by Tamara Beauchamp
The Genre of Blogging
Students are often surprised to discover that the first writing assignment in Humanities Core is to establish a basic website and begin blogging about how their intellectual experiences in the program connect to their private intellectual life and public events. You may be apprehensive about the technical demands of setting up a site that will accompany you through the entire year or concerned about finding the voice appropriate to this nebulous, ever-evolving form of writing. The blog is a difficult genre to define, as its purpose varies widely. Most would agree, however, that blog postings announce “news” or introduce and analyze a pertinent issue on which readers can comment. Blogs have a clearly identifiable author whose post focuses on his or her opinion about an issue. Over multiple postings, comments, and responses, blogs often show development of an issue or position.
You will mostly be writing academic blog posts, which should be analytical and may sometimes be reflective or anticipatory. They should pose and respond to humanistic research questions, ones that require exploration, interpretation, and analysis to be answered. In answering those questions, posts ought to integrate and analyze credible evidence; make connections between texts, previous posts, or the blogs of others; and consider multiple perspectives or arguments. Though your content is analytical, the blog genre allows for a wide range of writing voices or personae. Take the opportunity to experiment with different voices until you find one that suits your purpose.
Some people view blogging as the inverse of deliberate, carefully researched scholarly writing; and it is indeed easy to dismiss blogging as trivial or unserious. This conception, at least in part, stems from the origins of the genre in the online diary forms pioneered in the mid-nineties by LiveJournal, a platform that hosted individual pages known for unedited, highly personal confessions and rants about everyday life intended for a small audience of readers. Most histories of blogging by media scholars locate the early-to-mid 2000s as the heyday of the genre, in which a small number of personal blogs found mass readership and commercial support in the form of advertising and paid content. During this period, group blogs on current events and popular culture found financial backing and established editorial protocols, thus blurring the lines between traditional journalism and web-based writing. By 2010, commentators who just a few years prior had proclaimed that blogging would revolutionize journalism and marketing began announcing the death of the format. The very structure of a blog as a series of archived, first-person posts in reverse-chronological order might seem a bit cliché in 2018, with microblogging platforms like Twitter and social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat having taken over much of the confessional or personal sharing functions of those early online diaries. Yet many of these commentators had a relatively narrow notion of what the genre of blogging entailed, and the form continued to take on new life in different contexts. A class of politicized, fact-checking professional bloggers has emerged, and with them, “a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs,” as Jason Kottke has described it. Blogging moved from the personal to the social and is now often associated with partisan politics: a new online genre of opinion-editorial writing.
That is not to say that all contemporary blog writing is opinion-driven; many leading newspaper and magazine publishers now host blog-like projects to deliver up-to-the-minute, web-only content in addition to their print journalism. As Onur Kabadayi noted in The Guardian, “Blogs haven’t disappeared—they have simply morphed into a mature part of the publishing ecosystem. The loss of casual bloggers has shaken things out, with more committed and skilled writers sticking it out. Far from killing the blog dream, this has increased the quality of the blogosphere as a whole.” Thus while the domain of casual blogger may be in decline, blogs written by skilled researchers appear to be on the rise. Many scholars see web-based writing as a critical venue for sharing their research agendas with the public and extending academic conversation well beyond the classroom or the conference hall. Sites like the Oxford University Press Blog, JSTOR Daily, and The Conversation are great examples of scholarly blogs that bring newsworthy topics into dialogue with academic discourse. In a sense, blogging is the ideal project with which to start Humanities Core because it reminds us that the genres in which we write are always determined by the contexts from which they emerge. From its very outset, blogging invited interpretation from multiple perspectives, an idea that is central to the way we approach writing in this program.
