Recently, I have offering some thoughts on the relative value of blogs vs. term papers in higher education. I was inspired by an article in the New York Times: “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” This article describes the convictions of an English professor at Duke to abolish term papers in favor of blogs. As you might imagine, this has stirred up plenty of controversy among professors.
In my last post, I put up the case for blogs in higher education. It’s a compelling case, I think. But I also acknowledged some of the limitations of blogging. Today, I want to make the case for term papers.
I admit that term papers are a drag for students. In the second semester of my sophomore year of college, I took five classes, each of which required a term paper. I had to write 110 pages in 20 days. To do this, I slept four hours a night for three weeks . . . not my favorite time of life.
But term papers can also be a drag for teachers. When I was teaching seminary, for example, I usually required my students to write a final term paper of 12-15 pages. If I had 30 students, that meant about 400 pages of reading. And I’m not talking about adventure novels here. I had to read carefully, adding comments and corrections along the way, not to mention grades. In the middle of a grading cycle, I was less than enthusiastic about term papers.
Yet, I continued to require them – and still would – because I believe they helped my students learn to think more deeply and clearly. The research required for term papers helped my students learn new things and hone their academic skills. In a blog post, one is free to assert one’s opinion or share one’s feelings without offering much in the way of rational support. But a term paper requires more depth of thought as well as the persuasive presentation of evidence.
Blogging helps students think freely and creatively. It encourages them to be bold, to take a public stand, to say what they think succinctly. All of this is fine, but it’s not enough. Term papering helps students think deeply and carefully. It encourages them to be cautious and reflective, to defend what they think with reasons and research. I believe that students need to develop the strengths associated both with blogging and with term papering.
My son’s film professor at NYU appears to agree with me. Students in his “American Cinema: 1960-present” class are expected to put up two blog posts on the class blog (15% of grade) and to write a short midterm paper (25%) and a longer final essay (40%). The professor comes down on the term paper side of the blogs vs. term papers argument in that 65% of the final grade depends on papers while only 15% is based on blog entries. But the professor does not fall into an either/or mode. It’s both/and.
If I were teaching today, I’d line up with this prof, though perhaps with a little more emphasis on blogging because it facilitates online conversation. I would require students to comment on the blog posts of other students, and count this as perhaps 5% of their final grade. I do believe that students need to develop expertise in the shorter modes of writing that are popular today (blogging, commenting, etc.). Yes, I could even imagine requiring Twitter posts of 140 characters. Yet, I am almost convinced that students need to learn the disciplines associated with the writing of longer papers, most of all the discipline of thinking deeply and carefully. The inability of people to think well today constitutes a great threat to our society. It seems like a good college eduction should help to remedy this growing and widespread problem. (Of course, I am assuming some things about the ability of college professors to think clearly and help their students to do this same. This is often, but not always the case, I’m sad to say. My son’s experience at NYU has been very positive in this regard.)
So, blogs vs. term papers? Why does it have to be “vs”? Why not blogs and term papers? That makes the most sense to me.