If at first you don’t succeed…. try, try again

Over the years, I have tried to incorporate a blog assignment into my Introduction to Comparative Politics class. I think this is the fourth attempt and I might finally be close to a format that works.

The most recent iteration of this assignment, which I did last fall and revised for this semester, centers on the students selecting a country for the entire semester. I have them fill out a preference survey and then assign, to avoid overlap. I call the assignment the Country Expert Project and it involves a couple of components. First, the students write a short reflection paper before they start the blog posts. They are supposed to talk about what they already know about the country (sometimes the answer is “very little”) and why they picked it. This serves as a baseline, because they will also end the project with a reflection on what they learned about their country and what surprised them. Another small assignment at the beginning requires them to read a handful of academic blog posts; we then discuss blogs as a genre and how it is different than a research paper.

During the semester, the students are required to write posts that apply class concepts to their country. The overall objectives are that they (1) learn about one country in depth and (2) gain practice applying ideas to the “real world”. It requires a bit of research and a solid understanding of course concepts. They are also required to comment on classmates’ posts.

In theory, I love this assignment. It gives the students an opportunity to write a different type of assignment and they can be a bit more creative. From a pedagogical perspective, it maps onto my main learning objective for the course which is that students will be able to apply comparative politics concepts and theories to cases.

So, why has this assignment been a struggle? Here are some of my challenges:

  • How many is enough? How many is too many? I want students to become “experts” with respect to their country. Writing just one or two posts won’t give students the depth or breadth of understanding about their country. Assigning too many will overwhelm, unless other assignments are significantly cut back. I’m going with four this semester.
  • Due dates: If you ask students to write four blog posts in a term, they will wait until the last week of class to write four blog posts. This is a truth, universally acknowledged. This term I’ve set due dates of the end of each month – they are encouraged to write them earlier, but at least due dates at the end of each month forces them to spread out the work and not wait until the last minute. Nearly all wait until the last 24 hours of the month, but this at least avoids the end of semester rush that I had last fall.
  • Engagement: I want to encourage them to engage with the blog beyond submitting their posts. To do so, they have to comment on 10 other posts. So far, this is working pretty well. The comments show engagement and thoughtfulness.
  • Perfectionism: I have them read and we discuss some examples of academic blogs before they start the assignment. I think this is a crucial part of the assignment, but I find that the students can get paralyzed by perfectionism especially when comparing their blog posts to the “professional” academic blog posts.
  • Public or private: I’ve decided to keep the class blog private, only open to members of the class. I do this for two reasons. First, I want them to be able to use images and not spend too much time getting caught up in fair use issues. Talking with my librarian, we determined that a private educational blog has more leeway with respect to using images than a public blog – even if educational – would have. This is a personal decision; I didn’t want to spend a ton of class time talking about fair use and how to find images to use. A second reason is that these are first year students, these blog posts are not perfect. I was worried that having the blog public would (1) paralyze my perfectionists even more and (2) discourage “risk-taking” in terms of making arguments that students may not be 100% comfortable having public (e.g. I have students writing about contentious political environments). I think having an audience of their peers is a good proxy for the wider audience consistent with the genre of blogging.

If anyone else uses blog posts as an assignment, I’d love to hear how you do it.