I’ve been teaching writing in one way or another for over forty-five years, and yet on my sabbatical in 2014-15, I discovered an entirely new approach to the conquering the practical challenges of knocking out a piece of writing—the blog. But that wasn’t even the best part. What really surprised me was that blogging profoundly changed my thinking about writing and made me more creative, a glow that has stayed with me.
I spent that year living in Dublin, reading, writing, carrying out research, traveling all over Ireland—and blogging. I had never blogged before and didn’t really know what it was. For the sabbatical, I had planned a substantial writing project having to do with Irish literature, history, and landscape and thought I would also write a blog about what it was like to live in Ireland. After all, doesn’t everyone who studies or lives abroad plan to blog about it? Kimberly Knight, who managed the college web site during that time, kindly gave me a crash course in the mechanics of blogging and set me up with WordPress. Calvin Burgamy helped me with other technical aspects of using Google Drive and related applications. I named the blog The View from Here” and created a logo and a look for it. I was ready—or so I thought.
We moved into our apartment in Dublin on June 29, 2014. It took me a week or so to get the place set up, arrange for Internet, and get an IKEA desk for my computer. After going through the usual procrastination techniques such as organizing my papers and books, stocking up on “writer’s supplies,” trekking all over town to find ink for my fountain pen, and “alphabetizing the china” as Dudley Sanders likes to call these pointless activities, I started thinking about getting the blog going. Already the mysterious, amorphous blog seemed so much more appealing than my very well planned sabbatical project, so I put the latter aside temporarily.
But the blog wasn’t exactly easy to approach. What was I really going to write about? Times four! The format Kimberly and I had chosen for the blog had four boxes or frames for images on the home page, each leading to a post when clicked, so it seemed necessary to create four posts before going live. Empty boxes, I reasoned, would portray me as unproductive, a dilettante, but coming up with four stories right away struck terror in my writer’s heart. Suddenly I realized that although technically I was up to speed, I didn’t really know what the blog would be about, what it would and would not cover, what special features or characteristics it would have, how often it would be updated, or, most important of all, who I would be as I wrote and created it. I knew I didn’t want to be the type of blogger who uses the format to list daily activities or post comments like “Well, this week was really busy, but next week I promise I’ll write more.” What did I want?
The first couple of weeks were filled with stops and starts as I tried to find answers to these questions. That kind of mucking about, painful as it always is, seems to be necessary to many creative endeavors. One day in late July, I did what all writers need to do: I stopped musing, fretting, researching, and planning, and started to write. Ever so gradually, the four boxes became four pots into which I threw ideas, hyperlinks, images, and little bits of writing, waiting to see what would bubble up. Slowly they began to take shape, become distinct from one another, and emerge as individual posts. A few ideas got squeezed out and put aside for later use. As I worked out what I wanted to write about, I also began to figure out who I was in the blog, what would be consistent across the posts, and the answers to many of the questions that had seemed so daunting at first. By mid-August, I was ready to go live.
Here are the still tentative but opening lines of post number one titled “1 Greyness Run to Flower,” published on August 19, 2014:
In “The View from Here” (“An Radharc d’Anseo” in Irish) I’m writing about living in Ireland from the perspective of someone who has visited the island many times, taught Irish literature and history, helped countless friends plan their Irish trips, and led groups of students on study tours (eight so far), but never stayed longer than a few weeks at a time. I’m excited about the opportunity to see Ireland in a new way and expect everything I think I know to change during this year—to shift, deepen, flip-flop, or multiply. I take my inspiration from Belfast born poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), who talked about appreciating plurality and variousness in “Snow”:
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
I can’t tell you yet what I’ll write about—but it will come from that perspective, and it will draw on literature, history, and landscape, as well as on daily life in Dublin—where I’m based—and elsewhere in Ireland. There Will Be Poetry.
With this post I gave myself permission to grow with the blog. And I did.
Even while still fretting about “the four,” I started coming up with ideas for future posts. At first my ideas were too big for the blog format I had sketched out, but I soon realized that a big idea could give birth to reasonably-sized baby ideas that were more manageable. I realized early in the process of sorting through possible stories that blogs are most successful when they take advantage of the medium, offering hyperlinks, photographs and other images, audio and video clips—all the enhancements that don’t work or work as well on paper. My role as a writer suddenly expanded to that of resource collector and designer. I tried to think creatively about the kinds of links that would enhance a story, sometimes following digressions as well as providing the basic URLs. The ability to use more than one medium and create a multidimensional “scrapbook” story was exciting and inspiring for this “words are everything” person.
