Saturday, January 15, 2011

This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs

Daring to enter
the blogosphere

This site is presented as part of a paper, presented at TESOL 2006, Tampa FL, USA, by Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, C'dale IL 62901-4518 USA. The resources and links relevant to this paper come from the main weblog of this presentation.

This is your brain:
this is your brain on weblogs

Weblogs and the weblogger: getting started

People are attracted to blogging for a variety of reasons. Anyone who ever wanted to write, have people read what they say, work in the media, own their own business, entertain, express themselves, or even create a pretty collage, finds immediately that blogging offers good opportunities for all of the above. Of course, one has to be fluent with the language to be successful (this may rule out our students, and explain why they don't continue weblogging when they graduate). And, one can do it in one's own time: in the middle of the night, or whenever one is most creative.

The fact that a blog is started every minute is testament to the fact that there may be other motivations besides the above, but the above list is a good starting place and will cover most of my motives, at least.

A few months after I had started, I was reading some weblogs of expatriate ESL/EFL teachers in Asia (who had formed a lively community), that I realized that blogs had another useful function: they can be used to talk about one's work, to review what works and what doesn't, to discuss philosophical and practical issues about, in my case, language learning and the function of language in one's perception. An ongoing discussion of these issues is in fact more important after one has had a few years to observe people and the process of language learning; it's ironic that in many cases we learn and discuss these things before we've had the experience to judge the theories. The international weblog community, not bound by the classroom or location in any way, thus allows us to continue discussing things that we now have more to say about.

This particular conversation touched an issue that was very important to me, without really answering the question, but it occurred to me that it offered the twenty or so people who are most interested in any given thing, in this case the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, to converge in one (virtual) spot and discuss it. Weblogs have sprung up to discuss games, theories, languages, characters in movies, etc.; this has been very good for people who are otherwise isolated in their worlds.

They have a very useful commercial function also, though many of us do not really need that at this moment; from the commercial point of view, they are combination of neon sign and brochure, and mastery of the web in general should be seen as crucial to anyone's success in the modern world.

I am attracted to weblogs merely by having the opportunity to share some of what I do and hope that somehow, out there, it becomes useful to someone. That's the base motivation for all writers, really. One writes out of impulse, desire to communicate. The publishing chain (buy stamps, send in manuscripts, wait, get rejected) does not have to be an obstacle.

One soon learns that most everything about weblogs is manageable, learnable, and that is the magic of RSS feeds and such free services as Blogger. Apparently information can be stored quite easily, so that not only can one new blog be stored per minute; but also, a single web page can be made for each entry; and, this can seemingly go on forever. On this end, we can upload and even store pictures, we can access all of our posts relatively easily; we can change the name of the weblog in midstream, and we can delete virtually everything we do. The beginning weblogger becomes intrigued at the possibilities, made infinite by the fact that one can always see how someone else did something clever, just through the "view source" function.

At the same time one gets more involved, assuming that the increasing power to communicate continues to intrigue, and one does not run out of things to say (this already rules out 90% of beginning webloggers), one becomes aware of a number of other factors.

Crispness in language is rewarded

The blunt and direct are attracted to weblogs; the verbose see quickly that they won't do well here. Generally people don't read ten-page tomes on the web, though they're not beyond printing good academic material and reading it later. On the web, the light does your advertising, but the crisp copy keeps people coming back. It's a little like pitching in baseball: fast is good, crisp is good; on the edge is good; one bad move and you're out of the park.

But it's not that the audience is hostile; on the contrary, they like the truth, they like to learn, they like to know about your life, they even like to pitch in and comment on it. At their worst, they're impatient, shallow, unwilling to wait for you to say what you mean (this is also why they're good for Asian writers...). But this is hardly a detriment. Get an edge; join the community!

Blogging can be dangerous

It's easy to criticize, to unload, to be sarcastic, to undermine, to get revenge. It's dangerous too. The working world is high-pressured; the truth isn't always pretty; lying is slander. Where does that leave you? In the past you had to be pretty serious to go to all the trouble to publish something in a newspaper, or to create your own; nowadays, unloading is as close to us as a touch of the "publish" button. The "MySpace" explosion (REF?) shows what can happen to weblogs in the hands of the young, the inexperienced, the victims of the pressure of being on the bottom in the world's hierarchy.

