Let me begin here, as many of you have, by noting what a pleasure it was to return to the blogs and see the varied sorts of work going on in them. From a teacher’s point of view, teacher, much of the writing produced in many classes can often seem, well, just more of the same. But I was really struck by wide range of topics, voices, and approaches showcased in these blogs.
In trying to find a way to organize my impressions of this eclectic group, then, I came up with the idea of turnings—moments when a blogger does something unexpected, takes her work in a direction I wouldn’t predict. Often this has to do with how a writer comments on a particular source, or comes up with a new sort of insight, but sometimes it also happens when a writer changes things up somehow—introduces a personal touch into a fact-centered blog, for instance, or defines common terms in unexpected ways. let me offer some examples.
Grounding analysis in the personal
Peiying Li devotes most of Food for Thought to careful and detailed analyses of the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of the foods we eat. But occasionally she offers us glimpses of her own attitudes towards eating:
I have a habit of crunching on snack foods periodically while working on a very long homework assignment for a very long time; eating snacks seems to give me comfort and relieve my stress. So while working with a friend on such an assignment “requiring” the periodic consumption of, on that day, Pringles, I came to register the fact that I was actually ingesting monosodium glutamate or more commonly known as MSG when I informed my friend of the “unhealthiness” of my choice of junk food snacks. This fact bothered me a little, not because I didn’t know most chips contained MSG but because I realized for the first time that I was ingesting this potentially harmful substance willingly and without caution. I was surprised at myself, who is strictly opposed to any consumption of aspartame, to not be also banning MSG from my diet. (3/14/2011)
Similarly, Chelsea Jones centers The Poetics of Life’s Lessons on her appreciative analyses of poems by contemporary women writers. But sometimes she not only takes the lesson of a poem to heart but makes sure that we do, too:
We fail to recognize that what we hope to achieve will not come to term at the very beginning. Our talent, our genius, and the greatness that we hope other people will one day attribute to our work comes only after tons of terrible work, hard work, re-starts, patience, and persistence. For example, if you’re an aspiring writer, your first manuscript may not exhibit a craft comparable to Toni Morrison’s books; or if you’re an amateur programmer, your first program codes may lack the sophistication of Microsoft software. And that’s ok. Piercy tells us that in order to do what we hope to accomplish, we first have to get started and then remain working. So what if your work stinks. It’s fine. Get from under the pressure of perfection. Be messy. Make some mistakes. (2/15/2011)
Tina Wu’s Culture of the Panda is an informational blog on Chinese society. But like Peiying, she enlivens her reporting with dashes of personal experience. Here she draws on the comments of other writers—including instant celebrities like Amy Chua and fellow bloggers from this course—as a springboard for some musings on her own education as a Chinese American:
After reading William Brody’s blog post Exploration of Imagination, which discussed Amy Chua and her contention that first and second generation Asian (or even more specifically Chinese) mothers are better than their US counterpart, it had me thinking about my own education. . . . In my household, we were all bribed (kind of forced) to get A’s. Disappointment would pervade through the household, if this grade was not reached. During the summer, when many of my friends were out relaxing on the beach or just chilling, I distinctly recall having to remember vocabulary words and working on mathematical problems in preparation for the SAT’s. When we (my siblings and I) complained about the workload, the response we got from out parents usually elicited the following response “In China, you wouldn’t even be able to be accepted into a University unless you’re the top of the top. You have to work harder”. (3/27/2011)
While Ellen Moeller’s The Social Network is chattier in tone, she also tends to take on the stance of a reporter, an observer of how other students use social media. But from time to time the person she reports on turns out to be herself:
Just this afternoon, as I was sitting waiting for my Digital Writing class to start, I was asked by a friend to make my profile a picture of a boy in his fraternity who is running for DSG president, even though I hardly know the boy who is running. Ordinarily, if a friend asks me to support an event or a cause on Facebook, I go ahead and do it. But for some reason this made me stop and think. It is one thing to say that you are “attending” an event on Facebook, or even click the “like” button. But, at least for me, it felt like a much bigger step actually changing my profile picture to support this candidate. First, I realized, I have no idea what he stands for. Second, by making it my picture, it tells every single one of my friends that I strongly support his campaign. The request, even though it seemed minimal, made me uncomfortable. (4/01/2011)
What I admire about all these passages is how writers who usually keep themselves in the background suddenly emerge—sometimes in a confessional mode, sometimes in a slightly more imperative tone—into the forefront.
Sam Alexander and William Brody also keep blogs with an objective and journalistic tone. But both also find ways to make their views of what they’re reporting on clear.
