Life Writing and Blogging

Sarah N. MacDonald, Kent State University

 I. Background and Theory

The creation of blog posts in a women’s literature course, which focuses on life writing or feminist theory, can be used to further discussions on the changing aspects of public and private spheres of self-presentation: “It is likely that the neat line we draw between our public and private selves in the real world will continue to erode, grain by grain.” (Weinberger, 2002, p. 177) This assignment began as a way to incorporate student’s frequent use of blogs and other social networking types of life writing into the discussions about private vs. public, subjectivity, audience appreciation, and political awareness. Since the study of life writing in a literature course is relatively new for many students, combining students’ everyday writing with this newer discipline allows them to feel more confident in their contributions to the course as a whole. The assignment is situated in the ongoing discussions in feminism embracing the idea of the private as public. The use of blogs adds complexity to the discussion as in many ways they are both very public and private simultaneously. It is important to note that “political” is used in its broadest sense for this assignment. The important aspect lies in the power restrictions and constrictions which become increasingly apparent through the study and composition of life writing.

Students would be required to write a weekly blog that is personal in nature; this means the posts should not be about the required reading unless there is some personal connection. Along with the blog posts students will read a number of diaries, both from writers who desired publication and those who expected their writings to remain private. Through a comparison of the three forms (blogs, private diaries, and public diaries) students will discuss how the understanding of audience affected the self –presentation of the writers. As a final project, students will then take their blog posts and through whatever editing process they choose, compile a “diary” with the idea that it would be made public. To go along with the diary, students will write a reflective piece explaining what they chose to share and alter based on their understanding of audience and the “public self.”

Weinberger, David. (2002). Small pieces loosely joined: a unified theory of the web. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

 II. Technical and Resource Requirements

The technical requirements for the assignment are minimal. There is no need for computers or other technology in the classroom itself. The students will need to have access to the blog sites on their own time. If the final assignment includes a presentation, which is an option as students could share their final especially if the final has a visual component, there will need to be a projector and equipment for such in the room.

This assignment requires no special equipment in the classroom. For the most part the work will be done at home with the student’s home computer. The students will need to sign-up to a free blogging site so that their life writing can be tracked. It is probably best all students use the same site. Some of the most well-known and useful cites are:

1)     Blogger

2)     WordPress

3)     LiveJournal

4)     Tumblr

5)     Weebly

Some students will likely have one of these accounts already; in that case it is best that they open another account that will be solely used for the course. Each of these sites have unique characteristics which I will highlight for those unfamiliar with blogging programs.

1)     Blogger is one of the most popular blog programs. If students have a Gmail account they will already have access to a Blogger account, which can be the easiest approach.

2)     WordPress is my personal favorite for this assignment. It allows for a variety of options to personalize the blog including the ability to post pictures, video, and links to other sites which can allow for a multimodal blog post for those students who are interested. Adding visuals and  other media also allows for the full use of this technology. In the “Freshly Pressed” section of the site student can look at other blogs in order to get ideas if they are very new to this medium yet still desire the full experience.

3)     LiveJournal has a slightly more extensive sign-up procedure than the previous two options. The options are very similar to WordPress, but I do not find the site as user-friendly, which could cause issues for those students less technically adept. There is a larger community feel to LiveJournal that might be appealing depending on the focus of the course.

4)     Tumblr is a quite popular site, which many students will likely already have an account with. The purpose behind Tumblr is more focused on visuals than text. There is the ability for text; however, the majority of posts revolve around visual media.

5)     Weebly allows users to produce both a blog and a website. The creation of a website is incredibly easy (I have used this site in a number of courses where students created their own website when any had little to no experience with this before). The blog ability in Weebly is attached to the website students create so this might be a little more complicated than is desired.

I would suggest that everyone use the same program for the assignment. It is also a good idea to get a separate account just for the assignment. This way students will not have to remember and try to separate what they have written outside of the project with their weekly writing assignments. To allow everyone in the class the opportunity to look at others’ blogs it is also beneficial to post a list of their site names. While these posts should not come into class discussion, as will be explored further on, it is important for students to realize that others could be looking at their work.

III. Assignment and Course Background

This assignment was originally designed for an upper level women’s literature course specializing in life writing. The student’s in the course were mostly English or English education majors. Life writing as a studying was quite new for the student’s involved, much like most students. While many of the students had read some autobiographies and biographies they had never read them for analysis, but more for background information for well-known writers. The course looked specifically at subjectivity and audience as it pertains to life writing. We used a compilation of theoretical texts devoted specifically to life writing and women’s life writing. As such, the course had a strong theoretical and feminist bent that lent itself to many of our discussions. Depending on the level of course this focus on theory may be inappropriate; however, the assignment will still work with little to no theoretical focus. What the theory did bring to the course was an ability for students to frame their decisions for their reflective piece. There are many high-quality texts discussing life writing in general and women’s life writing in particular that can be utilized for this type of course.

