Walt Whitman is one of America’s great cataloguers of grass, “the blab of the pave,” and firemen, among other things. If he had a blog, what would it look like? If he had iPhone, how would he record the “glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings–on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river” (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”)?
These questions came from two students in my “Tales of Gotham: NYC in Fiction” course. But before answering those questions, the students first explored good blogging practices, which was part of their assignment. They gave the class an introductory lesson on using WordPress followed by an overview of blogging. They created an Infographic to highlight their important points:
The group then used Tumblr to create a blog for Whitman called, appropriately, “Blog of Myself.” Their updated version of Whitman’s style is fun to read. Since the course is about New York City, the students chose to imagine Whitman walking through the city and posting images and passages of poetry describing what he sees. Reflecting Whitman’s own mild obsession with publicity for his work, they’ve imagined some “Fan Feedback” from Galway Kinnell, who edited the collection of Whitman poems assigned in the course. Tumblr’s great for reposting other people’s work, and naturally Walt reposts the insightful musings of his friend, Ralph (Waldo Emerson): “The action of the soul is oftener in that which is felt and left unsaid than in that which is said in any conversation.” Whitman, however, can leave few things unsaid, unsung, or unrevised. He revises his own work on his Tumblr, of course, and “takes another stab” at an earlier post of poetry called “Solidarity.”
For the final part of this assignment, the students wrote posts for the course blog describing their process and reasons for creating their “Blog of Myself” using Tumblr. One student writes: “Our hope is that experiencing Whitman through the context of a blog will yield new perceptions of the poet. Certainly, blogging can allow for poetic expression– Whitman’s claim to fame. However, a quiet sense of solidarity pervades much of Whitman’s work, and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” harps on connectedness through time. Since blogging can be such an interactive experience (re-blogging contemporaries, commenting, etc.), we believe Whitman would have taken advantage of these features to reach out to others on the Web.” The other student adds, “Critics often portray Whitman as someone who perpetrated intentional ‘separateness’ between himself and his surroundings. He situated a subject in its environment and described them from a distance, confining himself to the role of ‘observer.’ I’d argue, however, that this was less a matter of personal choice and more a necessity of the time. If Whitman had been able to engage with his audience in the way that modern technology allows us to do, he would have jumped at the chance to more fully integrate himself into the New York City landscape and interact with his audience.”
These students demonstrate that whether or not students today are digital natives is beside the point. In my three classes this semester, my students’ skill levels with digital tools range from minimal to advanced. What I’ve discovered so far is that regardless of their skill level, they enjoy using digital tools to think about texts. And they’re eager to use them effectively for critical purposes. These two students used blogging as a means to plunge themselves into Whitman’s work, reflect on his creative process, and explore his cultural and historical contexts. One could argue that blog posts are no substitute for a five-page critical analysis of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” On the other hand, how many students will be writing five-page critical analyses in their future jobs? It’s likely that many students will have jobs in which they need to distill information and present it in an attractive, organized way as exemplified in the Infographic, above. They will need to explain and defend their process for executing a task or creating something, as these students did in their blog post. Finally, the blog platform allowed my students to express their ideas and understanding about Whitman’s work in full color and in a dynamic way for an audience of more than just one.