Blogging as a Pedagogical Tool

by Brantley Gasaway

As contributors to and readers of this academic blog, most of us value this medium for our professional purposes and personal enjoyment. But I suspect that some of you, like me, also use blogging as a teaching tool. I want to use this post to describe briefly why and how I incorporate student blogging into one of my upper-level courses.

This semester, as part of my "Religion & Constitutional Law" course, students are contributing posts and comments to a publicly accessible blog: "Religion and American Law." In this past, I have worked with fellow blog contributor Seth Dowland and Isaac Weiner, who is now teaching at the Ohio State University, to create an inter-institutional blog when they were teaching similar courses on American law and politics. But this semester is the second time that I have used the blog for my students alone, and it has remained just as valuable. 

In my guidelines for students, I describe the three primary reasons that I choose to require this blogging assignment:  

First, I believe that the course readings and discussions will help you provide meaningful commentary on the role of religion in legal, political, and public issues. That is, this assignment will require you to explore the relevance of what you are learning in class for current events, contemporary legal debates, and political controversies. Second, the task of composing your own blog posts for an audience of your peers and even others will challenge you to craft well-written yet brief essays that develop and defend an argument. Finally, I hope that you will find the task of participating in this blog not only a welcome alternative to traditional academic assignments but also a creative means for demonstrating your critical thinking and writing skills.

After the jump, I describe some of the benefits and practical details of the course blog:

The benefits: Students consistently describe this assignment as enriching and engaging. The blog creates a public audience for their writing, putting (good) pressure on students to frame their arguments in evocative and clear prose. Indeed, I regularly use their posts to teach writing, as we discuss positive examples and how other posts could be improved. The blog also extends and deepens the conversations that we have in class. Most important, I would argue, the blog enables students to connect the course material to relevant contemporary issues. They come to recognize that constitutional and practical debates regarding religious freedom and establishment are far from settled.

Just this year, for example, students have posted about and debated the following issues: whether or not a large picture of Jesus can continue to hang in a high schoolthe presence of religious monuments on government property; the rights of parents to deny medical treatment to their children for religious reasons; and whether or not Sikhs, as they wear their kirpans, should be allowed on public transportation. (Click around the blog for many more and varied examples.) I am regularly surprised by the issues that my students identify, and they nearly always lead to fascinating class discussions as students apply competing interpretations of the First Amendment to current events. 

The practical details: I divide the class into four groups (usually numbering between five and seven students), and each group is responsible for posting in three different weeks during the semester. In their assigned weeks, students compose posts of roughly 750 to 1000 words that address the role of religion in contemporary legal, political, and public issues. As a starting point, they use a recent news article or opinion piece that raises a particular issue or controversy that they wish to address. In their posts, students are expected (1) to summarize carefully the main point(s) of the article or op-ed piece; (2) to identify and to explain the salient issue regarding religion and law that the article or op-ed piece raises; and (3) to offer their own response to the issue in question. This final aspect should constitute the bulk of their post, I tell students, for they must develop some type of argument regarding the issue they have chosen and defend that argument through logical reasoning and use of evidence.

In weeks when they do not write their own post, students are responsible for reading all of their classmates' posts and writing two meaningful comments in response to two different posts. In comments running between fifty and one hundred words, they should either explain their agreement or offer other perspectives and explain their disagreement.  

Summary: While an assignment like this likely would be difficult to employ in an introductory course, it has been a useful and enjoyable part of this more focused course. I have considered constructing a similar course blog for my "Religion & Popular Culture" and "Religion & American Politics" course, and I can imagine this working well for other courses on religion and violence, religion and gender, etc. Feel free to offer additional comments on your own assignments that require students to blog, and I am happy to answer questions about the strengths, weaknesses, and practical details based upon my own experience.


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