I first considered this assignment as a way to bridge the gap between my student’s familiarities with life writing (almost all of them regularly used some form of social networking on a regular basis) with the theoretical work we were doing with the texts involved. I chose texts by mostly unknown women writers from various times from America and England. Many of the texts were not full pieces but fragments from larger works or simply all that was available from some of the older, lesser-known writers. Combining the older texts with blogging and social networking enabled the student’s to see that life writing consisted of much more than simply auto/biography. This was one of the most important concepts I wished to instill in the course. While the major focus did surround autobiographies and biographies, many more methods of life writing were introduced in order to fully understand life writing as such. We read some letters, memoirs, testimonies, and of course blogs (both traditional and micro).With these variations, the discussions revolved around what life writing consisted of at its core. The first few weeks of discussion were focused on identifying markers. Whenever the discussion turned to writing their own autobiography the students appeared to think it was a simple matter of writing what has happened in their life. This assignment was designed to let them see all of the decisions writers make to bridge the public/private sphere, think about audience, and understand the creation of their own and writer’s subjectivity.

 IV. Time Requirements

The assignment will encompass the entire semester (16 week course). While there will be no direct in-class work on the assignment for most of the course, students will need to keep up with the weekly blog posts. There will likely need to be a day or so in the beginning of the course to explain the process and reasoning behind the assignment. The reading assignments (various published life writing texts) will also need to be spaced throughout the course. Depending on the focus and length of the readings this could take anywhere from a few weeks to the entire term. In a life writing course, it is likely the texts will need to be supported by available theoretical texts. A few notable texts include: Women, Autobiography, Theory: a Reader (1998) and Reading Autobiography: A Guide to Interpreting Life Narratives (2010)by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson; Feminism and Autobiography: Texts, Theories, Methods (2000) by Tess Cosslett, Celia Lury, and Penny Summerfield; and Early Modern Autobiography: Theories, Genre, Practices (2006) by Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis, and Philippa Kelly. There is the option for workshop time at the end of the term to allow students to assist with the compilation of their life writing text.

 V. Grading Considerations

The assessment of this assignment can revolve around the focus of the course and the level of the students. There are a few suggestions that encompass the idea of the assignment as originally designed. Grading this assignment should work just like any other weekly writing assignments students might have in other courses. During the majority of the course the blogs should be graded as simply complete or not. Any intrusion into the student’s writing at this stage could color their contributions for the rest of the term. Since the concept centers on this idea of public/private, any mediation in the beginning will put more focus on the public aspect. The assessment of the final project, the compilation of blog posts and the reflective piece, should be addressed as a finished/polished project. The blog compilation should be edited and arranged as it would if the student were to actually seek publication. With this in mind, there should be all of the elements associated with this idea. The reflective piece should show thoughtful consideration of their reasons for choosing the desired blog posts and the organization presented. Special focus could be on any area that the class is focusing on. I use the following criteria:

30%– This portion of the grade is devoted to the reflective piece. I look specifically at how well the student incorporated the various elements we discussed in class. A clear understanding of subjectivity and their public/private selves is essential. Also, clear explanations of the choices they made in terms of which blogs they included, if they left out certain sections of entries they used, the organization and format they chose to use.

30%–The life writing text itself is worth this amount. I look for a clear organization and the elements of life writing. These include personal reference, clarity of purpose, an honest portrayal (this will obviously be difficult to ascertain, however, clear fiction should be avoided as it is a rejection of the relationship between a life writing text and the reader/author).

20%–This part of the grade is basically a check that the students kept up with the various blog posts during the semester. I do not check for content as much as completing the assignment’s writing requirement.

20%–Use of theoretical discourse throughout the project and in the reflective piece. (Since the particular course spent a large portion of the semester discussing theory I wanted to separate this portion out to ensure students were engaged with the various theories we discussed).

There are various methods to assess the writing, depending on the focus of the course as a whole. What I presented here was discussed with the students a number of times during the course. Students were also able to revise the rubric as a whole at the end of the course to ensure that they understood how the rubric reflected what we had focused on in the course.

