Studying Blogs, Vlogs and PowerPoint

Linda A. Cicero

Four students are clustered around a plasma screen, unpacking the arguments and sly asides of Ian Parker’s article “Absolutely PowerPoint,” from the May 28, 2001, issue of the New Yorker.

Next to them in the “smart room,” another pod of student writers is reading a document on a second plasma screen, probing the theoretical arguments of “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” by Edward Tufte, ’63, MS ’64. “It is so nice to just turn around to the huge plasma screens during group discussions, instead of crowding around our small laptop screens,” sophomore Brian Tse says. “We can instantly share files and documents, and everything is more organized.”

Tse is enrolled in eRhetoric, one of 19 second-year courses offered in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. (PWR provides the required foundational sequence formerly known as Writing and Critical Thinking, formerly known as freshman English.) Instead of reading and critiquing short essays, Tse downloads material from the web—from Wired, Slashdot and various weblogs—and contributes to a class wiki. He can connect with his instructor during her online office hours, from 10:30 p.m. to midnight, and he can meet with classmates in a chat room to discuss authorship and ownership, file sharing, Google image searches and fair use.

“Students still read essays and short pieces, but it’s not freshman English in the old sense,” says PWR lecturer Wendy Goldberg, who is assistant director of the Stanford Writing Center and has taught at the University for 22 years. Yes, students look for logical fallacies in assigned readings and write sizeable research papers. But the focus of the second-year PWR course is on translating those papers into oral presentations. “Because if you have a student who has written an extraordinary paper, but is then very uncomfortable with presenting it—what a shame if she has something to say.”

Lecturer Christine Alfano designed eRhetoric in 2003 to appeal to the blog generation. Instead of workshopping students’ writing with exercises at their desks, Alfano, PhD ’95, will hand a student an electronic stylus that can amend text projected onto a screen by interactive Webster computers. It’s all about processing ideas, with a little flash on the side. “To ask them to get rid of their egos and work together to produce the best possible text makes them think hard about writing,” Alfano says. “Collaboration is such an important tool for them as they leave Stanford and go into a business setting.”

Sophomore electrical engineering major Nicki Lui says the smart-room gadgets are fun, but more important to her is the online feedback she gets from her classmates. “It feels more honest,” she says. “Peers are less likely to hold back on critiques online than face-to-face. Thus it’s more helpful.”

Tse, who’s leaning toward a major in biomechanical engineering, says he’s blogged in the past, “mostly for the amusement of friends at home.” His eRhetoric research paper is about video weblogging, or vlogging, which he says is showing him “how effectively certain ways of communication can reach out to a large audience.” When Tse presented his proposal for the paper to the class, he was videotaped and critiqued by an oral communication tutor, as a first step in reworking his written work into a final, oral presentation to the class. “It’s a challenge for me to translate a 10-page written report to an oral presentation that is only eight minutes long because it really forces me to streamline my argument and pare down to the essential elements,” Tse says. “But it’s fun at the same time because it allows me to think of new and creative ways to deliver an effective oral presentation.”

As students prepare for their orals, Alfano reminds them of the importance placed on rhetoric in classical Rome and Greece, when leading citizens had to be effective public speakers. She unpacks Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and compares President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation after the Challenger disaster with George W. Bush’s post-Columbia remarks. “And if I can bring Jon Stewart into a conversation, I’ve got them right here in the palm of my hand,” she adds. “But it’s got to be relevant, or they’ll look at me like, ‘Okay, Christine, so the point . . . ?’”