NOTES & IDEAS: Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy

by Linda E. Patrik, Union College


Students taking their first philosophy course often express surprise when encouraged to use “I” in their papers. Unlike academic writing in most other disciplines, philosophical writing frequently and strongly states the “I” because philosophers have to develop and defend their own positions. They cannot weasel out of taking responsibility for their views, and thus the assertion of the “I” means that they are willing to stand or fall with their expressed position.

This is one reason why blogs are so effective for teaching students how to debate in philosophy. Blogs were initially developed as online diaries, and most college students still associate blogs with their own inward monologues. The blog medium softens students’ resistance to using the philosophical “I” in their writing, since they are accustomed to bloggers expressing their own views and taking personal responsibility for such. Blogs bridge the personal “I” of a diary with the philosophical “I” of an argument offered in public debate. Once these public debates are posted online, the ease of using “I” — and meaning it — makes students more confident that they are capable of having their own views.

The effectiveness of blogs for philosophical debate increases when each student has his or her own blog. It is better to give each student a blog than to have all students participate in a single blog; not only do students write more, but they argue more creatively. When students have to post a blog that is in competition with other students’ blogs, students become attentive to which blogs attract and generate the most interesting and heated debates in the course. They scan the various blogs posted by other students and keep returning to the blogs that have the best debates. When commenting on others’ blogs, students not only aim to make their points in those debates but seek to entice readers back to their own blog. Students spend more time and thought on their individual blogs in order to keep it popular, and they also take care when commenting on others’ blogs because they want reciprocal visits to their own blog.

When students each have a blog for posting their positions on philosophical issues, they not only develop a sense of personal responsibility and confidence in their work, but they also unlock their creativity. Some blog software allows them to select the graphic design and format of their blog; many blog programs allow them to include photos, images, video clips and audio files to personalize their blogs.

Creativity in blogs is not limited to graphics. Students learn to write hypertext and even techno-text[1] papers in their blogs. In the philosophy course on Cyberfeminism that I taught last spring, students posted all of their writing in their blogs. In addition to papers, they wrote summaries of reading assignments and posted commentaries on debate issues raised in class. As they gained familiarity with blogging, they began to experiment with links, images, video, and sound as digital enhancements for their posted written work. Over the course of the term, students gained new inspiration from visiting others’ blogs on a regular basis—the experiments attempted by one or two began to spur the others on to try something new. A few students created complex, multimedia forms of techno-text as the final project in their blog; as the term ended, students not only visited one another’s blog but celebrated these virtuoso multimedia creations. Who would have thought that philosophical writing could have images and video? Hegel’s old metaphor for philosophy—the owl of Minerva flying at dusk—was inadequate for the kind of philosophical writing posted by the most creative students: philosophical writing supported by rainbow colors and complex imagery.

Philosophical creativity involves raising the most thought-provoking questions and defending one’s own answers to such questions. Blogging encourages creativity in philosophical debate, especially when each student has his or her own blog, because it allows for fairly spontaneous expression of ideas and it invites students to journey out of their blogs into the blogworld established by another. In order to debate with one another, students in my Cyberfeminism course posted their own position on an issue on their own blog and then visited one another’s blog to find others’ positions on the issue. They posted their responses to others’ positions either on their own blog or on other students’ blogs. The more technically-adventurous included links to one another’s blogs in their own blog’s discussion of an issue.

Several course management programs have a Discussion medium that is similar to a blog, but most of these programs require students to participate in the same blog (e.g., Blackboard’s Discussion Board). The professor sets up the questions for discussion and debate, and then asks students to log in and comment on the questions. Course chat rooms are also a common online venture, lacking the individual character and control that separate student blogs have. The advantages of grading individual blogs outweigh the ease of grading discussions gathered in one blog or one chat room, considering that each student learns to write for a public beyond the professor; in addition, students can more easily compare their online work to that of others. Grades for individual blogs make more sense to students than do grades on what they have contributed to a common blog or chat room.

In sum, the advantages of individual student blogs for philosophical writing are personal responsibility, confidence in one’s own view, debate excitement, and creativity. The blog medium allows for dialogue and debate, which are essential to philosophical thinking, and the digital enhancements possible in blogs allow for new directions in philosophical expression.

[1] N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of techno-text is that of a digitally enhanced text that reflects back upon its own electronic medium. (Writing Machines, MIT Press, 2002)

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