In Pro Sport Lockout Central, Sam offers an even-handed account of the dueling sides (owners and players) in the current NFL labor dispute. But being objective is not the same thing as being credulout, as he shows here:
Regardless of the outcome, the players must present themselves in a gracious manner to the fans. No fan wants to hear complaining about a reduction in salary from $1 million to $700,000. Rick Reilly, former Sports Illustrated column writer, and current ESPN writer, did a piece a few years back on Latrell Sprewell’s comments about having difficulty feeding his family on $14.6 million a year. (2/19/2011)
William takes a similarly neutral stance in Going Global, his blog on US-China relations. But he allows himself the occasional brief but biting aside:
I think the more public instances in which the government aggressively tries to combat opposition occur, the more likely we are to see uprisings. Weiwei has 70,000 followers on Twitter. I’m sure they are not particularly thrilled he was just yanked off the streets because he wasn’t on the communist bandwagon. (4/05/2011)
Sometimes a snip is more effective than a rant.
Engaging with sources
While blogging is sometimes criticized as an intellectually lightweight and unduly personal activity (“I don’t want to hear about what you had for breakfast!”), I was struck by the strongly intellectual voice of many of the course blogs. Indeed, in many of them, I heard the voice of the writers most clearly when they were in dialogue with others. Here, for instance, is Britt Walden countering some of the advocates of Social Life 2.0, in her blog on Digital Decorum:
I’m not so sure I agree with MG Siegler that using your phone in social situations makes them more social. I’m more inclined to think that we were communicating and socializing just fine before cell phones took over. I’m certainly not advocating disregarding an obviously critical technology but if we don’t draw the line at the dinner table where do we draw it? In classrooms? Funerals? Bathrooms? Once upon at time, we didn’t have cell phones. We weren’t connected with each other and the rest of the world at large 24/7. (4/10/2011)
Similarly, in The Cover Stories, Chris Keith makes deft use of the comments of other musical critics to articulate his own view of the album, Punk Goes Crunk:
Is the CD worth buying?
In all honesty, probably not.
According to Laurie Mercer at allmusic.com:
This record is really unlikable, both in general and specific terms. Singing lyrics meant to be rapped enfeebles the poetry and neutralizes its rhythmic underpinnings, while bastardizing production styles to mimic samples is simply sonic chicanery that doesn’t fool the ear.
An amazon.com reviewer believes the CD would be more aptly titled Punk Goes Stupid. Clever, right?
Is it all bad?
Definitely not. There are some well done covers on the CD. The following is a pretty solid rendition of . . .(4/01/2011)
Much of Bessie Zhang’s writing in Aesthetica is devoted to examining the visual world of fashion. But like Chris, she is also adept at playing off the comments of other critics. Here is a passage from her post on fashion writing, “EditARTial”:
Entitled, “Shrink to Fit,” this editorial highlights the mini hemlines and snug silhouettes that dominated Spring 2010 runways by presenting models in “shrunken” apparel. The clothing wasn’t the only thing that seemed to have spent too long in the dryer, however: the models’ voluminous, frazzled hair and smudged makeup made it seem as if they had gone into the spin cycle with the clothing. I think that this editorial serves as a great demonstration of how fashion editorials can present sartorial themes in a fresh, artistic light. (2/28/2011)
I admire how both Chris and Bessie make their points less through a frontal attack on other writers than through an oblique and witty use of their work.
Other writers make a more appreciative use of their sources. I’m impressed, for instance, by the generous and non-judgmental (perhaps the word might be ecumenical) that Molly Mack takes towards her interviewees in Generation Why, her blog on the role religion plays in the lives of Duke students. Molly not only welcomes a wide range of religious belief, she also respects the views of those who profess no belief. Here’s an excerpt from her interview with an agnostic:
Emily told me that her dad is an atheist, calling him an “active” one, and that he was raised in Catholic school but did not enjoy the experience. Her mother, she said, considers herself Protestant and took Emily to church until she was 10, but Emily made the decision then not to attend anymore. “I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t like it very much,” she said.
I told her that some of the people I’ve interviewed so far said that their religion largely shaped her morals and values, so I was interested in how she thought hers were shaped. She didn’t hesitate in saying:
“The way my parents raised me and the culture that I grew up in shaped my values – I didn’t think I needed religion to fill that.”
There’s plenty of room here for Molly to pick an argument, and I admire her decision not to do so.
I’m similarly impressed by Christina Pena’s sensitive handling of another volatile subject—the depiction of college students by the mass media—in her blog, On the Quad & in the Media. Christina’s strategy is to get her readers to experience the text that she’s talking about. Often she does so through a use of video clips or images, but sometimes her approach is more inventive and subtle. Here is how she approaches a recent survey of student attitudes:
Alright, let’s start today off with a bit of an experiment. Answer these statements with one of the following: strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, or strongly agree.
- I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.
- I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.
- Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems.
- When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.
- Other people’s misfortunes do not disturb me a great deal.
- I am often quite touched by things that I see happen.
- I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other guy’s” point of view.
Disagree? Turns out college students today do. In the important indices of empathy such as empathetic concern and perspective taking, students score 48% and 34% lower than students 30 years ago. Meaning that they are 40% less empathetic—with numbers plummeting after 2000.
