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Class Summary for 2/23/2010--Tim Burke's visit

Jessica Watkins's picture

     Today's class started out relatively normally--students pulled their desks into the usual, haphazard semi-circle, Anne set up her laptop and the familiar task of "coursekeeping" began.  The class discussed the experience of putting their papers online (for many it was the first time doing so) and talked about technical difficulties to do with formatting, inserting pictures, etc.  Anne commented on how the class discussion online, as well as the papers' role in it, is better than "slipping a paper under a door," and how "we're shaking up this backroom activity known as peer review."  Aseidman dropped her role as a "scribe" due to one too many students signing up for the job, and Tim Burke's (second) visit began.

     Burke began the discussion by talking about his multiple thoughts, "depending on what hour of the day it is," that go into his blog and his interest in online conversation as well as the future of the internet and its role in discussion and learning.  Sweetp commented on how comments made by readers can shape a blog, and how Burke acknowledges readers through the use of "we" and "you."  She also discussed how the multiple links embedded within Burke's blog show that he is a reader as well, and helps to connect him in a more personal way to his readers.

     For a while Burke talked about the implications of keeping up a blogging "personality," and how sometimes it can restrict whether or not he posts his actual emotions and keeps a cool head.  He remarked on how sometimes he "longs to write sarcastic posts," and how he doesn't because it produces "little blog wars" that one almost always ends up regretting.  He often gets frustrated when readers act maliciously, and once encountered a reader so racist that he stopped posting about his area of expertise, Africa, for a while so the person could not comment on it.  Eventually, that reader became the first and last to be banned from Burke's blog.

     Burke continued to talk about the one "reasonable" voice that he has carved out in the blogosphere and questioned whether or not it makes his posting boring, explaining that he is "actually more interesting when snarky."  His readers comment when he "goes to the dark side," even if just temporarily, and says something out of character.  He even ended this segment of his visit by saying "Sometimes I wish I could start an anonymous blog."

     Overall, Burke is interested and pleased when readers make him think or send his thoughts in a different direction, like one who had commented about the Amy Bishop situation.  When someone in the class asked him if he ever worries about his job since he blatantly names many people in his blog (reflecting perhaps the inner feelings our class is having towards posting our papers online), he replied that he felt "safe" because he didn't think that many people were reading it.  Not that he would know--he doesn't keep track of his reader count.  Burke says he is scrupulous about naming students and colleagues, but feels that he can talk about issues that have a "public transcript" behind them.  At Swarthmore, where he teaches History, the administration read his blog more often than the faculty, and Burke says he posts what he thinks administrators would say if they had the liberty to do so.

     He considers his blog a "broader sense of service" because it is a bridge between a faculty member and someone who is involved with public conversation, something he advertised to the Swarthmore administration when he was up for reappointment.  He remarks that junior academics still have to show "traditional" writing in addition to samples of their blogging when applying for jobs, particularly because of the pressure placed on women in the modern age and the fact that blogging as a form of academic writing has yet to be taken completely seriously.

     Burke originally started using his Internet voice in a restaurant review, and eventually a friend suggested blogging as a way to keep his presence on the web.  He posted with the group blog Cliopatria for a while, but eventually left due to formatting problems and a dislike of those with whom he was posting.  He said that group blogs have a very short "shelf life" and those few that do succeed consist of compatible and prolific commentors, an ongoing conversation and a thriving group culture.

     As a Swarthmore professor, Burke doesn't force his students to blog mainly because of the depth of the subject matter he teaches and the difficulty of use that comes with Blackboard.  He commented that a lot of students don't have enough pride in what they write to post it online. 

     Conversation quickly turned to that of "trolls," those people present on blogs (and in classrooms) that only serve to disrupt the flow of conversation by dropping an obnoxious or controversial remark.  Burke did remark, though, that this "trollage" may be unconsciously welcome in blogs because it allows readers and commentors to take a "recreational break" from the grueling work that is keeping up a civil, intelligent conversation.  He also commented that "trolls" may offer different opinions that bring up useful, interesting points in a world full of conversations that are often "mutually-affirming circles."

     The class discussion circled back around to the issue of future employers looking at blog entries made on Serendip and using them as a reason not to hire a student.  Anne wondered why those students worried about this can't just explain to employers that their views have changed since college, to which aseidman replied that for some jobs, like Internet Design Publishing, online writing is expected to be mistake-free and class blogs like Serendip might not necessarily serve as a positive writing sample.  Herbie cited DUIs as an example of a mistake made when one is young that stays with a person for the rest of their life.

     Some members of the class explained that they feel more free when posting their papers online, since they are not necessarily writing to appease solely a professor.  They have the freedom to make their posting "different" and more "reader friendly."  Burke remarked on the sense of emancipation that can come with finding another blogger who shares similar thoughts.  Anne challenged this by citing the "mutually-affirming society" that Burke had mentioned before.





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