This fall, I’m teaching the same first-year writing course that I taught last winter. That means I get to make changes with the benefit of recent experience, which is always a nice position to be in. Last time I taught the course (which was also the first time I taught this incarnation of the course), I threw absolutely everything at the wall to see what stuck. Some things very definitely did not stick, and I am at work enthusiastically jettisoning them from my syllabus. Others did work, and so I’m figuring out how to build on what was successful.
One thing that was, ultimately, successful, was the concept of the course itself. Students responded well to the idea that we were both reading and producing public writing. I got interesting and engaging final projects that were clearly made more engaging for both me and the students by the freedom built into the assignment to allow students to write about what interested them.
I worried about the dangers of asking students to write in public, and I continue to worry about that, although there were no problems with publicity/privacy last term. I’m making a few changes to further address these concerns in the coming term.
Although our four-week, intensive Spring term is still over five months away, those months will go by in a blur, especially since I’ll be teaching first-year writing. So I’ve been taking advantage my grading-free term by getting started on my course website for Spring. Truthfully, I wanted an excuse to experiment with Craft CMS, and my upcoming course seemed like a good opportunity.
The jury is out on Craft. It’s definitely way, way more than I need for a course website. And it’s way, way more work than just finding a WordPress site and tweaking the theme. It’s way more work than customizing a child theme. It might even be more work than developing a WordPress theme from scratch, to be honest. I’ve been futzing around with it for a bit and feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it, but it’s so patently overkill for a course website that I may end up scrapping what I’ve done and going with a static site generated with Hugo.
The cool thing about Craft, though, is that it’s so customizable that you can build exactly what you want, while still having the advantages of a content management system. This description is pretty apt: “Craft is like WordPress if it was stripped naked and then clothed in Advanced Custom Fields.” I can see how useful it would be for a wide range of projects, and how it would allow you to create sites with the administrative advantages of WordPress without all the unnecessary bloat.
Because using Craft means starting with a pretty blank slate, in terms of templates, structure and even functionality, the standard formats and layouts I tend to use for course websites weren’t necessarily required. My goal was to learn to use Craft, and to try out some of its most interesting features, like the Matrix fields, or the different ways of structuring content. So I started thinking about ways to re-imagine and re-structure my course content to take advantage of those features.
I’m not sure where I’ll end up with this particular course website. I might soldier on with Craft. I might go back to a familiar platform. I might find something entirely new I want to try. But whichever direction I head, the exercise in re-fitting my course material for a very different website design has been really productive. I’ve thought about the different ways I can present the content I make available to students, from the course policies to the schedule to the assignments. I’ve experimented with different ways of laying out all of that content in relation to the overall site (and, by extension, the course), as well as in relation to the other content.
I’ve already made it clear that I think academics should write publicly and politically. I also think students should write publicly, though for different reasons, ones I’ll gloss briefly and perhaps expand on at some later date:
This is yet another return to blogging. I can no longer keep track of how many returns I have had over the years since my first stint as a marginally successful knitting blogger when I was in college in the early aughts. And really, it’s a wonder that the genre is still around so many years later; most Internet-specific forms are far more short-lived. Even the confessional personal essay that seemed to have conquered every publication from Deadspin to the New York Times has returned to the Livejournal ether it sprung from.