Paper delivered by Helen Rogers to ‘Social Networking for Historians’, (Institute of Historical Research, 8 February 2014) organised by @HISTORYLABPLUS for early career historians
I’m going to talk about two modules I teach at Liverpool John Moores University where students help develop a public website and promote their research blogs via social media. Working with them on these websites has been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career – and the most challenging.
Soon I’ll be starting a blog called ‘Blogging beyond the Classroom’. This is for a project for the Higher Education Academy about evaluating student experience of online learning and public blogging. I hope it will be a platform for showcasing student websites and blogs across HE and foster dialogue about research blogging as a mode learning and assessment. Here you can see some of the topics I plan to cover, which will come with strong health warnings!
- What is a research blog?
- How to start a multi- author student blog
- To reference or not to reference?
- To edit or not to edit?
- Writing for a public audience
- Digital natives or digital apprentices?
- Who is ‘the Public’ in public engagement?
- How does online learning support traditional learning?
- Multi-author student blogging
I’ll be reflecting on my hard-learned lessons, and sharing resources and guides I’ve created to meet the challenges of this experimental form of learning. I hope to show how it can be transformative in all sorts of ways for students and educators. I’m also hoping teachers and students will contribute to the blog – either as commentators or as guest bloggers – and share their experience or plans for similar projects. So, please take that as an open invitation!
But today, I just want to flag the underlying rationale for this work.
- Online Learning and the Digital Public Sphere
We all know that while most students grew up in the age of the internet most are not ‘digital natives’. Like us, they are digital apprentices. It is vital graduate education prepares them to be responsible and self-reflexive participants in the digital public sphere. There is only one way to do this – and that’s by ‘hands on’ learning.
I’ve found students grasp very quickly the importance of creating reliable and professional resources because – by going public – they are putting their own work and reputation, and their university on the line. While they often struggle to see the importance of proper referencing etc. in academic writing, they immediately understand why it matters once they start writing for an audience. By introducing them to professional uses of social media within a structured learning environment, we can make them aware of their ‘digital footprint’ and how to curate their online presence. These are now essential life-skills as well as graduate skills.
- Digital Resources and Public History
The last decade has seen considerable public funding for digital resources. As yet, there’s little research on how these are used and by whom, but my sense is that most are woefully underused. Many academics are more concerned to get funding to create new digital resources rather than to work with what is already available.
One aim of Prison Voices, therefore, is to get students to experiment with the amazing online resources for the history of crime and demonstrate how they can be used to produce informative, creative and readable histories that will interest audiences in and beyond the university. Both my students’ blogs and responses to them have far surpassed my expectations. In the first three weeks of the website, five students have had their blogs re-hosted.
- Who is the ‘Public’ we are meant to be engaging?
The third context for my work with students concerns the public engagement and impact agenda. It’s extraordinary that in all the heated discussion about this, there is remarkably little attention to who we mean by ‘the public’. There seems to be no recognition – certainly among policy-makers and funders – that students are part of the public. As educators, they should be our first concern, and ‘impact’ if it is to be measured should be concerned, in the first instance, with them. If we want to build partnerships with the cultural sector and industries, then surely part of our role is to encourage our students to participate in these cultural spaces. They are the ones we hope will visit and take their children to museums, galleries, and the theatre in future.
Getting students involved in curating and disseminating digital resources makes them aware of this wider cultural sphere and helps them participate confidently in it. It’s a meaningful way for them to build their cultural capital. Most importantly, blogging and micro-blogging help students develop a public voice. It makes them acutely aware of ‘audience’. Most of my students find learning to communicate in a more direct and less formal way than in traditional essay-writing enormously liberating. They are much more aware of their writing style. Many report their academic writing skills and confidence improve as a result of trying out a different medium and tone.
- Students as research partners and collaborators
The final point I want to make is about how, by creating online resources, students can become our research partners and collaborators. Again, there is a huge amount of emphasis on collaboration in current funding schemes but these are seen primarily in terms of building relationships between academics, universities, and partner organisations. I began Writing Lives in preparation for a major funding bid I’ll be writing this summer to create a digital resource on working-class life-writing with an accompanying database. This will update the bibliography on working-class autobiography compiled by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Students ‘adopt’ an author from the Burnett collection of working-class autobiography and write ten blogs on their author’s life and memoir.
Initially, I saw our website as a prototype for the project website but together we have created a living resource and built up an online presence ahead of the project bid. Their research is informing the project design and has helped me identify topic areas ripe for PhD studentships or postdoc fellowships.
Finally, I get to know students individually by working closely with them on their research and writing. It’s very rewarding seeing their willingness to take risks and their confidence grow. I have a much better sense of where they are intellectually and how to help them develop. But I’m also learning a great deal from them particularly about what it is possible to do with blogging as a medium and about alternative ways of writing and communicating history.
I encourage them to see themselves not so much as students but as authors, editors, bloggers and public historians. It sounds a bit cheesy but almost without exception they rise to the challenge of this experimental way of learning and I see them visibly maturing. Working collaboratively to proof-read blogs, sharing resources, following – and being followed by academics, archivists, and family historians – is tremendously empowering for them. Above all, I’m struck by their commitment and passion for writing about people in the past. So I hope that, as we expand our social networks, we make room for students.