I admit it. I was dreading the appearance of Matt Richtel’s “Blog versus Term Papers” article in the New York Times. He’s written pretty critically before about technology in classrooms and, although he was careful and professional in our interviews, I was paranoid that I was about to be ambushed. When I saw the title of the article, my heart sunk: I’ve never thought of it as a contest or a competition or a sports event. For me, what to assign in my classes is a matter of deep pedagogical conviction. Then I read the article, and sighed with some relief. Yes, there are a few cheap shots. But the main issue is that, in a short journalistic article, there is inevitably simplification of some pedagogical ideas that are complex and that, for me, represent deep commitments. Fortunately, this blog allows me to elucidate those issues and explore them at greater length and in greater depth.
[You can read Richtel’s NYT article here: “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Jan 20, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-te… ]
In some ways, Richtel’s article is less aggressive than my own piece (Sept-Oct 2011) in Academe which is highly critical of the establishment English Department that too-often forgets its own importance as society’s “keeper” of two of the three R’s of traditional literacy, namely “reading” and “‘writing.'” I won’t rehearse my critique here. You can read it in the AAUP journal (http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2011/SO/Feat/davi.htm) or in Now You See It.
I also hope readers interested in this topic will also turn to the work of Prof Andrea Lunsford of Stanford quoted in the New York Times piece. Lunsford is a brilliant, senior (she’s about to retire) researcher in the field of expository writing. Her long body of research and her reputation are impeccable. Lunsford has done some of the best work about writing, and she’s documented, with evidence, the improved literacy levels of this generation of students as compared to previous years she has evaluated at Stanford. She is also working with composition teachers around the country who are documenting similar findings that, in fact, this generation comes in reading and writing more and better–and, yes, differently–than earlier ones, not worse. Lunsford uses the same metrics to assess these students as were used to evaluate past ones. Her website is: http://www.stanford.edu/~lunsfor1/
Since, in fact, so few teachers actually do require the full-length research or term paper any more, as Richtel’s essay makes clear, I was pleased that a vehicle as prominent as the NY Times was dedicating space to the pros and cons of the genre. The article might even put a few of the reprehensible research-paper mills out of business: there is a whole industry dedicated to supplying students, for a significant fee, with plagiarized or tailor-made term papers. (One of my cousins, who put four kids through college, jokes that mothers of the world, enlisted to churn out papers for their kids, will also thank me!) In any case, the pros and cons of the research paper deserve attention and I’m glad the Times Education issue decided to take up the topic.
But is blogging the answer? That’s what I want to address in this, yes, blog. Just as there are good and bad ways to teach research papers, there are good and bad ways to use blogs in the classrooms. They can become just as meaningless and routinized as any other assignment unless they are used carefully and strategically, with an aim to their larger purpose. So, for those who are interested in the larger topic, here is some elaborated thinking that is missing from the New York Times piece (and, no, Matt Richtel, I do not consider it a slippery slope from the term paper to the blog to the 140-character Tweet. That’s gratuitous, a cheap shot).
SOME LARGER CONTEXT FOR WHY I HAVE MY STUDENTS BLOG OR PUBLISH THEIR WORK ON LINE–AND WHY I HAVE GIVEN UP ASSIGNING TERM PAPERS IN MY COURSES:
(1) I teach exceptionally experimental courses, typically taken by juniors and seniors–undergraduates not graduate students– at Duke University. Because they are very difficult and challenging and break many paradigms, about a quarter of the students dropout the first week—and then there is a sufficiently long waiting list that others take the course. I do a combination of contract and peer grading and have had more than one student in “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” tell me that, contracting for an A will lower their grade point average. I typically have astonishingly accomplished students, typically majoring in things like Biomedical Engineering and English, who are looking for a power course, a paradigm-shifting course before the leap into the world. We have a Word Press class website. Students blog every week about the reading and project-based assignments they create. The two students charged with leading the class that week have to respond to every blog. The students respond to one another.
Three points: (a) my students write more than they think they are writing because the context is so urgent, compelling, and interactive that they enjoy it and it doesn’t seem like drudgery. They work so hard to articulate and defend ideas about which they have strong convictions that it does not feel to them like the exercise of “writing a term paper.” When I put their semester’s work into a data hopper, even I was shocked to find out that they were averaging around 1000 words per week, in a course about neuroscience, collaborative thinking, the technological and ideological architecture of the World Wide Web, and the “collaboration by difference” method that I prescribe as an anecdote to attention blindness, the way our own expertise,cultural values, and attention to a specific task illuminates some things and makes us blind to others. I argue that the open architecture of the Web is built on the principle of diversity and maximum participation–feedback and editing–that gives us a great tool for compensating for our own shortcomings. (i.e. with the right tools, partners, and methods, we can do a pretty good job of overcoming attention blindness, or what, in the psychological jargon, is called “inattentional blindness”). Best example: Wikipedia. It gets better and better, more and more stringent, as more of us contribute and gets beyond many of our biases of culture, since worldwide participation of volunteer writers and volunteer editors leads to a far more complex history than “experts” might write on a given subject. Students learn to evaluate one another’s thinking and challenge one another–and, far more important, they learn from one another and correct themselves. I cannot think of a better skill to take out into the world. By blogging and responding to one another’s posts, my students aren’t learning how to write for an English professor. They are learning how to write for the world they are about to enter, in their jobs, in their careers, and they are learning how to improve their active discourse already happening on line. They are learning that some of the best thinking (as Socrates would say) is dialogic,and their writing is part of an interactive, vibrant written dialogue. This is not a lack of critical thinking; it is exactly critical thinking, tested thinking.