Moreover, blogs have become an essential tool in activist and social justice projects. For instance, the medical fieldworkers and patients of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) blog stories and photos from the front lines of emergency humanitarian aid in hotspots around the globe, often breaking stories well in advance of the news media assigned to those regions. Millennials have found likeminded activist communities on the Internet and have launched massive cyber social-justice movements through social media platforms like Tumblr. Blogs have been instrumental in the organization of college activist movements that bring attention to issues such as campus rape culture, institutionalized racism, or the fight against the rising costs of tuition and privatization of the public university system.
Topicality and Point of View
As a writing assignment, the website that you will create for Humanities Core will address a broader, public audience than other forms of academic essay. To succeed in this new writing situation, you will have to adapt your rhetorical posture as you identify your online audience, craft your voice and purpose to appeal to that audience, and support your claims with verifiable evidence. Blogging foregrounds the personal character of the writer, thus a key task will be shaping an engaging, credible blogging ethos for your readers while using appeals to both reason and emotion in advancing your point of view.
As you surely know by now, the theme for this cycle of Humanities Core is “Empire and Its Ruins”; thus the overall thrust of your blog should relate in some way to that larger idea. While you will likely begin by writing entries on disparate topics related to the theme, we hope that you will gradually focus your interests towards a particular context or idea, ideally the one that you will investigate in depth for your spring research project. Before you start building your site, you should brainstorm about what your initial purpose for writing in an online forum will be. Will your site be politically oriented, focusing on how our studies in Humanities Core relate to global events? Will it be community oriented, investigating connections between Core and your local community? Ethically oriented, examining moral problems which arise in the course? Artistically oriented, using visual culture or film as a framework to analyze the texts we interpret? Or perhaps a combination of these orientations? You might discover that your purpose—and thus the look and content of your website—will change as the quarter progresses.
Perhaps you already are passionate about a certain topic or context related to empire, thanks to prior research in high school, political involvements, or your community background. For example, in the 2015–16 cycle of Core, a student whose family was displaced by the Salvadoran Civil War focused her posts around the afterlife of colonialism and indigenous rights in Central America. The year prior, an African-American Studies major and activist in the Black Lives Matter movement focused her website on the psychic and material afterlives of slavery in the United States. If you have a particular topic that you are passionate about researching, by all means begin writing about how you think that topic intersects with the concepts, theoretical frameworks, and disciplinary approaches that you learn about in the course.
If you don’t have a topic in mind at the beginning of the year, you may find that it is helpful to focus on a particular medium rather than a specific context. If you have a passion for photography, for example, your blog entries might center on photographs or visual representations of imperial contexts. A movie buff might focus on explicating the politics behind blockbuster films that recreate the sagas of ancient empires. Alternatively, it might be helpful to isolate an interdisciplinary disciplinary approach that bridges a range of historical or regional contexts. A business student might take up the question of economy or bureaucratic administration across a survey of colonial and postcolonial settings. A pre-med student might structure her blog around the emerging field of the medical humanities, investigating the imperial administration of medical resources during colonial expansion or the role that medical providers played in efforts at decolonization. A budding chef might explore foodways—the cultural, social and economic practices that relate to the production and consumption of food—a topic of great interest to recent historians of empire and colonization.
While your blog posts will be written in the first-person, and in a less formal voice than traditional expository academic writing, your site is not a personal diary. You are creating a website for a broad audience composed of people invested in humanistic study, the history of empire and its ruin, ethics, and education. They may include your professors, peers, people of other political orientations, lawmakers, parents, people who identify strongly with their race, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality, and other members of your local community. This audience will be interested in your interpretations and reflections on issues of common interest, not in day-to-day problems arising in your personal life.
