Kevin Davis on blogging

Kevin Davis visited my Digital Writing class this week to talk about how to define and set up a blog. Kevin is the author of Bull City Rising, a blog tracking the resurgence (and political travails) of downtown Durham. I’ve followed BCR for several years now because of the clarity and wit of Kevin’s writing, and because doing so makes me feel like I know something about where I live. I thought that Kevin would be able to tell the students i my course something about how to determine the focus and range of their blogs—and I was right.

In his remarks to my course, Kevin argued that a blogger needs to define a niche, a specific angle or perspective to write from, rather than trying to mark out a wide area of interest to write about. (Listening to him made me think that “on teaching writing” is a pretty wide and diffuse topic.) He also listed a range of possible roles for bloggers to take on, including:

  • The Diarist: who recounts personal experiences,
  • The Critic: who comments on public events or texts,
  • The Archivist: who gathers information about a particular issue or topic,
  • The Reporter: who conducts original research into a topic.

(The names of the roles come from me, but the idea behind them is Kevin’s.)  I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is a spectrum, and not a ladder. That is, the work of the reporter isn’t more important work than that of the  critic or diarist, just different. But I suspect that the writer of an interesting blog will know which kind of work she or he is trying to accomplish.

Thanks, Kevin!

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Four kinds of research

Back again.

I’m teaching a course on Digital Writing this semester and have asked the students in it to set up and keep their own idea-centered blogs. They are required to make at least one 400-word post each week, in addition to any number of shorter posts.

So I thought I’d try to do the same.

My goal for the coming semester is to post something to this blog every Thursday. (I didn’t set aside a regular time for blogging, as distinct from other writing, during last semester, which I suspect is one reason for my lapse in posting.) Since I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays, I anticipate that most of these posts will take the form of reflections on my classes that week. The category for these posts will be Teaching notes.

For my first note here, I’d like to reflect on my Creative Nonfiction class last semester. The course went very well. There’s no reason for it not to, as students work on projects they’ve defined and are offered plenty of supportive response to their work in progress. Everyone in this section produced some remarkable writing. But I’ve been concerned that the default form of so much nonfiction seems to be memoir, and I wanted to encourage students to try out different forms of writing as well. Here’s how I put my teaching goals in a previous post on this site:

I’ve decided to take a different tack next semester—to define the kinds of writing I want students to attempt a little more precisely. Here’s how I put in the materials I’m now developing:

A lot of different kinds of writing get called creative nonfiction, and I have no interest in predetermining the forms that your work for this course might take. But there does seem to me a limited number of topics—or at least kinds of topics—that nonfiction writers tend to return to. I’ve thus designed a series of exercises (Xs) whose main aim is to get you to try your hand at writing about a range of topics. They include

  • X1: A past event
  • X2: A current event
  • X3: A place or object
  • X4: A text (review)
  • X5: A person (interview or profile)
  • X6: An idea or issue

My hope here is to push students to engage more with the world, and not just with their own experiences, in the pieces they write. But I’m also a little nervous about reinventing some version of the modes of exposition—narrate an event, describe a place, argue for an idea, etc. (Learning from last semester, 5/21/2010)

For the most part, this approach worked pretty well. At least, the students in the Fall 2010 course seemed to experiment with a wider range of writing than many of those in the Spring 2010 course had. But I think I was right to be worried over specifying “kinds of topics” for students to write about, and how those topics might end up being linked to certain modes or genres of prose. That’s really not what I’m after.

What I now think I want to specify is that students base what they write on different sorts of work or research. As I see things now, most nonfiction pieces draw on one or more of these kinds of work:

  • Autobiography or memoir: The author writes from memory of past events and experiences.
  • Observation: The author reports on events in the present.
  • Person-based: The author talks to other people and reports or describes what they have to say.
  • Text-based: The author draws on or responds to any of wide range of texts.

What distinguishes the last three forms of work from the first is that they all force writers to look outside of themselves for their subjects, to ground their writing in the material and social world around them.

Many of the students last semester were really engaged by the requirement to conduct some sort of person-based research, and several also enjoyed writing in response to texts in a non-academic mode. The observation-based essays were more problematic— in large part, I think, because that I did not insist that students write about an event in which they did not participate. As a result, many students wrote about recent events in their own lives, which turned into a slightly disguised form of memoir.