The list of people fired because of their blogging is long and getting longer. The list of people who've been told to shut down their blogs is likewise long and growing longer. The list of companies that now have policies limiting blogging is long and growing longer. Welcome to the hegemony, man. Your purity is admirable. Too bad it doesn't always pay the bills.
-Bryan S., 10-05, comment on Volokh Conspiracy

One can also be the victim of people who literally hunt for the mistakes of one's past; having made these public, they are out there like dirty laundry on the line. There's always the possibility that they'll be used against you (see Moran); one always has to consider the various situations in the future in which one's enemies might go digging through your old papers just to get the dirt on you (this is known as "schadenblogging").

Using weblogs changes the way you relate to the world

It changes your sense of responsibility. You own the media. You are responsible to it, responsible to your audience. You try to put a positive spin on the things you do, knowing that you could write about them soon, judging what you could say and what you shouldn't. Ever aware of the dangers (above), you realize you are walking a fine line.

One becomes interested in the visual nature of weblogs

I've been thinking about this a lot, because so many weblogs start out in your typical blogger format, but some of the more resourceful people see how important the visuals are right away and exploit them. I'm behind the curve on this one: though I have lots of photos I could use, I actually use the wrong ones; I give conflicting messages, etc. I'm a beginner.

There are a number of implications for teachers and the academic environment. Teachers may be quick to realize when they're being manipulated by an image; or, they may be more in tune with the words, etc. But everyone likes a good picture, a "look"...and there are some good "looks" out there.

I've also been slow on the technological end of things. The average picture uploaded from a digital camera is way too large for most web purposes, yet this is what we need a constant running supply of: instant picture news. We actually have to run them through e-mail to make them smaller, but flickr has been a lifesaver too. The hardest thing is to organize this stuff when you're busy. But I've begun to see the weblogs as the center, rather than the static pages, and I've begun to organize accordingly.

It's the image they'll remember the next day, and the next week and possibly for the rest of their lives.
-Watson, quoted in Badger (2005)

Here are some example of the power of visuals:

Jason de Fillippo, technology: his blog hits you.
Remember a rule of web design: one's impression of a site is dictated by what one has seen before, where one has been. What catches the eye is starkness, boldness. In this respect, one reason Google is the most popular site on the web is its lightness, it's ability to make bright color brighter.

Several webloggers have followed in the path of Google. Simple, a lot of white, colorful, let the image(s) do the talking.

Parking Lot, Chris Corrigan.

I have to say that, though I've always been a graphic designer, I have yet to really use those skills in my own weblogs. But I point out these two very different styles to point out an enduring law of web design and graphic design: your view of a site is determined mostly by how it's different from where you've been. Thus people who reach out for a little individuality do very well. Weblogs have a look; they have a format in common; they have blogrolls on the side; they have a presentation. And, much like fruit, they have freshness, as opposed to staleness. The most recent date is like the skin of the fruit.

One can do a lot of things with a weblog

One can quickly notice the many uses of weblogs: one can complain, criticize, persuade in the political arena, share information, spread rumors, promote oneself, etc. I've partaken in some of these, especially self-promotion, but I've also found them useful in some unusual ways. First, I find that if I challenge myself in them, I often live up to the challenges- so they are useful in tentative self-actualization...and very empowering in that way. Second, as a scattered person, it's good to keep track of various projects that I have going...and weblogs serve as an online organizer.

As a "multiblogger" (Hornsby 2004) who speaks in different realms, I find that the truth is often boring but stretching it is dangerous. This is true in every realm, in self-promotion, in esl, and here. Just like the print media...

Examples abound of creative uses of weblogs (Leverett 2005b). First, your blogger "edit-post" supply cabinet is full of drawers that you can reorganize at any time, and this can be very useful to you when you aren't ready to show the world all your thoughts right away (like now) you can treat it like your own accordion file which you can access when you are ready, and make public ready when you are ready to point to it. And the rest of the time, the world will leave you alone, because it's not the top post (which is always being read by the surfers/blogbots, etc.).