I began to go on “photo shoots” around the city, snapping pictures for an existing story or two, while eyeing things for future stories. Sometimes an idea for a post would even originate in an image or a photo. Everywhere we traveled around Ireland during that year, I was on the lookout for story ideas or for connections for stories already in the hopper. There was so much to write about! I set up a calendar of posts and dates, reminding myself to be flexible, so that if a post I had planned for a certain date wasn’t coming together, I could switch it one from the back burner that seemed more doable. I created a “waiting room” for topics and rough rough drafts and for sentences or paragraphs that needed more time to gestate. So many ideas were bombarding me that I set myself the seemingly impossible goal of posting one thoroughly researched and revised essay every Monday—fifty-two posts for the sabbatical year. I worked ahead of the posting schedule so that when I was going to be away from home, Monday’s post was always ready to go. I had to force myself not to write all day long or on the weekends. I was on fire.
The creative process behind the blog was the most exhilarating thing I had ever done with writing, but that exhilaration increased dramatically once I started having readers. Friends, acquaintances, and eventually total strangers were willing to read what I had written each week and sometimes even to comment! Their interest filled me with wonder and gratitude. Some readers even kindly said they looked forward to my Monday posts. Knowing people were reading inspired and encouraged me and gave me the confidence to keep going. Thank you to all the people who read silently, many of whom told me later they had “been there all along”; and thanks especially to those who read and commented because you let me know you were out there, interested in what I had to say and engaged enough to open up a conversation.
During the early stages of the blog, a realization was starting to creep up on me, an annoying ghost haunting my thoughts. A “sabbatical project” idea would emerge in my mind, only to quickly morph into a blog post or two with the photographs, links, and the lived experience that made it more engaging and compelling in my mind than the manuscript limbo where the other would necessarily be trapped. By mid-September, I’d already posted eight or nine essays on the site when a friend from graduate school, Maureen O’Leary, came to visit from California. She had read the blog, and while we toured Dublin and parts of Ireland together, she talked to me encouragingly about it. One day Maureen said out loud the realization that was also hovering in my mind: “Your blog is your project.”
She was right. When I looked back at the formal sabbatical proposal I had written a year earlier, only the organization or format of the material in The View from Here differed from what I had proposed to write. During the course of the year, instead of writing five or six chapter-length essays as proposed, I ended up creating a far more diverse array of fifty-two revised and researched pieces. To write and post one of these every week meant that some had to be shorter than others—they ranged in length from a few hundred words to closer to 3000—and the different lengths made variety in approach a necessity. The ability to add images and links to the writing greatly expanded my knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and certainly added to my enjoyment of the writing process. The online format and the existence of readers, known and unknown, made me more comfortable adding a personal dimension to many of the stories, something readers told me they craved. Blogging had shifted the genre of the work a bit but in the end had given me many more ideas and made the work—I really believe—more original, deeper, more authentic.
Giving myself permission to experiment with a new way of writing, the many dimensions of the online blog format, and, the presence of readers who expected weekly posts and cared about what I was doing changed me for the better as a writer. That was the big surprise of my year as a blogger.
Taking advantage of the D-Center as a resource, Professor Mike Schlig asked Summiyah Sideeq, who coordinates the center, to visit his classroom to discuss ways to improve on student portfolios. Here is Dr. Schlig’s recap of the experience:
The students in this semester’s iteration of Spanish 380 topics course (Between “El Dorado” and the “Madre Patria:” Trans-Atlantic Migrations in the Hispanic World) are presenting their written work in the form of blog entries using WordPress.org rather than traditional typed papers. We started the semester with a brief introduction to WordPress and blogging basics but have since focused mainly on content and not on the structure and aesthetics. With more content on their pages it became evident to me that we needed an expert and experienced eye to help students (and professor) tweak the blogs to make the content easily accessible and to provide a clear indication of what each category or page contains. Clarity in navigating the blogs is now especially important since students need to separate and organize two tasks on their blogs. One includes regular entries that examine current events and that comment on assigned readings, and the other is a research project with entries that highlight the process of their research: initial proposal/thesis; annotated bibliography; outline; final draft; works cited, etc.). Summiyah examined each blog (including mine) and offered positive feedback, critiques and suggestions for improvement. I have asked that each student follow up with Summiyah and/or her staff to make their work shine.
This week marks the return of over two hundred Scotties embarking a weeklong Global Journey’s Trip. As the upperclassmen enjoyed two full weeks of Peak Week and Spring Break, first class students were traveling to over 14 places including New York, Morocco, Chile, Manchester, Trinidad and Central Europe. Upon returning we’ve heard nothing but great reviews! SUMMIT here at Agnes Scott is still in it’s beginning stages but from the looks of it, the future is very promising for the future students who will walk among this campus. So now what? You’ve gone away for a week. For most students it was their first time riding on an airplane or traveling without their parents. Many had the opportunity to try different foods that they normally would never try, or see plays that would never be shown here in our small town of Decatur. The purpose of the Journeys trip was for more than just traveling. Students have come back with a broader view of learning and deeper desire to think globally. Now they are working on applying their strengths and talents to change the world around them. Over the next few weeks I will be sitting down with some of the first years to hear more about their experiences and to learn how their Journeys trip has changed their perspective on life!