I’m not anti-memoir, as Ander Monson and others say they are. But I do think that beginning writers can sometimes get caught in a kind of autobiographical trap—in which writing what you know turns into writing what you’ve experienced, or sort of half-remember experiencing, or now feel about what you half-remember experiencing. What I like about specifying certain forms of research is that one can imagine all sorts of writing emerging from such work. Asking students to ground their writing in observation-, person-, or text-based research is a way of asking them to be responsible about writing non-fiction, about documenting what they think they know. When I teach Creative Nonfiction next fall, then, I plan ask students to draft four different essays, each of which draws strongly on one of these kinds of research, and then to develop two or three of them into finished form.


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Darnton, The case for books

I’ve just read The Case for Books, a collection of essays over the last few decades by Robert Darnton— eminent cultural historian and current Director of the Harvard University Library. He’s a good antidote to both technophobes like Sven Birkerts and to naive enthusiasts (if any are left) of web culture. Darnton believes in the promise of access offered by the web. But he is also worried by the monopolistic tendencies of Google (several of the essays collected here are on Googlebooks), and as a historian of books, he suspects that there is much on paper that will never find its way into our newly digitized databases. So, basically, he’s for (a) making as much information as accessible as possible, and (b) saving books and paper. (He has a nice piece on Nick Baker’s campaign to save old newspapers from death at the hands of microfiching librarians.)

At the same point, the book does show the dangers of an essay collection. The same themes tend to get sounded over and over, and the argument of the book doesn’t get developed so much as illustrated with (to my eyes) increasingly obscure examples. Indeed, the best piece in the book might be its introduction, in which Darnton offers a brief intellectual autobiography—tracing his career from early days as a cub journalist on the Newark Star-Ledger, to a historian, to a historian of books, to an advocate of e-books, to a friendly critic of e-books. It’s an interesting journey—and it is a pleasure to read a discussion of technology that is neither a jeremiad nor a hosanna.


Darnton, Robert. 2009. The case for books. New York: PublicAffairs.

Posted in Readings | 4 Comments

Lag time

With apologies to any reader(s) who may have wondered, since my last post on 8/19, where I disappeared to . . .

The answer is—predictably enough—into work. The semester has indeed come around with its usual, happy busy-ness: planning and reading for classes, writing assignments and other course materials, responding to student drafts, meeting with colleagues and undergrads, and trying to get some research and writing done in between all that. I’m not complaining. Teaching is what I want to do—and I don’t feel over-worked, just reasonably busy and (I hope) productive.

But what that does seems to mean is that if I  want to read a book that’s not for a course I’m teaching, or see a movie or watch TV, or just spend some time with my wife or friends—well, that seems to take up the hour that I spent on writing a blog post in the summer.

I realize that may not be a blinding insight. But I am interested in how others manage those sorts of writing that lie on the edges of our professional lives: blogs, journals, listservs, all those connected-to-but-not-exactly-work email exchanges, and the like. My experience is that while  such writing is often rewarding and fun, it is also, like high-school art classes in a budget crisis, the first thing to go in a pinch. So if there’s anyone out there who is still reading this, I’d like to hear from you about how you do or don’t fit such writing into your intellectual life.

In the meantime, I do enjoy blogging enough to want to try to make it part of my life during the semester. So let me resume doing so by turning here to a related issue: lag time in scholarly publishing. This summer I came across a reference in a manuscript to a 2007 book on Labor, Writing Technologies, and the Shaping of Composition in the Academy, by Pamela Takoyoshi and Patricia Sullivan. It sounded like my sort of thing, so I found a copy in the Duke library, and discovered that the book collects essays from a conference held seven years before, at the University of Louisville in 2000. The lead essay is by Richard Miller, who frets (circa 1999) about the extra labor imposed on his Writing Program by the decision to—get this!—wire the entire campus of Rutgers University for digital access.

Miller actually has some smart things to say about how sweeping visions for educational change actually play out in departments and programs—as do many of the other contributors to the volume. But I can’t imagine him, one of our current gurus of the digital humanities, still worrying over the wisdom of providing online access to Rutgers students in 2007, much less 2010, and it’s thus hard to shake the feeling that this book, serious and thoughtful as it is, had already passed its sell-by date before it had ever been published—much less read, discussed, assigned in courses, or reviewed.

As academics, we tend to hope that our writing will have a long half-life on the shelves—which is a comforting thought, given that few us are first and foremost writers. We have other important work to do—and books, articles, and blogs can get deferred and delayed as a consequence. But I have to wonder: Might there not be a point when it really is just too late to enter a certain conversation?


Takoyoshi, Pamela, and Patricia Sullivan, eds. 2007. Labor, Writing Technologies, and the Shaping of Composition in the Academy. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Posted in Meta, Readings | 3 Comments