Should We Really ABOLISH the Term Paper? A Response to the NY Times
When Matt Richtel's name appeared on my cell phone, I felt a moment of dread. I'm pretty sure I even told him that when he called the first time. I've written more than one post on this blog with the tagline "A Response to the NY Times" and more than once I've "responded" to a Matt Richtel piece on new modes of learning that has seemed slanted or too dismissive about the impact of new digital learning on students today. So one reason I answered his phone call was that I was hoping that, with enough care and time, I might even convince a distinguished journalist that, well, not everyone working on technology and learning is a charlatan, that lots of us are doing this not to make a buck (plenty of people are doing that) but to try to be responsive and responsible to youth who live in this digital era and will be running it all soon enough. Over the course of many phone calls, I was impressed by Richtel's intelligence and openness to hearing my point of view. I admit I was also nervous the whole way. This isn't easy stuff; it's not clearly "good" or "bad" and there's a lot of pomposity and chicanery out there in just about every direction. I've certainly expressed a lot of skepticism about the 'dumping iPads in schools' approach to 'digital learning' too. To his journalistic credit, Richtel made sure he quoted me precisely. The quotes are accurate. There are some cheap shots in the piece that I find annoying. And, had the piece been longer, I would have definitely appreciated more context but it's a good piece in a very compelling issue of the quarterly New York Times Education Life section. And, below, since this is a blog, I will in a much more expansive fashion supply the context that a brief journalistic essay cannot.
You can read Matt Richtel's NYT article here: "Blogs vs. Term Papers," Jan 20, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-te...
And for my own account of the decision not to use term papers when I taught at Michigan State, you can check out a piece I published in Academe in Sept-Oct 2011. In some ways, it is more assertive on this issue than Richtel's piece, and is highly critical of the establishment English Department that too-often forgets its own importance as society’s “keeper” of two of the three R’s of traditional literacy, namely “reading” and “‘writing.’” I won’t rehearse my critique; here's the link: http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2011/SO/Feat/davi.htm). I also write about this in Now You See It ( there's a link in the byline at the bottom of this page).
I hope readers interested in this topic of blogs and research papers will also turn to the work of Prof Andrea Lunsford of Stanford quoted in the New York Times piece. Lunsford is a brilliant, senior (she’s about to retire) researcher in the field of expository writing. Her long body of research and her reputation are impeccable. Lunsford has done some of the best work about writing, and she’s documented, with evidence, the improved literacy levels of this generation of students as compared to previous years she has evaluated at Stanford. She is also working with composition teachers around the country who are documenting similar findings that, in fact, this generation comes in reading and writing more and better–and, yes, differently–than earlier ones, not worse. Lunsford uses the same metrics to assess these students as were used to evaluate past ones. Her website is: http://www.stanford.edu/~lunsfor1/
Since, in fact, so few teachers actually do require the full-length research or term paper any more, as Richtel’s essay makes clear, I am pleased that a vehicle as prominent as the NY Times is dedicating space to the pros and cons of the genre in the splendid Education Life issue that is full of inspiring stories of learning innovation. And here's a nice thought: the Richtel article might even put a few of the reprehensible research-paper mills out of business. There is a whole industry out there dedicated to supplying students, for a significant fee, with plagiarized or tailor-made term papers. (One of my cousins, who put four kids through college, jokes that the cadre of over helicoptering, term-paper writing mothers of the world will also thank me!)
But if the research paper is a problem, is blogging the answer? That’s what I want to address here. Just as there are good and bad ways to teach research papers, there are good and bad ways to use blogs in the classrooms. They can become just as meaningless and routinized as any other assignment unless they are used carefully and strategically, with an aim to their larger purpose. So, for those who are interested in the larger topic, here is some elaborated thinking that is missing from the New York Times piece (and, no, Matt Richtel, I do not consider it a slippery slope from the term paper to the blog to the 140-character Tweet. That’s a cheap shot).
