Blogs vs. Term Papers: What Do You Think?

I’ve spent a fair amount of my life writing term papers and blog posts. I was a full-time college and grad student for eight years, and then spent nine years (on and off) writing my dissertation (a whopper of a term paper). I estimate that I’ve spend something like 5,000 hours writing papers and 3,000 hours blogging. So, when it comes to the question of blogs vs. term papers, my opinion is at least somewhat informed by my experience as a student/writer/blogger, not to mention as a seminary teacher.

I started thinking about the “blogs vs. term papers” topic when I read a recent article in the New York Times. Mark Ritchel’s piece is entitled, simply enough, “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” He focuses on a current controversy among college teachers, one fomented by an English professor at Duke University. Here’s how Ritchel’s story begins:

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.”

Here's how I used to do it. My first typewriter was a Hermes Rocket, like the one pictured above.

As you might expect, Davidson does not require students in her classes to write standard papers. Instead, they have to contribute regular blog posts to a class blog. Davidson is not alone in her move from traditional forms of writing to blogging:

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?

But, as you would expect, not everyone is jumping on the blogging bandwagon:

[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.

Even if some professors still expect papers (Should they be called “papers” if they’re not turned in on paper?), the percentage of classes that require longer research papers is down sharply. In fact,

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.

So, what do you think about this? Are you cheering Professor Davidson? Or are you less enthusiastic about her proposition to banish papers from college curricula? I have some opinion on this, and will share the tomorrow. But, this blog post is already far too long, and I’m losing interest. Probably, you are too. More later.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I don’t think this is an either/or but more about fads and fetishes. Diaries, impromptu essays, and debate have long been staples in education. The question for the teacher is about what is being taught and what is the best tool to use for the goals of the course.

    Extemporaneous expression serves a different purpose than story writing which serves a different purpose than academic papers and each has its place in academia. It seems to me that it is a primary responsibility in education to make the distinction between differing forms of expression and use them appropriately to further educational goals.

    The problem is that proper evaluation of a work requires almost as much effort as writing it. That puts a significant burden on a teacher whose experience and expertise can cover some of that burden but still leaves a significant remaining effort needed. The result is that anything strange or out of the ordinary or significant will often be under served when it comes to review and critique in the run of the mill course on writing. Shortcuts will be taken. Blogs are just one of these shortcuts.

    But at least, grammar and spelling is no longer the burden on teachers it used to be. A course long compilation of written discourse can be evaluated on basic measures such as quantity, reading level, and vocabulary and each of this can be useful for evaluation in teaching efforts.

  • Amywombwell

    I think mini regular blog assignments are a great way to inspire discussion, but that does not negate the need to properly research, organize, write and document a term paper. Why this great need to have one or the other. The free for all of ideas in good blog posts can get the creative juices flowing. Hopefully, it would make a paper less intimidating, but excellent writing is still one of the goals of a liberal arts education.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Amy. Good thoughts. I agree.

  • AKdan

    I, too, think that there is a place and a need for both. The blog may get the creative juices flowing, and that is a good thing, but all those juices need to be organized before it just becomes a flood of disconnected ideas and thoughts instead of a river of information flowing from the spring to the sea.

    I must introduce myself before I make my next point. I am well over 60, hold a bachelor’s degree in speech and theater, and retired after some 28 years from a position as a Hearing Officer. Good logical thinking and writing required!

    But today, I find more and more people who can’t write a decent sentence and who are unable to logically organize their thoughts. Their thoughts ramble onward and it is often impossible to determine exactly what it is that they want to say. This is the value of the long paper–be it quick in-class exam or a term paper or a dissertation.

  • Anonymous

    Indeed. Thanks for your comments.