Sometimes I want a blog for all my moods and all my interests, one for each, one for my political self even, just so I can vent whenever I want. But I already feel guilty about the blogs that I've put out there that are like dead branches on a tree. One part of me wants to go out there and "delete" all my past lapses in judgement and bad poetry. In one sense blogs are like gardens: you shouldn't plant more than you can weed or hoe, you shouldn't let them go to flower and overflow year after year. Haiku has taught me to be spare, put out there what you need, make it sharp, powerful, put it right down the pike. And then, if you're not using or enjoying it, change it or get rid of it. Then at least it'll sit there and look interesting for a little while...

Blogging can change your relations with your fellow professionals

In October, Daniel Drezner was denied tenure at the Univ. of Chicago, and an article in the Chicago Tribune (Johnson 2005) considered whether this was due to his active and public blogging. An interesting range of opinions were expressed over the issue; the article disturbed me because it implied that the interests of the weblogger as owner of a media outlet ran counter to the interests of the academy in preserving the established order. The idea that "the academy" was assuming that Drezner's communicating directly to his audience was somehow undermining or influencing, perhaps even trumping (or end-around-ing) his published work, was also disturbing, but obviously hit a nerve among fellow readers.

But there is a real range of thought among faculty members about blogging. Some get it and some don't. Those who do tend to have blogs or want to start them. But there are many -- and they might not talk about it -- who don't understand the phenomenon. Some of these feel threatened by blogging or, perhaps, jealous of those who are getting attention -- unjustly! -- by blogging.
-Ann Althouse, 10-05

Weblogs and the researcher

Much has been said about academia's tenuous relationship with weblogging. I have always found academia to be a little uneasy with frank open truthfulness, even though research at its heart goes after truth, seeks the science and the logic behind all human and other behavior, and isn't afraid to be proven wrong. In this sense weblogs have the capacity to profoundly change research; they help us discuss, air out, solicit comments internationally.

Weblogging has strengthened my own professional thinking; it aerates it, forces me to think and talk about what I do professionally, and also evaluate it regularly and systematically. This is something I would have done in graduate school, was in fact taught to do regularly, but had somehow fallen out of the habit of doing, once family and other interests clouded the landscape. My interests in this case, beyond using weblogs in the academic ESL setting, involve a comprehensive explanation of human perception and language acquisition; to this end I have been using my weblog to get my ideas on paper, organize my thoughts, and solicit useful comments. On the first two of these fronts, it's been very useful; so far, however, I have very few readers.

Linked Quotes

Last week a Guardian/ICM poll showed that a third of 14 to 21-year-olds have their own online content, primarily in the form of a blog, and that a new blog is started every second.
-C. Moran, 10-05

The list of people fired because of their blogging is long and getting longer. The list of people who've been told to shut down their blogs is likewise long and growing longer. The list of companies that now have policies limiting blogging is long and growing longer. Welcome to the hegemony, man. Your purity is admirable. Too bad it doesn't always pay the bills.
-Bryan S., 10-05, comment on Volokh Conspiracy

Web lore abounds with tales of people being fired for blogging about their jobs, but it seems to be an especially touchy issue in the academy, bound by both tradition and a tendency to discredit work done in the public sphere.
-S. Johnson, 10-05


Badger, M. (2005). Visual Blogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Accessed 11-05.

Hornsby, R. (2004). Multiblogging. Accessed 11-05.

Johnson, S. (2005, Oct. 14). Did blogging doom prof's shot at tenure? Chicago Tribune online (login req'd).,1,r734374.column?ctrack=1&cset=true. Accessed 10-05.

Leverett, T. (2005a, Mar.). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Teaching teachers to use weblogs, TESOL 2005, San Antonio TX.

Leverett, T. (2005b, Nov.). Eighty things to do with your weblog. CESL Teachers weblog. Accessed 2-06.

Moran, C. (2005, Oct. 11). Is it truly a sin to Schadenblog? Times Online, U.K.,,10655-1819524,00.html. Accessed 2-06.

This paper is part of a larger paper which is listed here:
Daring to enter the blogosphere - Homepage, Resources

This is your program: this is your program on weblogs - weblogs in an intensive English program

This is your class: this is your class on weblogs - weblogs in esl/efl classes

This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs - weblogs and the individual teacher/academic

Weblogs in ESL/EFL - Bibliography
Ongoing weblog for this and other presentations

No comments:

Post a Comment