SOME LARGER CONTEXT FOR WHY I HAVE MY STUDENTS BLOG OR PUBLISH THEIR WORK ON LINE–AND WHY I HAVE GIVEN UP ASSIGNING THE TRADITIONAL TERM PAPER IN MY COURSES:
(1) I teach exceptionally experimental courses, typically taken by juniors and seniors--undergraduates not graduate students-- at Duke University. Because they are very difficult and challenging and break many paradigms, about a quarter of the students dropout the first week---and then there is a sufficiently long waiting list that others take the course. I do a combination of contract and peer grading and have had more than one student in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" tell me that, contracting for an A will lower their grade point average. I typically have astonishingly accomplished students, typically majoring in things like Biomedical Engineering and English, who are looking for a power course, a paradigm-shifting course before the leap into the world. We have a Word Press class website. Students blog every week about the reading and project-based assignments they create. The two students charged with leading the class that week have to respond to every blog. The students respond to one another.
Three points: (a) my students write more than they think they are writing because the context is so urgent, compelling, and interactive that they enjoy it and it doesn't seem like drudgery. They work so hard to articulate and defend ideas about which they have strong convictions that it does not feel to them like the exercise of "writing a term paper." When I put their semester's work into a data hopper, even I was shocked to find out that they were averaging around 1000 words per week, in a course about neuroscience, collaborative thinking, the technological and ideological architecture of the World Wide Web, and the "collaboration by difference" method that I prescribe as an anecdote to attention blindness, the way our own expertise,cultural values, and attention to a specific task illuminates some things and makes us blind to others. I argue that the open architecture of the Web is built on the principle of diversity and maximum participation--feedback and editing--that gives us a great tool for compensating for our own shortcomings. (i.e. with the right tools, partners, and methods, we can do a pretty good job of overcoming attention blindness, or what, in the psychological jargon, is called "inattentional blindness"). Best example: Wikipedia. It gets better and better, more and more stringent, as more of us contribute and gets beyond many of our biases of culture, since worldwide participation of volunteer writers and volunteer editors leads to a far more complex history than "experts" might write on a given subject. Students learn to evaluate one another's thinking and challenge one another--and, far more important, they learn from one another and correct themselves. I cannot think of a better skill to take out into the world. By blogging and responding to one another's posts, my students aren't learning how to write for an English professor. They are learning how to write for the world they are about to enter, in their jobs, in their careers, and they are learning how to improve their active discourse already happening on line. They are learning that some of the best thinking (as Socrates would say) is dialogic,and their writing is part of an interactive, vibrant written dialogue. This is not a lack of critical thinking; it is exactly critical thinking, tested thinking.
(b) I respond more too. Like my students, I feel like I'm not spending as many hours reading and grading term papers, but, I know, from the end-of-term data crunching again, that, in fact, I have spent more time responding to their writing than I used to. I no longer engage in a ritual that too often happens among assigners of research papers (you know who you are), that frantic last week reading and marking 50 term papers before grades are due. Too often, in the old days, I would read and write comments on papers that wound up in a box outside my office door that few students ever came by to collect--a pointless and deadening pedagogy if there ever was one.
(c) Two assignments in my "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" classes have to be "public contributions to knowledge." Those are substantive, well-argued essays that have to be published on the Internet in a serious place as part of a serious interactive exchange. Some students have written Wikipedia entries (and if you have never tried, I dare you: it is far, far harder to get content to "stick" on a Wikipedia entry than you have ever imagined). Some pre-Med students have contributed to professional discussions with full medical professionals and made a difference. Interestingly, the tipping point in these classes is when someone the student doesn't know, an anonymous stranger, responds to their work. When it is substantive, the student is elated and surprised that their words were taken seriously. When it is rude or trollish, the student is offended. Both responses are good. The Internet needs more people committed to its improvement, to serious discourse.
