Blogs, Term Papers, and Effective Pedagogy

This entry has been cross posted from Etene Sacca-vajjena. In it, I give my take on "Blogs vs. Term Papers" from the perspective of a community college professor. I cite Cathy N. Davidson and Eric Marshall, both of whom are associated with HASTAC as well as work previously published in HASTAC.


Since Matt Richtel published “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in the New York Times on January 20, much has been written on the value or lack of value of assigning term papers. Unfortunately, Richtel confuses the issue by setting up a false dichotomy. His either/or fallacy forces a debate concerning whether or not blogs are better than term papers. Instead, we should be discussing if the goals of a particular class might be better met by assigning blogs (or some other research based project) instead of a term paper.

I must admit that during the past few years, I have become less enamored with the primacy of the term paper for reporting on research. My main problem with the traditional research paper and most other assignments is that they only have an audience of one—the professor. The second problem is that students adopt the strategy of doing just enough research to write a passing paper. The goal becomes getting the task completed instead of learning from the research and writing.

When I am assigned to do a mindless piece of writing such as the Final Travel Narrative I am required to submit after attending a conference, I only invest a minimal amount of effort. Why should I bother to spend time polishing a document that is not going to be read? Therefore, I do not blame students for not putting forth more effort than is minimally required to write a paper that is only going to be read by the professor.

However, after attending the HASTAC Conference in December 2011, I spent hours drafting my Final Travel Narrative so that it would be a quality piece of writing. What caused my change in attitude? What caused me to invest such effort? The answer is simple. I had decided to publish my narrative as a blog.

Instead of having virtually no audience, my final narrative—which was published under the title “The Best Professional Development that $150 Could Buy”—was available to colleagues at my college, my students, individuals with whom I interact at HASTAC, and anyone else who finds it on-line. Given the public audience, the Final Narrative became a serious piece of writing and I therefore treated it seriously.

Over the years, I have done what I could to give students a public venue to display the results of their research. Generally, I have done this with poster sessions open to the college community. But, this semester I am experimenting with multi-author blogs that will allow students to share their writing with a larger community outside our classroom, asking students to create a website on student success, and encouraging them to do identify other venues for publication. In fact, during Winter semester, I have built the expectation into my courses that most major assignments will be published.

Because students are thinking in terms of publication, they are already taking a more serious approach to their research. For example, one of my undergraduate students is conducting preliminary research that will lead to a very valuable article which will assist the graduate students and university faculty members who are the primary readers of HASTAC blogs. Even during their first day in the library, students working on the Ocelot Scholars project are already framing their research in terms of how it could benefit others. From day one, writing for the professor--an audience of one--is not their goal.

Richtel and others who argue for the primacy of term papers incorrectly assume that blogs are somehow frivolous or do not rely on research. A well written, well documented blog entry could require even more research and writing than a traditional term paper or documented essay. The analyses assigned to my film students serve as an example. While I do not really care where students publish their film analyses this semester, I care greatly that academic research is incorporated into the analyses. Without serious research, students will not get credit for their blog entries. Asking them to write blogs is not asking them to sacrifice academic content.

Arguing about the form in which the research is presented—blog, term paper, video, et cetera—is not very useful. We need a discussion about the virtue of publication and the benefits that result from students interacting with a real audience; something that is generally not possible with the traditional term paper assignment.

By publishing blogs instead of traditional research papers, students can write for real audiences, get real feedback, and contribute to real academic discussions. And, like me, they will put more effort into assignments designed for publications than they will for papers or Final Travel Narratives which have virtually no audience.

--Steven L. Berg, PhD



Suggestions for Further Reading

Bauerlein, Mike. “Blogs and Term Papers” (Chronicle of Higher Education. 23 January 2012).

Davidson, Cathy N. “Davidson at Dartmouth: ‘Distraction is Our Friend‘” (YouTube video).

Davidson, Cathy N. “Should We Really ABOLISH the Term Paper? A Response to the New York Times” (HASTAC. 21 January 2012).

Fister, Barbara. “This Short Blog Post is All About Me or, Term Papers on Trial — Again“ (Inside Higher Ed. 2 January 2012).

Jacobs, Alan. “Are Research Papers Obsolete?” (Atlantic, 25 January 2012).

Marshall, Eric. "Blogs in Class." (A Memorable Fancy, 21 January 2012).

Pannapacker, William. “Invisible Gorillas Are Everywhere” (Chronicle of Higher Education. 23 January 2012).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers” (New York Times. 20 January 2012).

sglass

Research Paper Dissatisfaction

I teach "the big research paper" to 11th graders.  I can't begin to express my dissatisfaction with it at this point.  It feels like such an outmoded way to have them explore and discuss a question or issue.  I am looking for ways to open up the process and make it more engaging.  My students use blogs pretty extensively, so I know that is one possible option.  I also found this article pretty interesting/illuminating: Hacking consensus: How can we build better arguments online.  I am curious to know if there is anything else you have tried/come across.

Maria Velazquez

I like asking students to

I like asking students to write a collaborative research paper building a wiki. 

dehertoghlb

Can This Approach Also Be Problematic?

 

Hi Steven,

I enjoyed reading your entry about “blogs vs. term papers.” I too am one of those teachers who have seen students perform their best when they see their work reaching real audiences.

I do, however, have two questions regarding your decision to make your students' writing public: 1.) Are you ever worried that this might unfairly pressure some students (who may struggle as writers) to create “perfect work”?  2.) Furthermore, are there any legal ramifications for “forcing” students to make their work public (assuming that you even do so)?  I have had many sleepless nights mulling over these questions and would love to hear your thoughts/advice!  

houserh

Perfection & Privacy

1. It's purely anecdotal and based only on about 50 students, but my experience is that blog writing actually frees perfectionists from that self pressure. But you have to make it clear to them that this is a different genre from, e.g., a term paper and give them some freedom. I give them a 1-10 score, but I'm pretty generous and don't comment on grammar and the like unless the post is nearing incoherence. In other contexts, I haven't assigned a grade, but that isn't always possible. 2. Check with your college/university. My IT department advised me that there could be FERPA concerns. The way to address those is to encourage or require your students to post under aliases. Since that isn't airtight and people can still determine that a particular student is enrolled in your particular course, explain the FERPA issue and give them an opt out option at the beginning of the term. All of my students opted in, but, if one hadn't, I would have made her/him send the post to me directly and found another way to disseminate it to the others.

dehertoghlb

A Good Starting Place

Hi Heather,

Thank you for taking the time to follow-up on my questions. I like the idea of using a liberal grading approach with blog writing.  It would indeed be stifling if students felt like they couldn’t be themselves in an online space like a blog.  Plus, the fact that they know their writing may be public inherently encourages them to write well.  (A bonus, since it’s usually the teacher who plays this role!)

Yes, the idea of having students use aliases isn’t airtight, but a good starting place. I also like the idea of giving them an opt-out option.  Another possibility is asking students to sign a “contract” where they either grant or deny permission to the instructor to post their content on the main class website.  This ultimately puts the power back where it belongs—in the students’ hands.

Thanks again for your feedback.  :)