In my grad seminar on Composition, I asked the class to read Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd’s 2004 article “Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog. (My page numbers reference the version in The Norton Book of Composition Studies).
The title builds upon Miller’s definition of genre “as social action,” a way of looking at any genre that foregrounds that genres are not static, but are a way of doing something; genres are rhetoric in action. Miller and Shepherd were moved by the sudden explosion of blogs in the early 2000s; they examine the kairos (the timing or rhetorical situation) that led to the birth of blogs, and define some common features using an ethnographic approach—that is, their list is guided by what actual users (bloggers and readers) had to say about what blogs are and what they do. Miller and Shepherd also give a convincing genealogy of where blogs came from, “ancestral genres” that blogs draw from in terms of form, conventions, and uses.
Miller and Shepherd use a three-part system to define the key features of a blog (or any genre): “semantic content” (what is included in a blog, such as stories and links), “syntactic or formal features” (such as use of reverse chronological order for posts, and the frequency of posts), and “pragmatic action” (what blogs do; why people blog). Most interesting for me is the pragmatic action. Miller and Shepherd regard construction of self as a major benefit or action of blogging, along with community building. They emphasize the constructed, strategic nature of the self disclosed through blogging—and note that blogs are not just written for an outside audience, but also that “the blogger is her own audience, her own public, her own beneficiary” (1461).
When I’m asking students to blog for my classes, the class talks a lot about self-disclosure and how student bloggers might choose to construct their public, online personae. This concern with self construction becomes even more relevant when working on an ePortfolio. While an ePortfolio might not share all of the syntactic or formal features of a blog as described by Miller and Shepherd (in particular, reverse-chronological order often is replaced by thematic organization, and posting frequency is often much lower—after students have created their initial core of content, they might only add new content and update old material occasionally), the pragmatic action remains much the same, across both blogs and ePortfolios.
Asking students to write for the web in the way Maggie, Frank, and I do in our classes—whether through blogging, curating ePortfolios, or both—exposes students to thinking about genre. Although in most of my undergraduate classes I don’t talk specifically about Semantic Content, Syntactic Features, and Pragmatic Action (although I do in some upper-divisions courses), I do ask students to use some of the ethnomethodology that Miller and Shepherd use, prior to crafting their own bogs and ePortfolios. My students look for examples of the genres that they find successful, ones that move them and hold their interest. They report on the features of those examples, and think about what they might draw from them into their own work. And we talk about the differences between idealized forms of a genre and the more common forms a genre takes—another approach used by Miller and Shepherd, who distinguish between “celebrity blogs,” which many bloggers look to as ideals, but which can actually skew our perceptions of how much blogs actually work—for example, while celebrity bloggers may blog multiple times a day, a Perseus survey they cite found “that fewer than 3%… were updated at least once a week, and that fewer than 2% were updated daily” (1460).
Re-reading Miller and Shepherd has given me another way to think about why blogs and ePortfolios can go together productively in a course. Beginning the semester with blogging and then transitioning to an ePortfolio isn’t just about helping students to develop comfort with the platform (although it does that, too)—because the genre conventions and the pragmatic action of both are so similar, they blend together in productive ways, and rhetorical skills developed from blogging transition well into ePortfolio writing. Blogging and ePortfolio writing are both acts of curating and displaying a social, public self.