(b) I respond more too. Like my students, I feel like I’m not spending as many hours reading and grading term papers, but, I know, from the end-of-term data crunching again, that, in fact, I have spent more time responding to their writing than I used to. I no longer engage in a ritual that too often happens among assigners of research papers (you know who you are), that frantic last week reading and marking 50 term papers before grades are due. Too often, in the old days, I would read and write comments on papers that wound up in a box outside my office door that few students ever came by to collect–a pointless and deadening pedagogy if there ever was one.
(c) Two assignments in my “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” classes have to be “public contributions to knowledge.” Those are substantive, well-argued essays that have to be published on the Internet in a serious place as part of a serious interactive exchange. Some students have written Wikipedia entries (and if you have never tried, I dare you: it is far, far harder to get content to “stick” on a Wikipedia entry than you have ever imagined). Some pre-Med students have contributed to professional discussions with full medical professionals and made a difference. Interestingly, the tipping point in these classes is when someone the student doesn’t know, an anonymous stranger, responds to their work. When it is substantive, the student is elated and surprised that their words were taken seriously. When it is rude or trollish, the student is offended. Both responses are good. The Internet needs more people committed to its improvement, to serious discourse.
(2) The other writing course Richtel discusses is expository writing, a class I taught many years ago at Michigan State University. I taught at MSU for a dozen years, and, although I have loved teaching at Princeton and really love teaching at Duke, there was something truly incredible and powerful and urgent about teaching in East Lansing, Michigan, at MSU. I taught there during the tragic collapse of the auto industry, where many of my first-generation college students were suddenly living in cities with over twenty percent unemployment, with parents who had lost their jobs. Their own job prospects were restricted, their horizon suddenly diminished. Yet they came into the classroom with what I thought of as a fighting, rights-based Michigander union mentality that might be summarized as: “my taxpayer dollars pay for your job; you better deliver a great education!”
I loved their demands on me. Sometimes the line outside my office was as long as those at a crowded bakery on a Saturday morning, winding down the hall. Students wanted to squeeze every ounce of interaction fromme because they believed–really believed–that what they were learning in my classes could make a difference in their life. I will be grateful for the rest of my life that my first tenure-track job was at Michigan State. Those amazing MSU students taught me that an English teacher’s job is the most fundament, basic, and precious possible, that teaching excellent communication skills, interpretive skills, and critical thinking skills is life-changing and should always be at the highest standard. “Relentless” is the word that just popped into my head. My MSU students were relentless in wanting/needing/getting an education and they helped train me to be relentless in never settling, always pushing, always experimenting.
The NY Times article did not supply that context when it retold the story of how I didn’t teach term papers at MSU but taught resume-writing and life stories. I did, in fact, teach resume-writing and life stories in first-year writing and it is true that I got in trouble (a story I tell in the Academe piece) for refusing to stay with the expository writing syllabus in my quarter-long (10 weeks, 10 short weeks!) required first-year writing class. As I often do with classes, I did a diagnostic, found that many of my students were woefully lacking in basic writing skills. I asked them what they most wanted from a writing class, and quickly transformed the class into a “writing as if your life depended upon it” workshop. The context was a world of 20% unemployment and students who took on average of six years to graduate because they all were working in factories or at fast food restaurants or in the campus cafeteria to help pay their way through school.
What did they do in a quarter of first-year comp? They read great writers and sometimes I would have them imitate different styles of writing to help them find their own voice. But the required writing for the course was all about them. For goodness sakes, something in their world, where the bottom had just fallen out, had to be “all about them.” I am still proud of that. I decided that they would learn to write brilliant job cover letters. They would learn to write life stories that made their experiences–working in the cafeteria, a parent without a job, you name it–the best possible character recommendation for a job ahead. (If you think that is easy, you’ve never done it.) I had them write resumes for themselves. And I turned them into a class “employment agency,” reading and responding to one another and scouring newspapers (the Internet didn’t exist yet) for potential summer job and intern possibilities. The “final” in the class was for each student–with lots of readings by me and the rest of the class–to apply for three or four summer jobs and internships. That year, every student landed a position. Some were unpaid and, despite my urging, the students just couldn’t afford to have a summer without pay and passed up what more affluent students would have seen as a career stepping stone. But I am positive that no group of students has ever left a 10-week writing class more clear that good writing is important, that it makes a difference, that it can improve your life.
