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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why I blog about teaching (and you should too!)

[What follows is an edited version of the first two-thirds of my presentation for the AEA panel on "Using Blogs to Teach Undergraduate Economics" (the last third was about having students write blogs, which I'll be posting soon)]

For those of you who are wondering who the heck I am, let me start by explaining that my blog is somewhat different from the other blogs up here in that I don't think of it as first and foremost an economics blog, I think of it as a teaching blog. That is, I generally write more about teaching issues, not economics issues, though the classes I happen to teach are economics classes.

From my perspective, there are two types of blogs that are relevant to my teaching: economics blogs and academic blogs. When I say economics blogs, I mean blogs written by economists where the primary focus is discussion of economic concepts and/or commentary on economic issues, such as the other blogs represented on this panel today. As an economics instructor, I use economics blogs both to keep myself up to date on what’s going on in the world, and as a source of material for classes. I often use examples from economics blogs to illustrate concepts in class, or have my students read economics blogs and then discuss or write about what they read.

There’s also a small sub-set of economics blogs that are specifically focused on teaching economics – I would put Jodi’s blog in this category, as well as a handful of others. These blogs specifically highlight current events or examples from media and other sources and discuss how they can used to teach different economic concepts.

By ‘academic blogs’, I mean blogs that focus on life in the academy – for example, ProfHacker on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website, the Teaching Professor, or any of the many blogs on the InsideHigherEd site. These generally revolve around teaching issues that are common to all disciplines, like assessment, class management, student complaints, etc. There are probably a disproportionately large number of academic blogs focused on technology (probably not a big surprise, given the medium), but there are also a lot that are simply academics writing about what they do in the course of their jobs as academics. The focus isn’t really on teaching subject content, like with the teaching-oriented economics blogs, but on broader issues of pedagogy and issues that arise for all of us who are teachers and academics in general. As economics instructors, these blogs provide access to a community of educators where we can find out how others deal with teaching issues that we all deal with.

As consumers of blogs, I think reading and commenting on both these types of blogs can help us be better teachers but I particularly wanted to talk about academic blogs because I think those are less well-known to most economists and yet from a teaching perspective, I think they can be invaluable. And that’s because most economists don’t typically spend a lot of time talking to each other about teaching. Most of us don’t get any training in how to teach and we just have to figure it out on our own. So academic blogs provide a way to at least connect with other teachers, and given that there are a lot of issues that are universal to all teachers, I think that we have a lot to learn from academic bloggers, regardless of what discipline the blogger is in.

At the same time, I often find I am most helped by discussions with other teachers of economics because there are some pedagogical issues that present different challenges in our field. So when I started blogging, I decided that my blog would be a teaching blog in the vein of other academic blogs. I tend to write about general teaching issues – for example, I’ll write about my experience using different technologies like clickers or managing a class of 500 students. I also have a lot of posts that are specific to teaching economics, though I try to focus more on pedagogy than just giving examples of concepts, so I’ll write about the experiments I run to teach supply and demand or the specific assignments I use in my classes.

As far as I know, mine is one of only two blogs by an economist with this particular focus on teaching and academia – Steve Greenlaw also has a similar type blog, though he’s been writing even less than I have lately. So I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage anyone who is thinking about getting into blogging, and who is seriously interested in improving their teaching, to consider starting a similar type of teaching blog. And that's because while I certainly think that reading and commenting on academic blogs is a great way to connect with other educators, I also feel that being a producer of this type of blog has been just as valuable, if not more valuable, for my teaching.

That’s basically because this type of blogging is one way of engaging in reflective practice, a concept that goes back to the philosopher and educator John Dewey but more recently, was popularized by Donald Schoen who defined reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.” Reflective practice has subsequently became relatively common in some teacher training programs for K-12 but I think reflective practice can be particularly useful for teaching in higher education where we don’t get formal training and instead are mostly left to learn from our own experiences.

There’s no one ‘right’ way to engage in reflective practice but I found this model, by education professor Graham Gibbs, and thought this was a good synopsis of what I often do on my blog. My posts are often me just ‘thinking aloud’ about what I’m doing with my classes. I tend to use the writing process to think through what has worked or hasn’t worked, and why, and then consider what needs to be changed.

To a certain extent, reflective practice is already a big part of the "scholarship of teaching and learning” but for those who aren’t interested in doing formal scholarship related to teaching, blogging is a great way to informally reflect on what’s going on in your classroom and in many ways, blogs are actually much better for this than traditional journals, so let me give you a couple reasons why…

Unlike traditional journals (even teaching journals like the Journal of Economic Education), blogs allow you to document your teaching in ‘real time’ so you can capture your thoughts when the experience is still fresh in your mind. Also unlike traditional journals, it is perfectly acceptable, if not expected, for bloggers to write in the first person and discuss personal experiences. That’s obviously something we typically do NOT do when we’re writing formal papers but it’s a big part of blogging. Both of these aspects of blogs, as well as simply the nature of blogs in general, can encourage dialogue and interaction with others. And you can get feedback from your peers in a timeframe when that feedback can actually be used to immediately affect your teaching.

I’ll also add that I like that the technology of blogs allows easy organization and searching. In the past, although I would often make notes about things I wanted to do with my classes, those notes would generally get lost in the sea of papers I have in my office. But with the blog, I can ‘tag’ or categorize individual posts so when I want to go back and see what I’ve written about a particular issue, I can easily pull up everything on that subject.

On the downside, I will point out that of course, there are also some costs. The most obvious cost is simply time – when I get busy with other things, blogging is usually one of the first things I put on the back burner so there are stretches of time when I’ve only posted once or twice a month. And I do think it takes a certain personality type to do this type of blogging – I haven’t quite decided if it requires a super-sized ego or no ego but either way, for this sort of reflective blogging to be useful, you have to willing to ‘out yourself out there’ to a certain extent. You have to willing to be upfront about what doesn’t work, as well as what does. That also makes it a bit iffy for junior faculty – I think (or certainly hope) that enlightened senior faculty will appreciate that being willing to publicly discuss problems you might be having with your teaching is actually a sign of a good teacher but if there are people in your department who are not so enlightened, academic blogging might be something you want to wait to do until after getting tenure.

For me, overall, blogging has been a really fun and useful experience. Even when I haven’t had time to be super-consistent about posting, I find that I think about my teaching more because I’ll think about what I’d like to write when I do have more time. I find myself making notes and saving links to things and just generally being more aware of teaching issues because I’m always looking for ideas for blog posts. But even if you never blog yourself, I think simply reading teaching-related blogs and participating in the conversation can help pull us out of the isolated bubble that many of us teach in.

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