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If You Build It, Will They Come . . . and Comment?

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 *GO TO NEWER VERSION OF THIS ESSAY* Perhaps the greatest fear of public writing is that no one will read it. The tracking and commenting features on many websites makes this phobia even more apparent, because the absence of readers and comments suggests to the author — and your audience — that your words may not have been as successful in generating a response. By comparison, print authors do not experience this problem to the same degree. If no one thumbs through your obscure journal article or checks out your weighty tome from its dusty shelf, there is little evidence that your work has gone unread (except perhaps for librarian database managers and citation counters). But for better or worse, web authors tend to rely on reader and commenter data for some validation that our words have been heard and recognized by others.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 While introducing students to their first taste of academic web writing, I have experimented with tools for tracking readership and different strategies for cultivating external commenters. While Mark Sample and other thoughtful educators have written about designing better blogging assignments and the roles of students in their classes, my focus here is the relationship between student writing and the broader public. 1 Who reads our students’ work on the web, and what strategies might encourage more thoughtful commenting by those from outside our classroom walls?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 First, I tried the laissez-faire approach of doing nothing to attract readers to a set of final web essays written by my Educ 300: Education Reform Past & Present course in Spring 2012. With no mass emails, tweets, or other marketing strategies, the end result was exactly one external comment: a “pingback” notification that a student’s essay had been listed as an “online article that may be of interest” to readers of an academic journal. 2 Given the lack of comments, I was surprised to discover from our Google Analytics page that over 25,000 unique visitors had come to the course site during its first year of un-advertised operation. Interestingly, over 95 percent of our web traffic came directly from Google search queries. One of the students’ web-essays, “Was Hurricane Katrina Good for the Education of Students in New Orleans?” attracted over 6,000 unique page views, with web traffic peaking in late August 2012, the seventh anniversary of the storm. Other student essays on topics such as community service in higher education, classroom technology, and the history of disability education law attracted fewer page views (between 600 to 1,500) but retained them for longer periods of time (between 5 to 7 minutes on average), serving as better evidence that the writing engaged human readers rather than web-crawling robots.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Click to view a full-size screenshot of Educ 300 Google Analytics in a new tab/window.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 My second experiment was to commission recent alumni to serve as guest evaluators and to post comments on student web-essays from my Educ 308: Cities, Suburbs, and Schools seminar in Fall 2011. Two Trinity graduates who had previously worked with me, Claudia Dresser ’10 and Devlin Hughes ’09, kindly agreed to divide a set of ten essays between them, post a public comment based on our evaluation criteria (see chapter: What makes a good web essay?), and then meet in person with our seminar to discuss their feedback. They also privately shared with me their numerical scores for each essay. College funding enabled me to pay each evaluator a modest stipend (one hundred and fifty dollars) for their services. As one might expect, these commissioned comments were substantive and focused on key aspects of student writing, such as insightful arguments, effective use of evidence, and thoughtful integration of digital elements. But this particular set of student essays did not attract any additional comments from external readers, and compared to the Ed 300 course, they generated less web traffic (the highest reaching between 200 to 400 unique page views, averaging around 2 to 3 minutes each, during a one-year period), perhaps due to the narrower focus of this specialized seminar. But in my writing pedagogy playbook, quality of feedback beats quantity of readers.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Click to read Ed 308 web-essay evaluation criteria & comments in a new tab/window.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This semester I’m launching a third experiment, and will update this essay with results in the near future. The idea was to arrange for evaluative comments to be posted by student peers at another liberal arts college as part of a planned academic exchange. Prior to the fall of 2012, a trio from Wesleyan University invited me to guest lecture for their student-organized course, Sociology 419: Education Policy in the United States.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Click to read more about the Wesleyan student-organized course in a new tab/window.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In exchange for the free lecture, the sixteen Wesleyan students enrolled in this course have agreed to read and write online commentary on seven web-essays produced by my students, using our recommended evaluation criteria, during a designated five-day period, December 1st through 5th. I will ask 14 Wesleyan students to read and comment on two Trinity essays: one assigned by me, and the other of their own choice. Then I will ask 2 Wesleyan student organizers to review all of the essays and comments, and privately send me their numerical scores, which I will average together for one grade. Given that Trinity and Wesleyan students are geographically so close, yet seem to rarely interact outside of the athletic fields, I’m intrigued by whether this web experiment will point to newer ways of generating knowledge between our campuses.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 What ideas have you tried to enrich commenting on student web writing? Share your story by posting a comment.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Notes:

  1. 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  2. Mark Sample, “A Better Blogging Assignment,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, ProfHacker, July 3, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-better-blogging-assignment/41127.
  3. Shanese Caton, “The Quest to Racially Integrate: African Americans and Higher Education,” Educ 300: Education Reform, Past & Present, May 3, 2012, http://commons.trincoll.edu/edreform/2012/05/the-quest-to-racially-integrate-african-americans-and-higher-education/, cited in “Online Articles That May Be of Interest to JBHE Readers,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, May 9, 2012, http://www.jbhe.com/2012/05/online-articles-that-may-be-of-interest-to-jbhe-readers-15/.

Source: http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/if-you-build-it/