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This Short Blog Post is All About Me or, Term Papers on Trial - Again
January 22, 2012 - 4:24pm

It's a sign of the times. Long before my copy of the New York Times arrived Sunday morning I had read tweets and blog posts responding to an article in their occasional Education Life section. Though it somewhat defeats the purpose of having a newspaper delivered to your door, on Saturday I found myself looking for the online incarnation of the article that sparked responses, Matt Richtel's "Delete Term Paper, Enter Blogging: To Raves and Rants, the Digital Medium Muscles in on a Tradition" or, as it's slugged online, "Blogs vs. Term Papers."

Richtel, whose beat includes classroom technology, reported on Catherine Davidson's argument that the traditional term paper is a poor vehicle for teaching writing and that social media can offer a better platform that makes it easier for students to get basic rhetorical concepts of audience (not just the teacher) and purpose (not just for a grade), as well as the elements of argument. Davidson's response is interestingly nearly three times as long as Richtel's article. (She comments herself that it's close to 3,000 words; it's actually 3,539 if Word is counting correctly. Richtel's essay is 1,397.) Both Richtel and Davidson cite sources. In journalistic style, Richtel introduces his sources as people he has talked to; Davidson, in academic blogging style, uses both people's names and links to their work. In short, these publications have some features in common.

I don't think many college professors would claim that essays produced for The New York Times by definition lack organization, argument, substance, or evidence. Yet that is the argument made against the kind of writing Davidson did - against blogs - at least as Richtel summarizes it.

He says defenders of "rigorous writing" - which apparently is how defenders of the term paper fashion themselves - believe writing term papers are not so much about content but about how well they test students' ability to construct an organized argument using sources. I have a problem with this argument right off the bat. The argument sets up a straw man - the notion that, in contrast, blog posts are short, trivial, personal, and lacking in both argument and the use of evidence. An authority consulted by Richtel (Douglas Reeves, who writes columns for the American School Board Journal and founded a consulting division of a major textbook publisher) says writing term papers is "a dying art"* that provides students with practice in "critical thinking, argumentation, and the sort of expression required not only in college but in the job market."

Ironically, Davidson says that's exactly why she has abandoned term papers. They don't accomplish those goals, she finds, but other kinds of writing often do.

In point of fact, she argues in her rebuttal that term paper assignments have not worked for her. She doesn't want to ban them; she just thinks that more often than not they don't accomplish those goals, and so she encourages teachers to consider alternatives. This is hardly revolutionary advice. I first encountered it in a classic essay by Richard Larson published in 1982 (requires subscription), many years before the word "blog" entered the language. I suspect it wasn't a new idea then.

Reeves also says that blogs can be interesting at times, but "nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument, and conclusion." I'm really puzzled by this. Maybe he was quoted out of context. It's true, there is lots of interesting writing that doesn't have those things - though the example I was going to provide, Wallace Stevens' poem "The Idea of Order at Key West" actually does turn out to have them, if that's what you're looking for. But student writing that includes those things but isn't interesting probably doesn't really include them at all; chances are, the student writer has temporarily inhabited a shell of these things, like a hermit crab seeking protection, and like the hermit crab will shuck it when it starts to feel too tight.

Another way to interpret this statement is "if it's interesting, it's probably not rigorous." Which isn't what Reeves said. No teacher would make such a silly claim.

But isn't that what students think their teachers believe? "Try to sound like someone else who's much more pompous, use lots of quotations, because when you make an argument it only counts if it's made out of what other people have already said, and for god's sake, don't be interesting! That would be totally inappropriate. Save those shenanigans for Facebook."

In the end, Richtel quotes Andrea Lunsford, who has assembled lots of evidence for her amicus brief for alternative forms of writing, and lets Davidson have the final word. I suspect those who are already dissatisfied with the term paper as a vehicle for learning to write effectively will agree with Davidson and Lunsford that there must be better alternatives. Those who think the only problem with term papers is that we aren't assigning enough of them will probably carry on thinking that blogs are nothing but navel-gazing trivia.

In short, the case of Blogs v. Term Papers has been remanded and will have to be retried.

*No evidence is provided for this claim; or, as they say at Wikipedia, "citation needed." Two other claims are made in this article, that teachers assign less reading than they used to (again, no evidence is provided) and that term papers are falling out of favor (NSSE data are cited, but without comparative trend data; also cited is a study that found 80 percent of high school students have not written a history paper of more than 15 pages. I tracked down the study. It doesn't have any information indicating that the percentage of students who wrote long papers in the past was higher. That said, it does surprise me that nearly 20 percent of high school history teachers say they require students to write term papers longer than 15 pages.


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