True, it is difficult to settle on a definition for empathy. (3/06/2011)
What could have been just another “kids these days” rant (or just another defensive response to one) instead turns into an opportunity for self-reflection. How did you do on the quiz?
Which offers a nice segue to my final category: posts in which a writer—either directly or obliquely—comments on the blog as a whole.
Sometimes this takes the form of an unexpected twist on the “argument” of the blog. For instance, in The New Influential, Sam Sunmonu looks at how the Web 2.0 offers us a wide range of strategies to gain influence online. In one of his most interesting posts, though, he suggests that influence may not always be a matter of reaching out, but may sometimes involve taking in, deciding where you want to give your attention.
Today we are living in an attention economy, where we face a continuing downpour of data and information. If we don’t figure out a effective method of sifting through all this information, we’ll drown.
That’s where social scoring comes in. When I want to find content that is relevant, useful, and/or entertaining, I turn to my friends, trusted publications, or people that I know are considered experts in their fields. Those are the new gatekeepers.
By creating or curating information that has relevance and value I am more likely to pay attention to them. I spend hours reading Mashable every week because I always learn something new. And I follow Brian Solis on Twitter for the same reason as well.
My attention is just like a currency, a currency I exchange for relevant information. (3/22/2011)
That’s a striking and useful new metaphor—attention as currency in an information economy—one that I plan to use the next time my wife asks if I could still possibly be online. But I also like how Sam uses this metaphor to shift our attention from online production (the focus of most of his blog) to online consumption.
Similarly, I recall that when we discussed her blog on Pop Culture Evolutions, I mentioned to Margaret Baughman that I was a little confused by how she alternated between posts on trends (a fascination with British royalty, Mormons in the media) and posts on consumer items (rompers, frozen yogurt). I’ve since realized that it’s this dialogue that drives her blog and lends it much of its considerable wit and interest—that posts that look like they’re about consumer items are actually about us. For instance, here’s Margaret in a post that starts out being about an IKEA lamp but turns into a funny meditation on IKEA culture:
Everyone loves IKEA. It’s cheap, it looks good, and it’s fast. Shopping at IKEA is like Disney World for adults; you can stroll through inspiring fake rooms filled with IKEA goodies, grab whatever box of furniture you want from the shelves for immediate gratification, laugh at hilarious Swedish names, and reinvent the style of your home in just a few hours. The only downside about IKEA is that everyone else loves it too, so you’ll likely see your own furniture in other people’s homes (3/14/2011)
My last examples are of writers “breaking the rules” of their blogs—and to terrific effect. Celeste Clipp describes her Tobacco Roads Less Traveled as a series of “North Carolina road trips”—kind of a road guide to her home state for the out-of-towners on campus. But one of her best posts is on a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina. It’s not a place she’s been to before, so Celeste is no longer the expert guide, but it is one that seems to sum up much of what she likes about the South. As she writes:
Home to the pristinely-dressed, preppy College of Charleston, this destination allows you to embrace your inner Southern belle or gentleman – if only for a few days. Renown as “The Cradle of Southern History and Charm” and once named the “best-mannered” city in the country by Marjabelle Young Stewart, the highly-published expert in etiquette, Charleston begs that you leave the sweats in the car and break out your sundresses and hats. If you don’t have a sun hat, not to worry – I picked one up at an open-air shopping mall upon arrival. (3/30/2011)
My guess is that the North Carolina Tourist Bureau will let her slide.
Finally, Christie Klauberg has been blogging incisively on the pressures Duke women feel to appear “effortlessly perfect” in Perfect Is No Fun. She turns the tables around, though, in her most recent post, in which she observes:
a shirtless young man enjoying a cheap beer and scratching his navel. Nearby, his friends barbecue and blast either Tom Petty or a boldly mediocre Atlanta rapper.
This guy, with his farmer’s tan and his awesomely battered boat shoes, looks perfectly happy. That’s what he wants us to think. Beneath this seemingly chill surface, his mind is racing. He has to work hard to appear so completely indifferent to schoolwork, ideas, national and international affairs and pretty much anything that doesn’t come in a can and profess to be “beer.” The appearance of utter imperfection is never accomplished without both self-conscious effort and a pair of salmon-colored shorts. (4/14/2011)
What I like so much about this post is how it suggests at once that, yes, male undergrads at Duke feel something like the pressures that Christie has been describing and, no, their “utter imperfection” is nowhere near as hard to attain as the effortless perfection demanded of women. By veering off topic for a moment, Christie defines what her real focus is with precision and wit.
And having probably veered well off the point I was trying to make, let me come back to it. I’ve looked for moments in these blogs that I couldn’t have expected, that don’t run according to script. Because, ironically, those somehow end up, at least for me, the moments that define each of these blogs.
Thanks for all your work, my friends in 109! It was a pleasure following you!