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Using a Blog in an Independent Study

Reading

[Danny Guenther is a student at Washington University in St. Louis undertaking an independent study with Dr. Randall Calvert on the subjects of law and game theory and can be reached at dsguenth@wustl.edu.--@jbj]

As the new academic year starts, many faculty members may be beginning or continuing independent studies with students. They’re a great way for students to pick up specialized knowledge or research experience, but they can sometimes be a bit of a pedagogical afterthought. This post looks at blogging as way for students to “narrate, curate, and share” their work while pursuing an independent study.

ProfHacker writers have often written about blogging as a tool in a regular course. (For a handy overview, see Natalie Houston’s “From The Archives” post from February “On Blogging.”) Most of those posts think about blogging in relation to other students and assignments–but what about as part of an independent study or directed reading? When I signed up this summer for such a project, my professor suggested that I perhaps keep a blog to document the study, and I think other faculty might be interested in how it has worked.

What The Blog Is

For right now, my independent study is sort of directed reading: my professor feeds me some great scholarly articles on my subject and I digest them. After I read and think for a while, I write up a blog post about the article. It is filled with my reactions, thoughts, musings, objections, agreements, and questions. What I write does not have to be term paper quality, in fact it should not be, but it is written in proper English and full sentences. If I were doing another type of research, perhaps something in the life sciences, I could instead post updates on my experiments. The main point of the blog is to catalog thoughts and responses- it doesn’t always have to be brilliant or ground breaking. And if the blog posts are somewhat informal, they still constitute regular academic writing.

Advantages

  • Access and Permanence: Whoops, where did I put those lab notes? Umm, what did I call that file, and where on earth is it on my computers? If only I could read my handwriting. . . . The fact that you’re publishing the material onto the internet, making it both semi-permanent and accessible, is a huge advantage.
  • Organization: Closely related to permanency, blogs can keep thoughts organized. For me, this is best achieved by keeping one thought or article to one post. Posts will be organized by date which is great for seeing the evolution of your study. You can also add tags to your posts to keep them organized by subject.
  • Ease: Blogging is pretty darn easy. At sites like WordPress.com (which I use, on my professor’s recommendation) and Blogspot, posting is no harder than composing an e-mail or Word document–in fact, students can even often blog directly from Word, reducing any technological friction. There are many free blog hosts out there, so students should be able to find something that matches their style, budget, and technological sophistication.
  • Advanced Features: While blogging is easy, most providers also have advanced features that students can use as they become more comfortable. You can often schedule posts to appear at a specific date or time; you can make some posts private, requiring a password to see; and you can use analytics to see who is reading your blog (Hi, mom!).
  • Visibility: Independent studies are, almost by definition, lonely enterprises–but you’re often studying a topic that many people study. If you’re regularly posting your research to a public blog, eventually someone else in your discipline will find you, which can set up interesting conversations.
  • Accountability: It’s all too easy for independent studies to slip off of the radar of faculty member and student alike. Regular updates to a blog, however, provide a handy way of keeping this from happening, and, at semester’s end, your blog’s record of when everything was published is a perfect way to make sure the proper credit is awarded.

Considerations

You should familiarize yourself with the basics of blogging, keeping a lid on a blog, and what a blog is not. Then consider:

  • Private/Public: If your research is super secret, I think it is obvious which yours should be. You can still have it password protected and give your prof the password.
  • Comments: While the blog is getting off the ground, it might not get any outside comments. Over time, if the student is posting regularly and has some interesting things to say, you may both find other people leaving comments. Those leaving comments could be anyone from top academics in your discipline to oddball random people who add little or nothing to the content. Plan ahead for the latter by deciding how you will moderate comments and consider posting that policy.
  • Publicity: If you both want to see your readership expand, find some listservs or other blogs to blogroll with, to announce the study. People love publicizing their own work, but it is often frowned upon in some settings. Make your blog inviting by telling people they are encouraged to suggest their own work on your blog.
  • Property Rights: In the internet age, this gets tricky. Follow the basic rules and guidelines of plagiarism. Make sure you and your student are on the same page with regards to “don’t pass off the work of others’ as your own”. Also, it is probably good to caveat somewhere on the blog that the opinions as expressed on the blog are solely the author’s and may or may not reflect the position of any professor, university, friends, relatives, pets etc.

    Along those lines, pictures and graphics can represent the work of others. These ProfHacker posts look at the many sides of Creative Commons Licensing, a common system for designating pictures and articles on the internet as “reusable”. Pictures are really nice to give a post some life–just try to find public domain images.

    Another thing–don’t post things about articles that have some kind of disclaimer like “Draft- Do not Circulate”. If it has been published in a journal, I would say it is fair game to blog about.

    Lastly, don’t forget the student will have some property rights too! It has been hard for me to figure out where they begin and end, but have them put something somewhere on their blog to the effect of “Daniel Guenther, Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved”–or, better, have them register with Creative Commons, themselves!

So, I think a blog is a great tool for independent studies. Used correctly, a blog could be a great way to journal your study and perhaps gather a readership. Plus it’s fun! Lastly, as a shameless plug, here is my independent study blog: lawrules.wordpress.com.

How do you keep independent studies on track? Have you used blogs to keep up with students’ independent work? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Flickr user brewbooks / Creative Commons licensed

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