 VI. Potential Difficulties

The most likely difficulty you will encounter is resistance to sharing their blogs and personal writing. This can be dealt with in the beginning of the class by a thorough discussion of the assignment and the discipline of life writing studies. It is essential that students understand from the very beginning that their lives are not be judged in any way. The course is about the creation of subjectivity in the public/private sphere, which deals with rhetorical choices. Even students who do not fully embrace the assignment can still accomplish the goals through an honest reflection of their process. Once students understand that it is not their lives that are being assessed but their contribution to the study and their reflection, the resistance usually dissipates. As students read more life writing in the course and see the discussions focus more on the presentation than the actual person, this will also help with their comfort level.

You should also be prepared for possible discussions that get quite personal. While I always try to focus the discussion on theoretical and text-based issues, whenever life writing is discussed people tend to respond with how they relate to the writing. This is actually one of the attributes we discuss in class, but at times can get a little personal. When this does occur I usually just try to shift the class back to the text at hand.

Also, in terms of technical issues, you should make sure that students do not make their blogs private (as that disregards some elements of the combination and blurring of the public and private self). You should also make sure that you keep a record of everyone’s blog so that you can check on the writing whenever you chose. I would let the rest of the class know the address of each other’s blogs but would not let students discuss each other’s posts in class as that could color what they wrote and make for some uncomfortable classroom circumstances.

 VII. The Assignment

ENG 3402: Women’s Literature

Sarah N. MacDonald

Students would be required to write a weekly blog that is personal in nature; this means the posts should not be about the required reading unless there is some personal connection. Along with the blog posts students will read a number of diaries, both from writers who desired publication and those who expected their writings to remain private. Through a comparison of the three forms (blogs, private diaries, and public diaries) students will discuss how the understanding of audience affected the self –presentation of the writers. As a final project, students will then take their blog posts and through whatever editing process they choose, compile a “diary” with the idea that it would be made public. To go along with the diary, students will write a reflective piece explaining what they chose to share and alter based on their understanding of audience and the “public self.”

Your assignment has three basic parts that you will work on throughout the term and will finish as a final project.

Part 1: This part will be done the length of the course and will consist of you writing weekly (or more) blog posts. These posts will not be reflections on the class or week’s reading but more personal reflection and comments about your life in general. The only reference to class reading should happen if you have some sort of personal connection to the piece or discussion. The posts can really be about anything you wish from past experiences as if you were writing your autobiography to considerations of recent events to various thoughts you wish to share. The posts need to be of substantial length. This means they should be at least 300-500 words. The posts can be as long as you wish. If visuals are allowed on the site you are using you can feel free to enhance your posts with visuals; however, this does not take away from the word count. These posts will not be discussed in class, however I will be checking frequently to make sure that you are keeping up with the posts.

Technical note: The blog program to be used is wordpress.com. The set-up for this site is quite simple. Choose the name of the blog posts that you wish (note this should be addressed in the reflective essay as well). The only other item you need is an email address in order to sign-up. The program is free. After you sign-up you will receive an email that allows you to finish the registration process. If you already have a word press account, please set-up a new account just for the purposes of this course.

Part 2: For this section of the assignment you will compile your blog posts into some form of life writing. This should be a finished product as you would hand into a publisher for possible publication. The form this takes is completely up to you. You can form a diary with the posts you wish to share, compile more of an autobiography by turning your posts into narrative form, create a biography, or any other form of life writing which we discuss in class. (If you use visuals they can be included as well).

Part 3: The last element of the assignment involves a reflective essay in which you describe the choices you have made in compiling your life writing text. Items you will need to address include the following: the format you chose, any changes you made to the blog posts, what blog posts you included, and the theoretical approach that colored your decisions. For all of these items you must provide well-thought rationales. You can bring in some of the texts we have read if you modeled your compilation off of one of the readings in the course.

VIII. Conclusion

I came into this assignment wishing to connect the known and unknown for students. As a life writing scholar, I am well aware that many of my students will be unfamiliar with this discipline and are probably less well-read in the genre than they may be in others. Due to these complications, I think it is essential to tie the study to familiar items along the way. This does not just include the assignment seen here, but entails references to works they might have used for other courses without thinking the ability to analyze the text was available to them; for example, when students have read the life writing of a well-known author for background information for another course. By looking at the same issues we address in discussion to these pieces students can see them as more than a “day in the life” type text or an accurate accounting of someone’s life. The knowledge that life writing texts are created narratives as much as any other form of writing becomes very clear to them as they approach their own life writing text at the end. They will see, hopefully, how they chose to create themselves in a certain way that did not simply include writing about their day or various experiences. By knowing this, it is easier for them to analyze the subjectivity of a text and not confuse this analysis with judgments on the author’s life.