(2) The other writing course Richtel discusses is expository writing, a class I taught many years ago at Michigan State University. I taught at MSU for a dozen years, and, although I have loved teaching at Princeton and really love teaching at Duke, there was something truly incredible and powerful and urgent about teaching in East Lansing, Michigan, at MSU. I taught there during the tragic collapse of the auto industry, where many of my first-generation college students were suddenly living in cities with over twenty percent unemployment, with parents who had lost their jobs. Their own job prospects were restricted, their horizon suddenly diminished. Yet they came into the classroom with what I thought of as a fighting, rights-based Michigander union mentality that might be summarized as: "my taxpayer dollars pay for your job; you better deliver a great education!"
I loved their demands on me. Sometimes the line outside my office was as long as those at a crowded bakery on a Saturday morning, winding down the hall. Students wanted to squeeze every ounce of interaction fromme because they believed--really believed--that what they were learning in my classes could make a difference in their life. I will be grateful for the rest of my life that my first tenure-track job was at Michigan State. Those amazing MSU students taught me that an English teacher's job is the most fundament, basic, and precious possible, that teaching excellent communication skills, interpretive skills, and critical thinking skills is life-changing and should always be at the highest standard. "Relentless" is the word that just popped into my head. My MSU students were relentless in wanting/needing/getting an education and they helped train me to be relentless in never settling, always pushing, always experimenting.
The NY Times article did not supply that context when it retold the story of how I didn't teach term papers at MSU but taught resume-writing and life stories. I did, in fact, teach resume-writing and life stories in first-year writing and it is true that I got in trouble (a story I tell in the Academe piece) for refusing to stay with the expository writing syllabus in my quarter-long (10 weeks, 10 short weeks!) required first-year writing class. As I often do with classes, I did a diagnostic, found that many of my students were woefully lacking in basic writing skills. I asked them what they most wanted from a writing class, and quickly transformed the class into a "writing as if your life depended upon it" workshop. The context was a world of 20% unemployment and students who took on average of six years to graduate because they all were working in factories or at fast food restaurants or in the campus cafeteria to help pay their way through school.
What did they do in a quarter of first-year comp? They read great writers and sometimes I would have them imitate different styles of writing to help them find their own voice. But the required writing for the course was all about them. For goodness sakes, something in their world, where the bottom had just fallen out, had to be "all about them." I am still proud of that. I decided that they would learn to write brilliant job cover letters. They would learn to write life stories that made their experiences--working in the cafeteria, a parent without a job, you name it--the best possible character recommendation for a job ahead. (If you think that is easy, you've never done it.) I had them write resumes for themselves. And I turned them into a class "employment agency," reading and responding to one another and scouring newspapers (the Internet didn't exist yet) for potential summer job and intern possibilities. The "final" in the class was for each student--with lots of readings by me and the rest of the class--to apply for three or four summer jobs and internships. That year, every student landed a position. Some were unpaid and, despite my urging, the students just couldn't afford to have a summer without pay and passed up what more affluent students would have seen as a career stepping stone. But I am positive that no group of students has ever left a 10-week writing class more clear that good writing is important, that it makes a difference, that it can improve your life.
By contrast, in the faculty lounge at MSU, I would too often hear some of my most arrogant colleagues (it was a subset, certainly not all: there were many wonderful teachers in the department) ranting that all kids today did was watch TV, their writing was abominable, they were getting worse and worse, they didn't care about good writing any more. Some of my colleagues enjoyed sitting around reading "howlers" from student term papers to one another, laughing at how bad the writing was. And then they would complain that writing comments on these final research papers was a "waste of time." Yeah, buddy: a waste of your student's time. Their tax dollars are paying your salary, buddy! I found it offensive then, I find it offensive now. If you are an English teacher and this paragraph feels all too familiar, well, then Change Thyself!
I was indeed told by a head of the writing program that I had to either teach the prescribed syllabus or leave. I left. I did not want to ever become one of those professors who spends time in the faculty lounge complaining about how bad students are today, how TV (or, now, the Internet) has made students dumber, more shallow, more incapable of reading and writing, and how writing comments on their papers is a waste of time.
Is the way I taught freshman composition the only way to teach a writing class? No. Would I teach it that way again if I were in that same situation? Absolutely.
