Saturday, January 21, 2012

Term Papers vs. Blogs and Cathy Davidson vs. the NYTimes

Over at HASTAC, Cathy Davidson has written a great defense of her assertion that term papers should be abolished in favor of blogs. Like a lot of great lines, it was provocative, good copy, and not what she actually said, apparently (hey, academic superstar celebrities need publicity, too!).

Matt Richtel at the NYTimes is having none of it, suggesting that unnamed "defenders of traditional writing" propose a "reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move right on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?" which Davidson rightly says is unfair.

I'm all for student-written blogs. I've been using them in classes for 10 years, and I think their use has helped students' writing, something that real researchers of this like Andrea Lunsford have confirmed (see Davidson's piece). I agree with all she says about students writing more and being more engaged when they're writing something they're (1) passionate about and (2) writing for a broader audience than just the teacher, which is what a blog gives you. Davidson's argument is attractive, and, in fact, is well established in the last 30+ years of writing pedagogy. Remember Ken McCrorie's Telling Writing and his (I think) railing against the comically stultified prose he called "Engfish"?

I guess I just have one question: what does Davidson mean by a "term paper"? I wrote something called a "term paper" in high school, but that was back when we incised the characters in cuneiform onto wet clay. "Term paper" seems to be the new whipping boy of writing alongside its maligned cousin, the five-paragraph essay, but are these really assigned in the same deadening way that she describes?

I'd never assign a "term paper" of the kind that she vilifies, but I would and routinely do assign papers that require an argument, with a thesis and evidence from the text and external sources. Students ought to be able to construct an argument and support it, shouldn't they?--and if they shouldn't, then why does Davidson couch her post about the issue in exactly that form?

The thing is, if you are in any kind of job that requires writing at all, you have to learn to write in a whole lot of different forms, including resumes and cover letters (her examples). You learn to see the conventions of these forms by writing in them and by seeing that conventions differ but that some good qualities of writing remain across them all. Isn't that what we're trying to get our students to see?

Despite the dramatic contrasts in which it's being framed by Davidson and the media, I guess I don't see this as a blogs vs. papers issue. What's wrong with "blog post -> short reading of a text -> longer argument -> presentation -> another blog post"? Or some other combination? Writing is a continuum, not an either/or.

Your thoughts?


Stacey Lee Donohue said...

Undine: the Two Year Discussion Group of the MLA is planning to propose a session on this very topic: you should keep your eye out for it and submit a proposal!

Bardiac said...

I think you're right that students need to do different sorts of writing, and especially that they need to learn about audience and genre expectations, and how to meet or choose not to meet them.

Z said...

No, I don't assign that kind of term paper but I have been shocked to find that many do.

Barbara Fister said...

Quite a lot of research over the years suggests the term paper remains a dominant form of writing assignment in colleges and universities. I was surprised by that, too.

undine said...

Stacey, I might do that! Thanks for the tip.

Bardiac, I thought that was the point of writing courses, so thanks for confirming it.

Z, I think but don't know that Davidson's issue is with the teachers who basically say that it doesn't matter what you say as long as you get the MLA citation format and thesis down pat. I have never met one, but they are rampant in the horror stories about term papers,and apparently you've known some bad term pAper assignments, too.

Z said...

Yes, exactly. And they call it a "research paper." I hadn't heard that term since junior high. In college we wrote papers that incorporated research but it had to be archival research and use current and classic sources and have a real point - not just be in MLA format and have citations and some sort of thesis.

I admire those who are teaching remedial writing because they know a lot that I don't about how to get people literate. In that context then just getting mechanics going on track is great. However, after that point, I would have thought everyone would require more thought - aber nein.

term paper said...

@stacey: agreed