Following a successful bid to the Liverpool John Moores University’s ‘Curriculum Enhancement’ scheme funding was awarded to Helen Rogers and the English department to employ eight final-year English undergraduates to act as student mentors on the second-year module, ‘Prison Voices: Crime, Conviction and Confession, 1700-1900’. ‘Prison Voices’ introduces and extends student skills in online research by asking them to consider connections between a wide range of digital and archival primary sources, to analyse the changing representations of criminality and deviance. An integral part of this module now requires students to set up their own blog to disseminate their research findings.
Blogging and using digitised archival resources for the first time can seem daunting to students, and also involve the communication of a vast amount of information by a tutor early-on in the course. The peer mentorship scheme was consequently established to offer in-class additional support to students, with mentors providing technical advice on how to set up blogsites and work with online research materials. Each mentor studied on the module last year, and has therefore been able to draw from their previous year’s experiences and understanding of the course to provide informed assistance. Three months on, the ‘Prison Voices’ students reflect on their experiences of blogging and working with their peer mentors.
• All students agree that the mentors provided invaluable help and support with the immediate technical aspects of setting-up their blogs at the beginning of the semester. Without their additional guidance, establishing the blog was seen as a potentially intimidating task. Indeed, one student didn’t like blogging at first, instead finding it “overwhelming and daunting”.
• But having now set-up their blogs and become more confident in their blogging, the ‘Prison Voices’ students (and mentors, both) notice that they do not turn to the mentors for assistance in class, as they did at the beginning of the module. The mentors likewise feel that their initial role ‒ helping students overcome obvious technical or practical queries in class ‒ is shifting.
• Instead, an alternative mentoring role emerged out of the focus group discussion. Each mentor is now assigned to a small group of students who have formed a research team and created their own Facebook group. The closed Facebook group will facilitate peer collaboration, in which mentors will encourage discussion about students’ blog posts, answer any queries, and will assist with peer editing and offer guidance with larger research blogs.
• This Facebook group will also operate as a point of contact between the mentors and their assigned student team. It will enable students to share information about their research and feedback thoughts to the mentor within their peer community.
• It is hoped that this may also promote further communication about their work online amongst their peers when students may otherwise be reluctant to share in classroom discussions with larger groups in the IT suite.
- The mentors are finding that working with second year students is also enhancing their own skills and understanding. As Julia Heath says, ‘I think it’s great that this year’s students have had us there to help them get to grips with setting up their blogs and using WordPress. I know that personally, this was something I struggled with last year, so it’s great that this year, they’ve had the opportunity to receive some extra help if they needed it. I’ve actually found that helping them in this respect has improved my own confidence and knowledge of blogging and online research, which I think are extremely useful skills for any student to have.’
Prison Voices Handbook:
Establishing a ‘Prison Voices’ a Blogging Handbook as part of their mentoring role, the mentors produced guides they thought students would value:
• How to use Twitter
• Writing tips
• Tips on finding a Voice
• Mechanics of structuring an argument
• How to identify sources – primary and secondary
• How to reference properly
With the mentors having now completed the Handbook, Lucy Murray, second-year ‘Prison Voices’ student, says:
‘The Prison Voices Handbook is a really helpful guide for 2nd year Prison Voices students, it explains clearly how to go about research blogging and using social media effectively. The handbook includes everything from setting up your blog site to helpful reading lists and resources. I found it particularly useful when I came to prepare for my research blog for the Prison Voices website. The handbook includes a research blog plan template which made the process of planning and writing my blog much simpler.’
The Benefits of Blogging and Researching in Class:
Discussing the nature of writing and research, students acknowledge that one of the unique benefits of working on their blog posts in class is that they know what projects their peers are working on. One student reflected: ‘It is valuable to research on your own but in the context of a supportive research community’. Developing an individual blog, however, gives valuable space to students who enjoy working independently, as one member of the focus group explained. While self-discipline is also needed to use the class time effectively, blogging in class helps to develop good writing habits ‒ writing a little but often. Learning to write for a new audience has increased the students’ confidence in their own writing and enhanced their important transferable skills as English undergraduates:
‘Blogging has become a new writing skill which I was able to take into my work experience placement at Influential PR.’
– Laura Shillcock (Prison Voices Student)
Students have also acquired a new sense of pride and ownership about their work:
‘Blogging is a more personal style of writing which has allowed me to put my own stance on my chosen topic; writing this way has made the process more enjoyable.’
– Eleanor Webb (Prison Voices Student)
‘I cannot stress how excited I am to begin this blog site and I hope my genuine enthusiasm reflects in my posts.’
– Ryan Collins (Prison Voices Student)