Every week this semester, students in one of my peer-driven classes chose to write weekly blog posts on subjects of my choosing. I think it’s only fair that I write my own post in kind. This week’s topic was inspired in part by my students’ own willingness to embrace blogging (don’t worry, we still have a formal research paper due at the end of the semester) and the recent mini-debate between Cathy N. Davidson and the New York Times.
I want to first offer my perspective as a professor. I am thrilled that they are doing this. I am now looking forward to Friday afternoons when I get to kick back after a long week and read what my students wrote. Seriously. I was elated with this week’s largely thoughtful posts and it even pushed my own thinking on the topic. I read that blogs were freeing for the students and made it not seem like work. I can say the same thing myself, insofar as I feel liberated and reading their blogs doesn’t seem like work to me either.
This isn’t to say that they are not work, for the students or for myself. I often write blog posts inspired by my students’ work, especially in my peer-driven classes, but this semester presents a challenge for me as I comment on their work while trying to come up with my own position and response. Thankfully, I’ve already blogged my position on their next topic, collaboration versus groupthink.
But I want to defend the traditional research essay a little bit. One of the students observed that it wasn’t a very useful exercise because students generally procrastinated about it, leaving it until the last minute, and thus crafting a sub-par product. Now, this isn’t an essential feature of the research paper, but it seems to have become its defining characteristics for most students, making it essentially meaningless in terms of a) evaluating what they’ve learned and b) getting the students to think critically about a topic. I’m not sure how we fix that, besides drawing out the writing process to include mandatory drafts with hard deadlines. But then, how do we get students to take revisions seriously, etc, etc, etc.
Another student pointed to the fluid nature of the blog versus what they perceived as the concrete nature of the research paper, not just in terms of format, but in terms of perception and reception. For that student, blogs are eternally unfinished and incomplete, leaving room for revision, refinement, and further conversation. Research papers, on the other hand, become final and definitive. Again, I’m not sure if that’s an essential feature of the research paper, but it certainly seems to be how the students see it. A research paper is supposed to participate in the larger scholarly discussion of a topic, but with a built-in audience of one, I can see how students think that the paper only serves the purpose of earning a grade.
And maybe once the novelty of the blog wears off, students will see the blog as a chore to be avoided, same as the research paper. But while they are embracing the challenges of thinking and writing, I’ll take full advantage.
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