Until then check out these photos from students.
(reprinted from February 7, 2017 Irvine)
A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say, but at the very least, a snappy little image can certainly enhance your The Irvine post. To get the most out of your post, we have some handy-dandy tips to share.
Image Choice – Choose carefully
- Make a statement with photography. If you’re using photos, try paring down the color in the surrounding design to make the images the central focus. You don’t have to be a photographer in order to get professional quality photos. There are a number of stock photography websites to choose from, like Unsplash, Stocksy, New Old Stock, Can Stock Photos and Little Visuals.
- Avoid excessive text in the images you submit. Due to the small size of images, such text rarely reads well. Take a look back through a few editions of The Irvine and think about what images work well and which images are hard to read.
Image Size – Smaller is better
- Make sure your images are sized correctly to avoid squishing or stretching. Include only the most essential images to keep the file size down. Most images in The Irvine are displayed no larger than 200 pixels wide, so plan accordingly. Complex or cluttered images are not ideal because of the small size.
Image File Type – No PDFs Please 🙂
- JPG, JPE, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP files are safe for campaigns. PDF, PSD, and AI file types cannot be used as images in a campaign because most browsers cannot display them.
Image Prep – Web-Ready
- Taking the time to prepare images yourself will give you a better sense of how they will look in The Irvine. Web-ready images are typically 72 dpi while print images are 150 dpi or more. Please try to prepare and submit images no larger than 72 dpi and 200 pixels wide. PicMonkey is a great, free online image editing tool to help you prepare your images.
- And don’t forget, Agnes Scott students, faculty and staff have access to Lynda.com, so if you want to learn more about preparing images for display on the web, it’s a fantastic resource!
Remember, images may not be submitted in place of text for the content of your The Irvine post. PDFs, Word documents and PowerPoint slides will not be accepted as images for submissions.
Nowadays, when we talk about graphic design, there are two major software: Illustrator and Photoshop. Adobe Illustrator is an advanced vector-based software which is used to edit words and texts. Even though its function is similar to Photoshop, the graphical construction is totally different from Photoshop. Illustrator uses mathematical constructs to create vector graphics while Photoshop uses pixel-based format. For example, in Illustrator, a square can be four dots connected by a computer algorithm, instead of just 4 lines of pixels. Therefore, Illustrator is more flexible on printing because the image quality will not change with scaling. For Photoshop, even though the quality of image will be lost quickly if we change the scale, it is more convenient and useful on fixed-sized photo editing and designs. The image in Photoshop contains lots of unique filters, special effects and tools, so you can change the image precisely. Since the Photoshop file will contain multiple layers, the size of the file will typically be much larger than the Illustrator file, while Illustrator cannot edit images as precisely as Photoshop. So each software has its pros and cons, we just need to pick the proper one based on our need.
Carolyn Phenicie recently posted an article on Medium titled “New Report Makes a Case: Build Your STEM Program Around Diversity and Students Will Come”, claiming that in order to promote diversity in STEM classrooms, schools need to expend more of their effort on making classroom spaces inclusive for girls. How will this work? Phenicie proposes, for one, redesigning computer science classrooms and eliminating “‘stereotypical STEM objects’ like Star Trek posters, computer parts, and video game consoles…” She also quotes a study which claims that “even though these stereotypical items may seem harmless, they evoke a masculine stereotype that makes females (but not males) feel like they don’t belong in that environment…”
Hold on. Computer science classrooms shouldn’t have computer parts because they make girls feel unwelcome? To me, the issue here is not that we’re gendering spaces (although this does, of course, happen) but that we’re gendering objects. What about girls who like Star Trek and want to learn to build computers? Are they not welcome in a “girl-friendly” programming space?
To me, this isn’t even the biggest problem with Phenicie’s article. We certainly need to encourage diversity in our classrooms. But what about other kinds of diversity? Certainly altering the estrogen-to-testosterone level in a classroom is only going to get you so far. In education, and certainly in higher education (which, granted, is not what Phenicie is talking specifically about), we need to diversify not just based on gender, but based on ethnicity, class, and in other areas. And the “build and they will come” model just isn’t going to work in all situations. Sure, we can try to make our spaces inclusive, but what’s most important is that the people in those spaces are encouraging and supportive.
Alex Jester ’18