Is a writing a blog as valuable a writing experience as writing an academic term paper? Can the writing of a blog be made academically more rigorous in order to compete with the more traditional term paper? Or does the blog vs. term paper argument cloud a more critical academic problem… that our students do not read well enough to write in either format?
Matt Richtel, a reporter who writes about technology in education in the NY Times, recently published a piece, Blogs vs. Term Papers (1/20/12) regarding Duke University’s English professor Cathy N. Davidson’s embrace of the blog in place of the traditional term paper. He writes that, “Professor Davidson makes heavy use of the blog and the ethos it represents of public, interactive discourse. Instead of writing a quarterly term paper, students now regularly publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog about the issues and readings they are studying in class, along with essays for public consumption.”
The traditional term paper in any number of disciplines of prescribed lengths of 5, 7, 10 or more pages has been centered for decades on a standard formula incorporating thesis, evidence, argument and conclusion. In the article, Davidson expresses her dislike for formula writing, including the five paragraph essay taught in middle and high schools and claims that, “This mechanistic writing is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers.” She notes that, “It’s a formula, but good writing plays with formulas, and changes formulas.”
Davidson is not alone. Ritchel claims that “across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses.” This movement from term paper to blog has many academics up in arms.
Running parallel to this argument of academic writing was the position offered by William H. Fitzhugh, author and founder of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school students’ research papers. In the NY Times article, Fitzhugh discussed how high school educators “shy away from rigorous academic writing, giving students the relative ease of writing short essays.” Fitzhugh makes the argument that students are required to read less which directly impacts their ability to write well.
Fitzhugh wrote about academic writing in Meaningful Work for American Educator (Winter 2011-2012) taking the position that reading is at the core of good academic student writing; “To really teach students how to write, educators must give them examples of good writing found in nonfiction books and require students to read them, not skim them, cover to cover.” Good writing reflects knowledge and understanding that comes from reading, not skimming. Fitzhugh recommends that, “Reading nonfiction contributes powerfully to the knowledge that students need in order to read more difficult material—the kind they will surely face in college. But more importantly, the work of writing a research paper will lead students to read more and become more knowledgeable in the process. As any good writer knows, the best writing emerges from a rich store of knowledge that the author is trying to pass on. Without that knowledge and the motivation to share it, all the literacy strategies in the world will not make much difference.”
From my experiences in the classroom, I see the veracity of both Davidson and Fitzhugh’s positions. I believe that the form of student writing is not the problem, and the blog vs. term paper debate, at least at the high school level where I teach, is not as controversial as at the college level. My job is to teach students to write well, and a great deal of my average school day is currently given to encouraging students to write in these multiple formats in order to prepare them for the real world. I know that students can be taught to write well in term papers, blogs, essays, letters or any other format.However, the students need to read well in order to write well about a topic. The conundrum is that unless today’s high school students are provided time in class, they do not read the material.
A student’s inability to read independently for homework results in a reduction in both the amount of reading assigned and the class time to process the reading. Students who do not read well at the high school level are unprepared for the rigors of college curriculum which requires much more independent reading in non-fiction. Ultimately, the problem for teachers in high school is not the form in which students write. The problem is getting students to both read and understand assigned readings that come from many disciplines-fiction and non-fiction. Only then can the blog vs. term paper debate be addressed as a measure of academic writing.