An Academic Blog for Students

Web journals seek to enhance communication between advisers and advisees.
June 9, 2006

Every student will soon be a blogger at the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences -- and the authors won't just be filling their pages with party anecdotes.

As part of summer registration, members of the class of 2010 are receiving from the college personalized "academic blog" pages, where they are asked to fill out what amounts to an online questionnaire. The students' first online journal entries will focus on their intellectual interests, academic concerns and educational experiences. Many bloggers will outline their strengths and weaknesses, and create a personal mission statement.

The academic blogs aren't meant for mass consumption. Only the student, an academic adviser and authorized university officials will be able to see the content. The idea is to formulate talking points for when freshmen first meet their faculty mentors in the fall.

“We're trying to give the adviser some context, so the relationship doesn’t start as ‘who the hell are you?’” said Dennis DeTurck, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of mathematics.

The academic blogs are simple in design and look like a university Web page, with the Penn insignia in the upper-left-hand corner. Each semester, university staff will post new questions on the students' academic blog. DeTurck said those prompts are intended to be jumping-off points and be relevant to a student's academic standing. For instance, sophomores will be asked to explain their rationale for choosing a major and weigh the merits of studying abroad during their third year.

Only the summer entry is required of incomming freshmen, but many advisers are likely to request that their advisees update the content at least once a semester. The idea is for students to use the forum over all four years and see how -- or if -- their academic interests change. 

DeTurck said incoming students have always been asked to fill out a questionnaire, and advisers have always kept tabs on the students, but that there wasn't an organized recording method.

More than 300 freshmen took part in the academic blogging pilot program last academic year, and those students will continue to post throughout their sophomore year. DeTurck said some of his advisees posted just twice during the year, while others used the blog as a regular resource. And, of course, some delved into the personal realm.

"Looking at Facebook, you can see students are revealing all kinds of intimate info about themselves in a very public way," DeTurck said. “A lot of them really open up in that medium; they’d type things into blogs that they'd never say sitting across from me in my office. They talk about girlfriends, relationships, how they feel.”

Because the College of Arts and Sciences sponsors the journal pages, DeTurck said the school is responsible for monitoring the quality in order to avoid liability issues. The student pages are considered academic records, and after an entry is completed, it cannot be altered by the student. Members of the college's counseling office can look at material if it is deemed to be relating to the student's mental health.

“That’s a serious issue for us -- trying to be able to connect the dots,” DeTurck said. “We see this as a tool for detecting serious situations when they arise." (Though he said that isn't the main intent of the journal pages).

Janet Tighe, dean of freshmen and director of academic advising at Penn, she said didn't notice too many inappopriate details in the student blogs last year. “They get the difference between this and Facebook,” she said.

DeTurck said he has been pleased with the content. Before each meeting with his advisees, he checks student pages to see what's on their minds. Sometimes, it comes down to practical help: When one student mentioned he was struggling in physics class, DeTurck offered academic help.  

Hayling Price, a Penn rising sophomore and undergraduate assembly representative who didn't participate in the pilot program, said he would find keeping an acadmic journal useful. “I was lucky enough to have an adviser who had a common interest with me, so we had a good rapport," Price said. "But that isn't the norm -- most people have less to talk about with their advisers, so this would help."

Added Brett Perlmutter, president of the class of 2009: "For a first-year student who comes in with a different perspective, with any apprehension, it's a great way to get initial feedback," he said.

Tighe said the real test will come two or three years from now, when the original bloggers check back on their original posts.


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