The Design Process
The next step can be very intimidating for many students: you will need to create your website. While a small handful of individuals with an interest in online design may want to build a site from scratch, the majority of Core students use free, open-source content management systems (CMS) designed for blogging that require no prior experience or coding skill (WordPress, Wix, etc.). You may already have a content management system that you prefer, and you are welcome to use that platform; but we discourage the use of Tumblr for this assignment, as it presents some limitations in commenting capability that make it difficult for readers to provide sustained feedback on posts. The most popular content management system for Core students is WordPress, which offers a template system and plugin architecture that is easy to learn and creates aesthetically appealing, highly functional sites. WordPress also allows you to switch between different “themes” that alter the look and functionality of the site without changing the content, allowing you to test-drive different design schemes as the purpose and objectives as your site evolves. For reference, there is a video tutorial on the assignment page that details how to set up a basic WordPress site.
Once you have established your URL and made basic decisions about the title and tagline of your site, you will begin website design and construction, a process that, like other forms of writing, requires brainstorming and drafting. Design is an integral part of your content, one of the most important ways in which you will attract your readers and capture their attention. Depending on your CMS, you will need to select a preliminary theme or template and contemplate the various customization options afforded by that service. As you explore those features, think carefully about how you will use color, font, menus, widgets, and background images so as to best convey your voice and purpose.
If your blogging platform allows for you select your font, think about how a given type will read over longer passages of text. Decorative or novelty fonts, like those that resemble handwriting, should probably be avoided in this context, as they are often difficult to read and may undermine the academic ethos of your writing. Fonts with serifs (e.g., Times New Roman) may give your writing a more traditional look, while sans-serif fonts (e.g., Arial and Helvetica) may lend a cleaner, contemporary feel. Colors can give your reader a sense of the conceptual hierarchies and sequence of your writing and enhance the flow, thus you may want to use a color font for post titles or other headings. Paragraphs tend to be shorter in online writing than in traditional expository academic essays. Leaving some white space between your paragraphs, as well as around your visual elements, will enhance the readability of your text.
As the color theorist Johannes Itten points out, color effect is the way in which a color is perceived and affected by its surrounding environment and is key to the overall appeal of any design. You should think carefully about how colors interact as you select a font and the background images for your page. A little color can go a long way, and if you overuse too much color (or too many clashing colors), the eventual effect can seem muddy or overwhelming to the viewer. The best color combinations consider contrast, allowing viewers to differentiate between different visual entities on the site. The legibility of type is often dependent on contrast. Contrast in hue can be achieved by using complementary colors, that is, the colors positioned opposite from one another on the color wheel (e.g., yellow and blue). Another way of achieving contrast is through value, or the contrast between light and dark. Black and white is the most obvious form of value contrast, but in general, dark colors appear to advance toward the viewer, while lighter colors recede. Finally, contrast can be achieved through the use of warm and cool tones. Warm colors, like yellow, orange, and red, tend to be energizing, while cool tones like blue, green, and purple are calming to the viewer. If you intend to make use of brightly colored images in posts, you may want to select a relatively neutral backdrop so as to not compete with the visual components of your writing.
The design of each individual post should reflect the fact that blogging has become increasingly multimodal, meaning that text is often supplemented with images, video, informational, graphics, and even sound. As you surely know from your own experiences online, internet readers are increasingly reliant on graphic information; it is thus important to build visual interest into your text so as to engage with your audience. When options exist, select high-resolution images over low-resolution ones and size them for dynamic integration into your text. Visual elements—be they images, embedded video, or informational graphics—should be sized consistently, contextually integrated into the content of the writing, and captioned responsibly.
Another generic attribute of online writing is that text often connects to other sources through hyperlinks. To fully participate in academic blogging as a genre, your website should be engaged in the project of hypertextuality(that is, taking advantage of the ease and flexibility of textual connections afforded by the Internet) by actively linking to scholarly and journalistic sources in conversation with your claims. One of the pitfalls of hyperlinking is link rot, when a link is broken or dead because the target website has been reorganized, thus leading to an unavailable page. One solution to this problem is to use permalinks (a foreshortened version of “permanent link” that describes URLs that remain indefinitely unchanged) when possible. The major academic databases of humanistic journals, including JSTOR and Project MUSE, offer stable, compact permalinks for all of their archived texts. Most news media sites also offer a permalink for each article in the share window just below the now-requisite Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and email sharing options. Cutting and pasting permalinks when creating hyperlinks to web-based sources will help ensure that your future readers do not encounter frustrating dead links on your page.
