Monday, April 04, 2005

About Beginnings


How have all these bloggers done it? How did they ever manage to get started? That first post, that initial gesture outward to an audience of, at the time, exactly zero—how did they do it?

The initial “hello” has hamstrung me for more than a year now. I always thought too much about the persona I wanted for a blog, and, as a result, several ideas for blogs and other Web texts have withered.

So I finally willed myself to beginning.

Maybe it was because I realized that my awkward start is perfect in terms of my goal with this particular blog—a marriage of form and content, if you will.

My objective with this blog is to share my experiences as an online writing teacher. I might as well start at the beginning, before you ever log on. For me, a big obstacle to teaching writing online was that I could not decide what kind of persona, what kind of voice, I was to have as an online teacher. Peter Elbow (1) once said that real voice has the power to make you pay attention and understand; of course, he also knew that using voice made you exposed and vulnerable—and that it could be painful. You spend years honing a classroom persona, and then, pow!, you’re teaching online—the (no)place where amusing teaching mannerisms are preserved, maybe forever.

Forget server woes and carpal tunnel syndrome—my main worry was about the way I would conduct myself in “front” of the online students. Those first few message posts, that initial homepage announcement, the introductory email—the text of those messages creates a personality, and I felt pressure to craft it right. Would I greet them with “Dear members of English 101”? How about “Dear students”? How about “Hi everyone”? How about “What’s up”? Could I think of a slick sign-off, something better than the stuffy “Professor Warnock”? Would I use slang and IM shortcuts?

Looking back—and not that far back, since I just started teaching online in the fall of 2004—I think, much like teaching f2f, that you can’t know exactly how you are going to come off. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to create a distinct persona beforehand when you teach online for the first time, but, plain and simple, worries about that shouldn’t obstruct you from just getting started. The online “you” will shape itself during the course of your first term, and don’t be surprised if it’s quite different from the f2f classroom “you.”

If you want a slick signature that will save you some keystrokes, do so (I’m still fooling with this: “Prof. W.” is the best I can do right now). Think about the level of formality in your greetings and complimentary closings (and maybe you’ll have different levels depending on the purpose of your message)—but know that until you start writing to your students in the heat of the class, you won’t be sure of your teaching persona and those little words that will define it.

Carol Berkenkotter (2) once said that writing under too many constraints is a formula for writer’s block. Much as we advise frustrated, timid, or bored students, you must just get started. I haven’t followed that advice well with this blog, but I still know it to be true. And recently starting my third term of teaching online writing classes, I again felt the nervousness as introductory emails and Discussion (I use WebCT) posts came flowing in. Who am I? Better, who do I want to be? Now I realize that if I ask too many question—create too many constraints—then I won’t write at all. My identity is still taking shape—and when I think about it more broadly, that shouldn’t be surprising.

1) From Writing with Power (1981).
2) From “Writing and Problem Solving” in Toby Fulwiler and Art Young’s Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum (1982).


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