To Blog or Not To Blog

To Blog or Not To Blog

Some IHEs embrace the power and vitality of weblogs, while others approach them with a wary eye.

This fall a couple dozen students across the United States took up blogging for their alma maters. In occasional or weekly posts they offer slices of campus life that the Admissions office can share with prospective students and their parents. Because these are blogs and not recruiting brochures, the writers have a chance, it seems, to tell it like it is.

Prospective students visiting the admissions site for Ball State University (Ind.) can click on a photo in the "Brady Bunch" montage. Each headshot photo takes visitors to words, photos, and audio or video about what it's like to be a Ball State student. University of Missouri, Columbia, meanwhile, offers admissions page visitors "18 Reasons to Choose Mizzou," with detailed quotes from students about their campus life. The site draws energy from a large, fast-loading collection of campus life shots taken by a team of student photographers.

But for readers accustomed to the rough-and-ready informality of many blogs, these new websites are curious creations. Press releases have typically preceded the writers, and education reporters, at least briefly, followed them. Most new bloggers labor in obscurity, taking months to build their writing skills and attract an audience, but thanks to the links from the Admissions page, these sponsored sites had readers from the start.

The financial and editorial arrangements vary. Some bloggers receive a stipend for posting at least once a week, while others receive the computer, digital camera, or audiovisual equipment they need to create a high-tech blog site. No matter how they are compensated, bloggers are a peculiar kind of employee, practicing an individualist's art on behalf of the school.

Press releases and admissions sites present their blogs as "authentic, firsthand accounts of student life." They promise "an inside look" at "the real lives" of small groups of students who are carefully chosen to represent the diversity of the student body.

One blogger, for example, frequently reports on leaving campus to attend professional sporting events, while another graciously answers questions from prospective students. Another details the busy life of the student athlete, while still another publishes a dramatic picture of new bullet holes in his off-campus student apartment complex. Some posts are exciting or promising, and some even talk about ideas--but administrators are anxious about the risk.

Can student bloggers create an image attractive enough to engage and recruit new students? Should valuable space on the admissions website be turned over to self-expression? Administrators are watching cautiously to see how these young people represent the school.

Lori Croy, manager of Web Communications at the University of Missouri, Columbia, has worked in web design since 1995. She says that the two generations think of blogs very differently. Croy notes, for example, the "sheer embarrassment people on the management side would feel if a journalism student used poor grammar or punctuation," since this might be seen as a "direct reflection on the faculty's ability to teach properly."

But many young writers, especially those not on the university payroll, see their blogs differently. "They are an informal way to communicate, not a collection of polished and copyedited material. We have a way to go before one generation understands blogs the way the other understands them," says Croy.

Croy's work is involved not so much with blogging itself as it is with the influence that blogs and other new media might have on the future of campus web design.

"Administrators may not be comfortable with a blogger's spontaneity taking place on their major communication channel," she notes, but they are very much interested in the energy, speed, and focus seen in good blogging. A content management system, the far more powerful and expensive cousin of high-end blogging software, can take IHEs further into the age of dynamic campus web content.

Not too long ago, most university webpages were static objects created by wrapping HTML code around a collection of words and images. The process often relied on a department's web enthusiast typing code and posting individual and often idiosyncratic pages that remained unchanged until the next burst of coding and posting.

Today, stock logos and page templates standardize large portions of an institution's website, strengthening the brand and vanquishing idiosyncratic pages. Still, most department pages depend on the diligence of a single writer for updates.

The faculty may be active, publishing research and innovating in the classroom, but the department webpage often goes unchanged for weeks or months. Multimillion-dollar segments of the institution appear to be frozen in time.

"We have a way
to go before
one generation
understands
blogs the way
the other understands
them."
-Lori Croy, University of
Missouri, Columbia

Students, however, operate at a different speed. Many organize their lives informally with e-mail or instant messaging. They get their news from sites like MyYahoo or Google News that are updated throughout the day. Their favorite blogs have new posts at the top of the page each time they visit, with some even offering photos, videos, or podcasts.

Students no longer live in the age of the static webpage, even if their university does. Croy believes that campuses too must offer "content deployed in multiple media."

With that goal in mind, a university that doesn't dare blog can still learn a few things from the blogger generation.

Whether it's written by a witty cultural studies professor or a dedicated news junkie, a good blog usually includes links to other websites. The blogger quotes from and annotates other blogs in an informal fashion that many a scholar would nevertheless recognize.

Good bloggers do quite a bit of work to present, perhaps even organize, a body of knowledge for their readers, and they write every day. They respond quickly to news and discussions as they unfold across the web. By practice and by design, there is always fresh content at the top of a blog.