Ultimately, your design decisions will determine the navigability of your site, so try not to make your design needlessly complex. While it need not be entirely minimalist, simple designs are often the most intuitive to navigate. It can help to have your peers look at your site as you develop the design—often it is difficult to see flaws in the design after many hours of tinkering. In both your blog writing and the design of your site, it is important to keep yourself open to revision.
One subpage that you will likely want to establish at the beginning of this process is a stable introductory or “about me” page. You may decide to make this a static front page that all readers reach at the outset, or alternatively, a supplementary page reached through a tab or menu. While you may want to include some introductory personal information about where you are from, your campus affiliations, or your extracurricular activities, this page should ultimately establish your scholarly persona, as well as the purpose and objectives of your website. You might want to reflect on your study or major and how it relates to the study of the humanities and the theme of Empire and Its Ruins. Or perhaps you can reflect on disciplinary approaches in the humanities that you find yourself drawn to or that are animating your engagement with texts. You may want to pose overarching research questions that stimulate your writing. This page will develop as your thinking and writing on the humanities deepens over the course of the year, so make sure to continually update it so as to reflect the evolving purpose and function of your site.
Generating Thoughtful Posts and Models for Academic Blogging
Some seminar leaders will provide prompts for your blog posts, especially at the beginning of the year. Others will view this as a more open-ended assignment, leaving you with the task of generating engaging, meaningful content for your posts. In either case, each blog post should be relatively short. We view these blogs as a space for speculation and experimentation that builds toward longer writing projects.This venue also allows you to be self-reflexive about that process and to reflect on what you learn about college-level research and writing along the way.
A former Core student developed his blog in just this way, after he made a serious mistake on one of his academic essay assignments. He was asked to analyze how an image from the Civil War era represented the war itself. But, instead of selecting such an image, he inadvertently chose an image that had been modified by a white supremacist organization to serve a revisionist history of the Civil War. It was a genuine mistake that stemmed from a lack of scholarly research experience, and the student was horrified to discover that what he had believed was an archival primary source was in fact a piece of racist propaganda. He blogged extensively about this mistake, as well as the lessons that he had learned about conducting academic research on the web and vetting primary sources for authenticity. In the process, he became interested in the visual rhetoric of contemporary hate organizations in the United States and ended up writing a probing and insightful history of the swastika in neo-Nazi organizations in Southern California for his spring research project. The experience helped to catalyze his career goals; he now hopes to work as a legal advocate for a non-profit organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that works against hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation.
While not all blogging is explicitly political, there is a sense of social engagement associated with this genre of writing. We hope that you will make active associations between current events and the topics and interpretive tools that you are learning about in Core. As you immerse yourself in the topic of Empire and Its Ruins, you will likely see profound connections between the course themes of power, progress, decline and decadence in contemporary world affairs; and we encourage you to try and tease out those connections in your blog writing.
Blog posts are also excellent places to test out the new interpretive strategies of literary, visual, and filmic analysis that you will be acquiring in your seminars. One of the key questions the course asks is how forms of cultural production, such as art, philosophy, music, language, theater, and literature, influence the rise and fall of imperial forces. While you will certainly not be able to answer that question in its entirety, you could begin to approach it by conducting a formal analysis of a photograph or painting from lecture, or by examining in technical detail a scene from a film. You could dissect a passage or track a motif across a philosophical or literary text from the course. Or, you could take a comparative approach, placing a course text in conversation with an artifact drawn from another imperial context or culture.
