The New York Times published a special section on “Education Life” today, which included a thought-provoking article by Matt Richtel on the increasingly common choice of blog posts as assignments in writing classes. Richtel quotes blog-friendly faculty like Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University and Professor Andrea A. Lunsford of Stanford University, who argue that blog posts motivate students in ways traditional papers do not, bypassing “mechanistic” writing practices in favor of “actually producing something personally rewarding and valuable.”
Detractors of the blogging phenomenon include Douglas B. Reeves, who founded the school-consulting division of Houghton Mifflin Harcout, and William H. Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, which publishes high school students’ research papers. They argue that blogging shields students from engaging with the most productive challenges of longer-form writing: argumentation, organizing evidence, marshaling sources, critical thinking. Blog posts may be “fun,” “interesting,” and “expressive,” but they lack rigor and fail to prepare students to produce “the sort of expression required not only in college, but in the job market.”
Richtel briefly acknowledges that the current choice between blogs and term papers is something of a “false opposition.” Opponents of blogging in education in particular seem guilty of imagining posts as short, insubstantial rambling inflected by personal observations and characterized by informality, while term papers are assumed to be longer, more formulaic, and more serious. In truth, the difference is one of medium rather than one of genre. Blog posts can be just as long as regular papers; they incorporate argumentation, rigorous evidence, and all the other trappings of term papers, down to the footnotes. Likewise, long papers – even by academics – often perform “show and tell” more than they make an argument, and (especially in the humanities) do not shy away from incorporating a self-reflexive turn that celebrates personal testimony.
The advantages that blogs offer over traditional term papers have everything to do with their technological potential rather than their perceived generic conventions. By making it possible to seamlessly integrate online (as well as offline) resources, blogs force students to grapple with even more primary and secondary sources than word-processed papers. Not only that, but with the proliferation of information available on the internet, students increasingly need skills to evaluate the authenticity and authority of online sources; blogs make it easier to practice such evaluation. At the same time, comment features allow nearly instant feedback on student writing by other students and faculty alike. Peer feedback is practice for the kind of self-assessment students will need to perform after leaving school, when they’ll no longer have a professor to help them refine their paper drafts.
Regardless of whether professors assign blog posts or term papers, the same guidelines apply: provide clear, specific requirements; scaffold the necessary skills, logistics, and mechanics; offer constructive feedback early and often; connect the goals of the writing to the goals of the course. Instead of arguing about whether blogs or term papers better encourage strong writing skills, let’s focus on systematizing these (and other) teaching practices, whose success has been proven. By the time we do that, blogs will have been replaced by the next hot writing format – and we can start this argument all over again.
This post was written by Louis Epstein.