of each others’ labor when the submit their stories for class discussion. Why not expand this to a greater range of assignments?

My goals are modest. I’m basically taking some of the ungraded exercises they used to turn into me, and asking them to share them publicly with their classmates. My hope is that they’ll take some extra time and see what their colleagues are up to, to see how people very much like them are tackling similar problems. My hope is also if they know that their work is going to be publicly viewable, they will take as much time and care with it as possible.

At the same time, I’m going to encourage them to blog independently about their own experiences as writers, the same way I’m privileged to do so here. Just having this space, and a certain demand to produce has forced me to think longer and harder about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

It’s made more engaged with the practice of my own professions, and I have blogging and social media to thank.

Whodathunkit?

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If you’d like to follow our progress on Tumblr, you can find us here.

You never know when I’m going to start a Twitter fight because I’m just that kind of person.

 

 

 

 

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