We recognize that it can be daunting to develop topics and to establish a scholarly blogging persona without models of that kind of online engagement. Your own seminar leaders, lecturing faculty, and other members of the UCI community post their own reflections on the course theme and the writing and research process on the Humanities Core Research Blog. You can use these posts as a model for the tone, multimodality, evidentiary support, and self-reflection we hope you will achieve on your own websites. Non-academic blogs can also serve as good models for effective design and topical engagement with current events, though their purpose and format differ from the academic, single-author blog. Many general editorial newspapers and magazines now host consistently updated web-only blogs in addition to their long-form print articles, and this content can be used to generate ideas and to model what research-based, opinion-driven, short-form blogging can look like on its best day. The blogs hosted by The Atlantic, BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Harper’s, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review are a great place to start and often cover subjects directly related to Core’s lectures and readings. National Public Radio’s news blog is also a fantastic resource and often links to longer-form radio pieces that may be useful as you put together your oral history project in the spring quarter.
Responsible Research and Attribution
To effectively pose and respond to humanistic research questions, your posts must be research-based and supported by verifiable evidence. UCI Libraries maintains a detailed research guide designed especially for Core, and your seminar leaders and librarians will be guiding you through these resources over the course of the year. You can get a jumpstart on learning about those library resources through these online research tutorials.
The American Library Association maintains an excellent page on using primary sources on the web. In addition to giving you an introduction to the concept of primary sources, this page also gives a checklist for evaluating the general trustworthiness of websites. Many Core students find it difficult to gauge the credibility of internet-based sources as they begin to conduct scholarly research. As you begin to work in a more scholarly fashion on the web, it is important that you learn to evaluate uniform resource locators (URLs); to identify who is responsible for a website, the purpose or reason for the site, and the origin of documents and evidence provided; to situate the site within the larger research landscape of a given topic or scholarly discipline; and finally how to responsibly cite your web-based sources. There is no uniform mode of citation or attribution in the world of blogging, and many non-scholarly blogs cite their sources in haphazard or problematic ways, leaving readers with little sense of the reliability of the evidence or the veracity of the claims drawn from that support. In contrast, your academic blog will need to give your readers a clear sense of where you found your evidence.
As you create multimodal posts that make use of images, graphics, and video, you must keep in mind that these are the work of another person and must be cited appropriately. The citation style used within blogs is a matter still up for debate. While you will find resources on how to cite a blog, you will not find definitive guidelines on how to cite all materials within a blog. Your seminar leader may prefer a citation style and may offer you guidelines for citation. If she has no preference, you can use the following as general guidelines:
- When quoting from another electronic resource, use quotation marks or indentation and provide a hyperlink to the original.
- When citing print material, lectures, or other non-Internet sources, use quotation marks or indentation and cite using MLA, Chicago, or APA style footnotes.
For information on these citation styles, see the Purdue Owl website and the UCI Libraries’ guidelines for citing images and videos. Some images you encounter may still be under copyright and might require you to receive permission from the copyright holder prior to publication. Copyrighted materials can be used under the Fair Use Doctrine, but only in specific contexts of teaching, learning, and scholarship. To better understand these limitations, visit the UCI Libraries Guide on Copyright and Fair Use. If you want to include an image whose copyright status you are unsure of, you may use the Digital Image Rights Computator (DIRC) to determine an image’s copyright status.
The Digital Community and Privacy Concerns
While blogs as a genre sometimes appear to be written spontaneously, coming straight from the mind of the writer, they, like most other forms of writing, are deliberately crafted and revised. You will rely upon the comments of others to make these revisions, or to add posts. For that reason, it will be important for you to read the blogs of your peers and to serve as a sounding board for their ideas. The best scholars are generous and constructive readers of the work of others. Your seminar leader will likely organize a class blogroll, a page that compiles the URLs from your seminar so that you can begin reading and commenting on each other’s sites. You may also want to create a blogroll page for your own website that links to the other academic blogs that you are following, thus giving your readers a sense of your larger footprint on the web. If you are not already a blog reader, you might find it helpful to use the “reader” or “following” function on your blogging platform. An RSS feed compiler like Feedly might also help to keep track of the many sites you will be following over the course of the year.