[An aside: I also found it offensive when students would confess they wrote their term papers the night before they were due. No wonder they are terrible! More recently, I asked graduate students why they often left their term papers until the end and, with sadness, they confessed it was often because the whole exercise of writing a research paper is so debilitating and terrifying they often developed writer's block or writer's anxiety and needed the deadline to motivate them to write. I pushed deeper, and had them each tell about a past research paper experience--and every one of them had had at least one awful one, with a teacher as rigid and uncreative, and dictatorial as the community college situation Richtel writes about (accurately!) at the end of his column, where, tutoring a brilliant, creative tech student who had trouble writing, I found myself helping him to write mechanically (for a teacher who mandated things like sentence length and number of adverbs and paragraph structure: topic, development, more development, conclusion, paragraph after deadly paragraph). My grad students all had at least one martinet English teacher who gave them a low grade on a paper they had boldly put forth as innovative and creative. I had one of those too; I'm convinced they are a subspecies of the genus "English Teacher" and they are hated the world over. I don't teach many grad classes any more but, when I do, I have doctoral students write their scholarship on a blog and then for a public audience, too. I do not have them write a term paper just for my eyes. I don't think I've ever had a student tell me about writer's block when they are writing weekly blog entries for their peers. That is interesting! I have also heard from many HASTAC Scholars over the years that, being able to write about serious ideas on www.hastac.org has been better writing training, better at helping them lower their "writer's block anxiety," than other forms of writing.]
I can quibble with other things in the NY Times piece but why bother? The point I want to make is that if you are an English teacher and you are convinced that everything about the way you assign, read, grade, and give feedback on that term paper makes students believe, forever after, that their writing makes a difference, then that is the context in which you absolutely should assign a term paper. If you grumble in the faculty lounge or on Facebook or wherever you grumble, that the "students get worse and worse every year," then you have to be introspective about what you are doing, what they are doing, and fix the situation. The empirical research by experts in the field (I teach based on my experience and on experts who research the field, such as Andrea Lunsford and others)is that students tend to make the kind of mistakes in the formal research paper that they do not make in informal writing (such as blogs) that the sociolinguist William Labov found among working class speakers aspiring to be middle class: use of the word "whom" in situations where it is ungrammatical but sounds fancy, use of semantically incorrect but pretentious vocabulary ("Thesaurusitis"), longer sentences that lack punch but sound "upper class," lack of demonstrative language, vague construction that lacks a point ("In this essay it shall be argued that . . . "). And so forth. None of those things make for good writing.
This is a long response, close to 3000 words, and with even a citation or two (hey! I may have just about written a term paper here). Kidding aside, I've written at length because I know there are junior English professors out there who can use this much detail to rethink what and how they are doing writing assignments in their classes and who may need to make a case to their own supervisors about why they want to use blogs instead of term papers. I don't want the Richtel piece to hurt their experimental ambitions. Basically, I think experimenting with form, in any setting, improves the setting, including when the experiment fails. Trying the risky is a good way to invigorate. My larger point is that "blogs vs term papers" is a nonsensical binary. There are good and bad ways to use blogs just as there are good and bad ways to use term paper or any other assignments. Do I want to abolish the term paper? No. I'm sure some professors use the form well, teach it well, and their students are immeasurably enriched by the exercise. That is not my experience.
I personally am convinced that the traditional English department research paper, like the traditional English dissertation, can be wonderful sometimes but, for the majority of writers, the very conventions of the term paper genre hurt writing more than it helps. I happen to have a partner who is a university press editor and I watch him and his colleagues spend countless hours helping young professors un-learn their dissertationese and learn how to write compelling arguments in compelling style for a wider audience. Bingo! That is what I strive for in my writing classes. I want my students to feel the power of writing, the power of their writing. Writing is communication. It deserves an audience. And that's the bottom line: I don't want my students to see me as their audience. I want them to leave my classes seeing the world as their potential audience.
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. NOTE: The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, www.nowyouseeit.net .