Blogging Soviet History – Field Report #1

With support from the History Department, University Libraries and an Innovation Grant, I’ve been working on a blogging project with my Soviet history course this fall.  Lots of people have asked me how things are going, so here’s an update:

20th-Century Russia Fall 2013 Weekly Digest - Sept. 25 (Screencapture)
20th-Century Russia Fall 2013 Weekly Digest – Sept. 25 (Screencapture)

The short answer is: Great!

The slightly longer answer is: There are some kinks to work out, not everything goes according to plan, and managing something on this scale takes a LOT of time. (I have 38 students posting weekly to the motherblog, which my TA and I curate as a “weekly edition” that comes out on Wednesday.)  BUT it’s completely worth it in terms of the quality of the content produced, and the level of student engagement.  This kind of original, digital history work develops the research, writing, communication, and digital literacy skills of students in ways that are deeply exciting to witness and rewarding to facilitate.

Underneath the Skin

There are two main components to the project.  The first involves using blogs to create and curate the course content.  While I’ve found blogging to be a rewarding medium for students to respond to and engage with course material, the format I’m using here gives students the chance to engage directly with primary and secondary materials (both print and electronic), conduct their own research, and present their findings in ways that are meaningful and interesting to them.  Each week I post the guidelines for a particular topic and ask the class follow their noses and hearts to a topic that interests them. They post on Sunday, my awesome undergrad TA assigns them a category (i.e. Week 3 blog posts), and Monday and Tuesday we all read and comment on each others’ posts. I tag posts as I read them (which generates an evolving, tag cloud to help us find posts on a particular topic). On Wednesday, the “Weekly Edition” of our crowd-sourced Soviet History Digest comes out.  A custom slider, sticky posts and categories highlight the most salient and contentious content areas.

Categories10-2-13Posts that are exemplary in terms of their research, methodology, sophistication, or insight about a particular topic get a “Red Star,” and five of them are featured in the slider. Posts that address issues we especially need to talk about in class are categorized in the “Comrades’ Corner.” (This is a Soviet history course, after all.) We also have a “Student Choice Award” for the post that generates the most discussion in the comments, and occasionally, a “Blog Beautification Award” for sites that show dramatic improvement in appearance and functionality.

The blog posts are not graded, there are no requirements in terms of length or format, and students have considerable latitude in choosing what to research and write about. I’ll write more about the pedagogical rationale for that later, but will just note here that when students write for themselves and their peers (rather than for a grade which reflects my assessment of that work), we are all happier and the quality of the work is significantly better than what I’m used to seeing on conventional assignments.

One of the main goals of the project was to move beyond the model of “delivering” content and empower students to create and process that content themselves. Having the right interface for this was critical, and here is where I am enormously grateful to Brian Matthews, who understood that I needed a blog skin with a particular suite of functions to give my students the opportunity to present and showcase their work.  “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the old saying goes, but for a digital history site like this one, the aesthetics and functionality of the skin not only shape the content, they also condition the options I have as the lead content curator (my corner of the blog is called “Motherblog Central”) to moderate and highlight the material the class needs most.  There were several free templates available to me, but none of them had the particular combination of features and flexibility I was looking for. Instead of modifying what I wanted to do to fit the available skins, the library purchased a skin that maximized the experience of creating the weekly “Soviet History Digest” for the students and for me. It was not expensive – far less than most books cost these days, but it was also much more than a symbolic gesture.  To me it signaled that our library is committed to supporting and developing networked learning environments and helping its constituents tap its holdings in easier, more productive ways.

This brings me to the second main component of the project, which involves helping students develop course content using a combination of print and electronic resources, including proprietary databases (supported by the library), as well as freely accessible material on the web.  The course blog provides the main interface for this.  One of the key resources my students will be using in the second half of the course is the complete archive of the  Current Digest of the Russian Press.  For these first few weeks, they have found source material in a digitized collection of the Tsar’s photographer at the Library of Congress (unavailable during the government shutdown), the extensive multi-media archive for Soviet History developed by Lewis Siegelbaum and James Von Geldern, and the Historical New York Times.  I will post more about that in the future as well.

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