Experienced bloggers read widely and know most of the other writers who cover their topic; they list the best of these sites in their sidebar. In time, skillful bloggers build a community of readers and writers who focus on their shared concerns. Bloggers often use RSS feeds--a type of web formatting--to make their content viewable in multiple formats for new audiences.

By most of these standards, some student recruiting sites are online diaries, not blogs. But Missouri's undergraduate admissions site, Croy says, strives for some of those blog-ish virtues. The site (http://admissions.missouri.edu) focuses on student voices in a series of rotating interviews that offer "18 Reasons to Choose Mizzou."

The main page offers gateway links that take visitors to well-aimed pages that reassemble and republish campus information in order to serve the overlapping and contrasting needs of particular audiences, such as parents or transfer students. The Missouri site balances the young audience's preference for a fast-moving web experience with their need for practical information.

While there are bloglike ways to improve a university website, the question remains: Can a campus risk having a real blog? Some are making a serious effort.

For example, Indiana University South Bend is one of the 200 member schools participating in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project (ADP). The project is a three-year initiative to strengthen civic education in member schools' curriculum and co-curriculum.

IU South Bend's ADP programs include a blog (www.iusb.edu/~sbadp) that publishes column-length pieces most weekdays on matters of public policy, the challenges and rewards of active citizenship, and the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy. Writers discuss local, national, and global aspects of those topics as well as their implications for public and higher education.

The ADP blog is a general university publication, not a scholarly journal, and it does not publish traditional academic writing. Instead, most of the pieces would fit well on a good op-ed page. The blog aims at balance by including writers from across the political spectrum. Readers can join in by commenting on individual pieces, writing their own pieces, or submitting reading suggestions, letters, or provocative quotations.

Posts by professors are often informed by their scholarship, but these and other writers also gain authority by testing ideas against personal and community experience. On the blog, what counts as knowledge is not settled by the word of a university expert. This attitude is appropriate and necessary for the subject of democracy.

Faculty authors are not always comfortable working this way. Political scientists tend to avoid studying local politics, biologists are not often accustomed to speaking about the intelligent design controversy with a general audience, and English professors may be more comfortable deciphering literary than political speech. Many faculty members are tempted by the anonymity of their private lives and leave democratic exchange to others. The university, too, has not decided how to value this kind of writing and publishing.

Nevertheless, the ADP blog gains new writers each semester. Regular and occasional authors have included students, faculty, staff, and members of the community. This fall the blog has published many reports from sociologist Scott Sernau as he circled the world, teaching global issues courses for the Semester at Sea program. Judging by the page visits, some of the most popular entries have been the related bibliographies created by the university's librarians.

The ADP blog has learned the lessons of republishing, too. The blog occasionally secures permission to republish writing from other publications, such as Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow's recent Boston Globe column on teaching the value of service. Each week one of the best pieces from the blog is broadcast on the region's National Public Radio affiliate station WVPE, and some of these pieces are rebroadcast by other NPR stations across the state. Some pieces have been republished in the local newspaper, the South Bend Tribune. A media exchange site shares content with other radio stations and newspapers in the state. Increasingly, the blog's pieces reach a wider audience through republishing.

The blog includes links to other publications and web resources, a calendar of campus and area events related to IU's themes, and MP3 audio files from the radio pieces. As participation and readership grows, the ADP site slowly comes into its own as a real, full-featured blog.

Since it's a university publication, the ADP blog has needed a policy about the strong language and aggressive tone found on some political blogs. The appropriate content policy calls for a standard of decorum appropriate for a good classroom discussion. In spite of its generality, the guideline is clear to most participants. Only occasionally have submissions been rejected because of a personal attack or inappropriate content.

In the first year, more than 100,000 visits were recorded at the main page of IUSB's American Democracy Project blog, with many thousands more at other portions of the site--not bad for a community of South Bend's size. Writers from both campus and community often contribute work without being asked.

The radio station reports that the commentaries are popular with listeners and that about 15,000 radios are tuned in at the times of broadcast. And the university is named as the source of each of these broadcasts.

But there are weaknesses, too. The variety of authors provides freshness but has at times prevented a sense of continuity among the pieces. It's difficult to keep the site balanced between left, center, and right-wing political opinions. Some faculty members are not used to making local ties to their area of expertise, and some disciplines rarely contribute to the site. And as on other blogs, some pieces provoke no comments from readers.

Nevertheless, the ADP blog provides a place for faculty to develop their skills as public intellectuals writing for and serving a wider audience. The site models and builds active citizenship among students and engages the university with the community in a democratic exchange informed by local experience as well as by the academic disciplines of the faculty. Like all promising blogs, it's a work in progress.

Ken Smith teaches writing for the web at Indiana University South Bend. He edits the university's American Democracy Project weblog, as well as his own "Weblogs in Higher Education" blog (www.mchron.net/site/edublog.php).


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