Your seminar leader will likely ask you to comment on others’ blogs, respond to comments written by others on your blog, and may herself offer comments; however, it is unlikely that she will respond to each blog you write. Instead, the dialogue and discussion that will transpire in the comment sections will reflect the growing conversation between your fellow Core students and the public at large. Your posts should be conducive to interaction, posing questions to your readers that provoke comments, discussion, and writing elsewhere on the web.As you comment on your peers’ sites, try to avoid superficial observations (e.g., “I liked this post!” or “Great idea!”). Instead, think carefully about the claims that the writer is making and the questions that he or she poses of course material and other evidence. You can think of comments as extending an idea presented in the post (ideally with verifiable evidence) or countering an idea presented in the post (offering a different reading of the evidence presented, etc.). Ultimately, your comments should engage and deepen the conversation begun in the post.
The first-person nature of blogging allows writers publicly to voice their opinions and, thus, to engage in debate. On topics as contentious as Empire and Its Ruins, this debate may get heated. While you may run the risk of offending some members of your audience, you also facilitate collaboration and debate. Simply tread with care, considering possible counterarguments or objections to the claims you make. Here, as in all forms of writing, you are responsible for what you create. You will want to be especially careful about divulging others’ private information, the opinions, for example, of friends and family members sharing their thoughts at the dinner table. To protect others’ privacy, focus on the issues themselves. You can imagine the comment sections as an online facet of the Core seminar setting; you should thus conduct yourself in a responsible, professional way. Just as it is necessary to remain compassionate and open as we engage in critical debate in a seminar setting, it is essential to avoid personal attacks, insults, hate speech, or defamation of any kind on your Core websites. Notify your seminar leader immediately if trolling or flaming begins on your site or that of one of your peers.
To protect the privacy of your readers, make sure that your comment settings do not disclose personal information or email addresses. To prevent trolls and bots from overtaking your comment sections, it is probably best to set up your discussion settings such that you moderate and manually approve any comments by unregistered users. To keep track of how your work is being referenced on the web, turn on the linkback feature of your chosen platform (“linkback” is the colloquial term for this feature, which is called “pingbacks” on WordPress and “backlinks” on Blogger). These devices immediately notify the website author when another site links to one of the documents or pages on the site, allowing you to both monitor how your work is being cited as well as a way to start a conversation between blogs. WordPress also offers a statistics feature on the dashboard, which allows you to track how many unique users have visited your page and specific posts as well as the countries of their Internet service providers.
Finally, you may rightly be concerned that these conversations and this speculative writing from the beginning of your academic career will follow you long after you leave Humanities Core. It is true that in the age of cached data and screenshots, our seemingly ephemeral moments can be more durable than we might like. If you are concerned about privacy, different platforms offer ways to limit readership through password protection or lists of preapproved subscribers. You are not required to use your full name anywhere on your website, and many students feel more comfortable using only their first name or an alias. At least at the beginning, we also recommend that you discourage search engines from indexing your site on the reading settings of your webpage. This will allow you to keep your audience relatively small as you find your footing in this new form of writing.
Beauchamp, Tamara, et al. Humanities Core Research Blog. Sites@UCI. University of California, Irvine. sites.uci.edu/humcoreblog/. Accessed 18 July 2018.
Itten, Johannes. The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System. John Wiley & Sons, 1970.
Kabadayi, Onur. “Blogging is Dead: Long Live Blogging.” The Guardian. 16 July 2014. www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/jul/16/blogging-dead-bloggers-digital-content. Accessed 18 July 2018.
Kottke, Jason. “The Blog is Dead: Long Live the Blog.” Nieman Lab Series. www.niemanlab.org/2013/12/the-blog-is-dead/. Accessed 18 July 2018.