January 20, 2012
Blogs vs. Term Papers
By MATT RICHTEL, NYTimes (Via WC)
OF all the challenges faced by college and high school students, few inspire as much angst, profanity, procrastination and caffeine consumption as the academic paper. The format — meant to force students to make a point, explain it, defend it, repeat it (whether in 20 pages or 5 paragraphs) — feels to many like an exercise in rigidity and boredom, like practicing piano scales in a minor key.
And so there may be rejoicing among legions of students who have struggled to write a lucid argument about Sherman’s March, the disputed authorship of “Romeo and Juliet,” or anything antediluvian. They have a champion: Cathy N. Davidson, an English professor at Duke, wants to eradicate the term paper and replace it with the blog.
Her provocative positions have lent kindling to an intensifying debate about how best to teach writing in the digital era.
“This mechanistic writing is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers,” says Professor Davidson, who rails against the form in her new book, “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.”
“As a writer, it offends me deeply.”
Professor Davidson makes heavy use of the blog and the ethos it represents of public, interactive discourse. Instead of writing a quarterly term paper, students now regularly publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog about the issues and readings they are studying in class, along with essays for public consumption.
She’s in good company. Across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses. On its face, who could disagree with the transformation? Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications? Pointedly, why punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?
Because, say defenders of rigorous writing, the brief, sometimes personally expressive blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing. They argue that the old format was less about how Sherman got to the sea and more about how the writer organized the points, fashioned an argument, showed grasp of substance and proof of its origin. Its rigidity wasn’t punishment but pedagogy.
Their reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move right on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?
“Writing term papers is a dying art, but those who do write them have a dramatic leg up in terms of critical thinking, argumentation and the sort of expression required not only in college, but in the job market,” says Douglas B. Reeves, a columnist for the American School Board Journal and founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, the school-consulting division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting blogs. But nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.”
The National Survey of Student Engagement found that in 2011, 82 percent of first-year college students and more than half of seniors weren’t asked to do a single paper of 20 pages or more, while the bulk of writing assignments were for papers of one to five pages.
The term paper has been falling from favor for some time. A study in 2002 estimated that about 80 percent of high school students were not asked to write a history term paper of more than 15 pages. William H. Fitzhugh, the study’s author and founder of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school students’ research papers, says that, more broadly, educators shy away from rigorous academic writing, giving students the relative ease of writing short essays. He argues that part of the problem is that teachers are asking students to read less, which means less substance — whether historical, political or literary — to focus a term paper around.
“She’s right,” Mr. Fitzhugh says of Professor Davidson. “Writing is being murdered. But the solution isn’t blogs, the solution is more reading. We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.”
He proposes what he calls the “page a year” solution: in first grade, a one-page paper using one source; by fifth grade, five pages and five sources.
The debate about academic writing has given rise to new terminology: “old literacy” refers to more traditional forms of discourse and training; “new literacy” stretches from the blog and tweet to multimedia presentation with PowerPoint and audio essay.
“We’re at a crux right now of where we have to figure out as teachers what part of the old literacy is worth preserving,” says Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford. “We’re trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”
Professor Lunsford has collected 16,000 writing samples from 189 Stanford students from 2001 to 2007, and is studying how their writing abilities and passions evolved as blogs and other multimedia tools crept into their lives and classrooms. She’s also solicited student feedback about their experiences.
Her conclusion is that students feel much more impassioned by the new literacy. They love writing for an audience, engaging with it. They feel as if they’re actually producing something personally rewarding and valuable, whereas when they write a term paper, they feel as if they do so only to produce a grade.
So Professor Lunsford is playing to student passions. Her writing class for second-year students, a requirement at Stanford, used to revolve around a paper constructed over the entire term. Now, the students start by writing a 15-page paper on a particular subject in the first few weeks. Once that’s done, they use the ideas in it to build blogs, Web sites, and PowerPoint and audio and oral presentations. The students often find their ideas much more crystallized after expressing them with new media, she says, and then, most startling, they plead to revise their essays.
“What I’m asking myself is, ‘Will we need to keep the 15-page paper forever or move right to the new way?’ ” she says. “Stanford’s writing program won’t be making that change right away, since our students still seem to benefit from learning how to present their research findings in both traditional print and new media.”
As Professor Lunsford illustrates, choosing to educate using either blogs or term papers is something of a false opposition. Teachers can use both. And blogs, a platform that seems to encourage rambling exercises in personal expression, can also be well crafted and meticulously researched. At the same time, the debate is not a false one: while some educators fear that informal communication styles are increasing duress on traditional training, others find the actual paper fundamentally anachronistic.
Take Professor Davidson, who anchors a more extreme position, as she has for many years, even before the advent of the blog. When teaching at Michigan State in the 1980s, she says, she infuriated some colleagues because she scrapped the traditional research paper — what she calls “researchese,” writing not relevant outside academe — and had her students learn to write cover letters and business letters, their life stories and essays about their chosen careers.
“I was basically kicked out of the writing program for thinking that was more important than writing a five-paragraph essay,” she says. “I’m not against discipline. I’m not sure that writing a five-paragraph essay is discipline so much as standardization. It’s a formula, but good writing plays with formulas, and changes formulas.”
Today, she tries to keep herself grounded in the experiences of a range of students by tutoring at a community college. Recently, one student she tutors was given an assignment with prescribed sentence length and rigid structure. “I urged him to follow all the rules,” she says. “If he’d done it my way, I don’t know he’d have passed the class.
“The sad thing is, he’s now convinced there is brilliance in the art world, brilliance in the multimedia world, brilliance in the music world and that writing is boring,” Professor Davidson says. “I hated teaching him bad writing.”
Matt Richtel, a reporter at The Times, writes often about information technology in the classroom.