By contrast, in the faculty lounge at MSU, I would too often hear some of my most arrogant colleagues (it was a subset, certainly not all: there were many wonderful teachers in the department) ranting that all kids today did was watch TV, their writing was abominable, they were getting worse and worse, they didn’t care about good writing any more. Some of my colleagues enjoyed sitting around reading “howlers” from student term papers to one another, laughing at how bad the writing was. And then they would complain that writing comments on these final research papers was a “waste of time.” Yeah, buddy: a waste of your student’s time. Their tax dollars are paying your salary, buddy! I found it offensive then, I find it offensive now. If you are an English teacher and this paragraph feels all too familiar, well, then Change Thyself!
I was indeed told by a head of the writing program that I had to either teach the prescribed syllabus or leave. I left. I did not want to ever become one of those professors who spends time in the faculty lounge complaining about how bad students are today, how TV (or, now, the Internet) has made students dumber, more shallow, more incapable of reading and writing, and how writing comments on their papers is a waste of time.
Is the way I taught freshman composition the only way to teach a writing class? No. Would I teach it that way again if I were in that same situation? Absolutely.
[An aside: I also found it offensive when students would confess they wrote their term papers the night before they were due. No wonder they are terrible! More recently, I asked graduate students why they often left their term papers until the end and, with sadness, they confessed it was often because the whole exercise of writing a research paper is so debilitating and terrifying they often developed writer’s block or writer’s anxiety and needed the deadline to motivate them to write. I pushed deeper, and had them each tell about a past research paper experience–and every one of them had had at least one awful one, with a teacher as rigid and uncreative, and dictatorial as the one Richtel writes about (accurately!) at the end of his column, where, tutoring a brilliant, creative tech student who had trouble writing, I found myself helping him to write mechanically (for a teacher who mandated things like sentence length and number of adverbs and paragraph structure: topic, development, more development, conclusion, paragraph after deadly paragraph). My grad students all had at least one martinet English teacher who gave them a low grade on a paper they had boldly put forth as innovative and creative. I had one of those too; I’m convinced they are a subspecies of the genus “English Teacher” and they are hated the world over. I don’t teach many grad classes any more but, when I do, I have doctoral students write their scholarship on a blog and then for a public audience, too. I do not have them write a term paper just for my eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student tell me about writer’s block when they are writing weekly blog entries for their peers. That is interesting! I have also heard from many HASTAC Scholars over the years that, being able to write about serious ideas on www.hastac.org has been better writing training, better at helping them lower their “writer’s block anxiety,” than other forms of writing.]
I can quibble with other things in the NY Times piece but why bother? The point I want to make is that if you are an English teacher and you are convinced that everything about the way you assign, read, grade, and give feedback on that term paper makes students believe, forever after, that their writing makes a difference, then that is the context in which you absolutely should assign a term paper. If you grumble in the faculty lounge or on Facebook or wherever you grumble, that the “students get worse and worse every year,” then you have to be introspective about what you are doing, what they are doing, and fix the situation. The empirical research by experts in the field (I teach based on my experience and on experts who research the field, such as Andrea Lunsford and others)is that students tend to make the kind of mistakes in the formal research paper that they do not make in informal writing (such as blogs) that the sociolinguist William Labov found among working class speakers aspiring to be middle class: use of the word “whom” in situations where it is ungrammatical but sounds fancy, use of semantically incorrect but pretentious vocabulary (“Thesaurusitis”), longer sentences that lack punch but sound “upper class,” lack of demonstrative language, vague construction that lacks a point (“In this essay it shall be argued that . . . “). And so forth. None of those things make for good writing.
This is a long response, close to 3000 words, and with even a citation or two (hey! I may have just about written a term paper here). Kidding aside, I’ve written at length because I know there are junior English professors out there who can use this much detail to rethink what and how they are doing writing assignments in their classes and who may need to make a case to their own supervisors about why they want to use blogs instead of term papers. Basically, I think experimenting with form, in any setting, improves the setting, including when the experiment fails. Trying the risky is a good way to invigorate. My larger point is that “blogs vs term papers” is a nonsensical binary. There are good and bad ways to use blogs just as there are good and bad ways to use term paper or any other assignments. Do I want to abolish the term paper? No. I’m sure some professors use the form well, teach it well, and their students are immeasurably enriched by the exercise. That is not my experience.
I personally am convinced that the traditional English department research paper, like the traditional English dissertation, can be wonderful sometimes but, for the majority of writers, the very conventions of the term paper genre hurt writing more than it helps. I happen to have a partner who is a university press editor and I watch him and his colleagues spend countless hours helping young professors un-learn their dissertationese and learn how to write compelling arguments in compelling style for a wider audience. Bingo! That is what I strive for in my writing classes. I want my students to feel the power of writing, the power of their writing. I don’t want them to see me as their audience. I want them to see the world as their potential audience.