Yesterday, I blogged on the subject: “Blogs vs. Term Papers: What Do You Think?” I was responding to an article in the New York Times that featured a writing professor at Duke who thinks it’s time to retire term papers and to have students blog instead. Today, I will offer a few of my thoughts on the subject as someone who has spent 5,000 hours writing term papers and 3,000 blogging. (This is a literal, conservative estimate.)
First, I want to note an assumption about blogging. The assumption is that blog posts are fairly short, more impromptu, and often more personal and less academic. This is a valid generalization. But there are some bloggers whose blog posts and collections of blog posts are much more like term papers than the standard blog entries. I’m thinking, for example, of Ben Witherington, my fellow Patheos blogger. Ben, who is a leading New Testament scholar, often writes college-paper length blog posts. He also often joins many posts together in term-paper length series. (Currently, Ben is writing a moving, profound series on the death of his 34-year-old daughter.) If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I can also write longer posts, and I often join these together in series that are longer than most term papers. Some years ago, I wrote a whole bunch of posts on The Da Vinci Code and related issues. I once calculated that I put up about 100,000 words on this topic. That’s the equivalent of 20, 20-page term papers. But, I freely admit that Ben Witherington and I are not your typical bloggers. Still, in principle, one could post longer writing efforts in a blog format. But, for the sake of this conversation, let’s assume that blogs are just a few paragraphs long, generally not arguing points so much as expressing opinions, often of a more personal nature than an academic nature.
So, blogs or term papers? Which would be best for students?
From my point of view, this would be like asking: Proteins or carbohydrates? Just as the body needs both proteins and carbohydrates to thrive, so the student mind (in liberal arts or social sciences) needs blogs and term papers. Each genre expresses different strengths. Each genre is necessary in today’s world if a student wishes to thrive, not just in school, but in life beyond school.
Blogging helps students express themselves freely, without some of the fears and constraints associated with term papers. Blogging encourages creativity and boldness. It provides an opportunity for more introverted students to participate in class “conversations.” Blogging also prepares students for the kind of communication in which they will need to be proficient in their future. Yes, a few fields expect term-paper like analyses. But most writing in the workplace is much shorter and to the point.
Perhaps one of the best features of blogging for education is that it facilitates interaction among students. Typical papers are read only by professors (or graders). Blogs are read by fellow students, who are usually encouraged (or required) to comment on the writing of others. This begets a different sort of conversation than the live, spontaneous, in-class discussion. It teaches students how to converse, disagree, encourage, and so on.
Also, depending on the level of privacy for the class blog, blogging can allow students to have their writing read by people outside of class, as they begin to step into the larger world of the blogosphere. Occasionally, a student might even find that his or her post on a certain book, for example, gets comments from the book’s author. This has happened to me a half dozen times at least during my years of blogging.
Now, of course, the upsides of blogging lead to various downsides. The informality of blogging can encourage immature and sloppy thinking, not to mention bad grammar, terrible spelling, and egregious typos. A student could become adept at blogging and not be able to construct a serious, thoughtful argument. Bloggers often feel freedom to spout off, without worrying about evidence of argument.
Yes, blogging facilitates conversation, but often of the worst kind. For some reason, bloggers sometimes think they can say in a blog something they would never say in person or in print. And commenters on blogs seem to include some of the rudest people in the world. So, the use of blogging in a teach situation may not bring out the best in people. It may, in fact, encourage imprecision and incivility. It may also expose students to vicious criticism, especially if educational blogs are visible to search engines.
Nevertheless, if I were teaching seminary today, I think I would establish a class blog and require each student to put up a certain number of posts and to contribute a certain number of comments on the posts of others. I would grade both parts. I would make it clear that I expect reasonable thinking and academically-acceptable writing, including good grammar and decent spelling. I don’t know if I would keep the class blog private, or if I would make it visible to Google, Bing, and the like. I’d have to think about this. Maybe I’d even let the class vote on it. Not sure.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll argue the case for term papers vs. blogs. Stay tuned.