January 23, 2012

"Cathy N. Davidson, an English professor at Duke, wants to eradicate the term paper and replace it with the blog."

Matt Richtel writes in the NYT:
Across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses. On its face, who could disagree with the transformation? Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications? Pointedly, why punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?

Because, say defenders of rigorous writing, the brief, sometimes personally expressive blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing. They argue that the old format was less about how Sherman got to the sea and more about how the writer organized the points, fashioned an argument, showed grasp of substance and proof of its origin. Its rigidity wasn’t punishment but pedagogy.
That's a bogus complaint. Just require the blog posts to be well-written! Davidson has her students "regularly publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog." These are as long as the essays law students write on the exams that often constitute the entire basis for their grade in a semester long course. These entries are essays, and they are no more "personally expressive" (read: indulgent) than a term paper if the teacher states that the assignment is to write something structured/neutral/scholarly (or whatever the directions for a term paper are).
The debate about academic writing has given rise to new terminology: “old literacy” refers to more traditional forms of discourse and training; “new literacy” stretches from the blog and tweet to multimedia presentation with PowerPoint and audio essay.
These are just different ways of publishing. It's the content that matters. But, obviously, different technologies promote different kinds of thinking and writing. For example, when we used typewriters, we didn't do as much redrafting as we do with computers, and when we publish on line, we tend to go public faster.

Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford, says "that students feel much more impassioned by the new literacy. They love writing for an audience, engaging with it. They feel as if they’re actually producing something personally rewarding and valuable, whereas when they write a term paper, they feel as if they do so only to produce a grade."

There's a certain sort of teacher who's always imagining stimulating the students to new levels of passion. I suspect students can find this quite annoying and burdensome. Not only does the student have to write a lot, he's supposed to be all excited about it. Because teacher says blogging is exciting. But the blog can be a slog. It's not a slog for me, because I'm motivated from within. I make my own projects and do what I want. The intrinsic reward is fantastic. But I don't imagine that I could make students feel the same thing if they have to write when and where I tell them to and submit to my judgment for a grade.

Here's Davidson's book — which I just bought — "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn." I'm interested in this subject, but also skeptical. Back in the 1960s I read "The Medium Is the Massage," by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, and I chanced upon a copy of it last week at Waterloo Records in Austin — the greatest record store in the country (maybe!). Yeah, I bought a book about media in a record store. One of my reading things is to read books that were once and within my memory a big deal in our culture.

On the drive home from Austin to Madison, as the passenger, I read the entire old book out loud. It's full of effusions about how are brains have changed because of "the high speeds of electric communication." McLuhan and Fiore were talking about television.
Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors in the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.
That was in 1967! If what they're saying were true when they wrote it, by now — with the internet and mobile devices — we'd all be crazy.

(Yes, yes, maybe we are crazy now. How would we know? By looking at election results?)

IN THE COMMENTS: FedkaTheConvict said:
Duke's Group of 88 Cathy Davidson?
Oh, my... The internet comes back to bite a pundit of internetology.

69 comments:

Craig said...

I always like getting massages from my medium.

chuck b. said...

I have that book. It's sitting on the bookshelf right next to me. It was my dad's, and I guess he must have read it for his MFA. Opening a page at random, I see he underlined this:
"Our 'Age of Anxiety' is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools--with yesterday's concepts."

No page numbers!

Chip S. said...

“new literacy” stretches from the blog and tweet to multimedia presentation with PowerPoint and audio essay.

Surely this should be called "post literacy".

Freeman Hunt said...

That was in 1967! If what they're saying were true when they wrote it, by now — with the internet and mobile devices — we'd all be crazy.

So then it must be true!

(Yes, yes, maybe we are crazy now. How would we know? By looking at election results?)

There's definitely some supporting evidence to be found there.

chuck b. said...

I think he only read the first half because the underlinings and marginal notes stop half-way through, at "The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models of exploration--the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth."

Oy...

(he only underlined the part before the dash)

Nonapod said...

I think it's a good idea.

When people think "blog", they seem to automatically think of something that's casually (poorly) written. But shockingly it is possible to create a well written blog post.

Having the immediate feedback of not only the course Professor but your fellow students seems interesting.

Freeman Hunt said...

I wouldn't classify the effect as "crazy" though. I'd probably go with "stupid," or, in a dark mood, "profoundly stupid."

Freeman Hunt said...

As for being forced to write a blog, how awful. Is one then forced to interact in the comments of the forced blog? What a tedious timesuck that could become.

ricpic said...

Just require the blog posts to be well-written!

Wow. I'm in total agreement.

How is taking the trouble to write a second or third draft of a blog post before clicking any different than doing the same before submitting a term paper?

BJM said...

How does this mesh with brick & mortar higher education's hostility to online courses?

Marshal said...

Another Group of 88 member prospering despite her efforts to support a witchhunt.

deborah said...

I'm interested in the topic of how the internet may have changed the way we think. I looked at two or three books on audible, for listening while driving. Can't remember any exact titles because I'm fairly certain the internet has changed the way I think.

I feel badly that reading books seems somewhat of a chore. I've become hooked on blog candy...yum, Althouse!

I have a stack of books, books on Kindle, but am in a kind of rudderless morass when it comes to reading. I even downloaded an e-reader program to read long articles, but it's rather a pain to copy and paste them into the reader. lol

FedkaTheConvict said...

Duke's Group of 88 Cathy Davidson?

FedkaTheConvict said...

K.C. Johnson could well have been commenting on Davidson's idea about blogging: Davidson Does Grading


"In other words, the Davidson/Duggan scheme improves the grades of “students without previous educational privilege” and disadvantages students who write well. What happens if those “students without previous educational privilege” might expect to leave college having received instruction on how to write at a high level? Well, apparently, they’re out of luck."

Chip S. said...

from Fedka's link:

NYU professor Lisa Duggan ... tells Davidson that she has “done something like this with my big undergrad class ... for years now. [Students] do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check [!!] from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there.

Didn't Woody Allen go to NYU briefly? Maybe that's where he got the idea that 90% of life is just showing up.

David said...

Davidson's view of grading, according to the blog cited at Fedka's link above:

“I'm trying out a new point system. Do all the work, you get an A. Don't need an A? Don't have time to do all the work? No problem. You can aim for and earn a B. There will be a chart. You do the assignment satisfactorily, you get the points.”

And how to evaluate whether a student has done the work? “Since I already have structured my seminar (it worked brilliantly last year) so that two students lead us in every class, they can now also read all the class blogs (as they used to) and pass judgment on whether they are satisfactory.”

veni vidi vici said...

1500 word blog entries?

The only appropriate response, then, is this:

TL;DR

veni vidi vici said...

"Our 'Age of Anxiety' is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools--with yesterday's concepts."

I think that's what Romney was thinking about his oh-so-2008 campaign strategy after South Carolina's results were in.

Ann Althouse said...

"I feel badly that reading books seems somewhat of a chore. I've become hooked on blog candy...yum, Althouse!"

Books feel padded after the concision of blogging. Let the book writers step up their game.

veni vidi vici said...

"The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models of exploration--the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth."

This sounds like it was written just as the whole "Authoritative Organization Man writing for the collective 'Us'" style of discourse jumped the shark. No wonder he didn't read the whole thing.


wv: "rearybid" -- election campaign outreach strategy focusing on the gay vote

Palladian said...

Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here...

edutcher said...

Somehow, the new literacy seems like the new morality.

Each translates into what was considered bad form a generation earlier.

And works about as well.

Agree with Ann on content, but I don't think most profs would.

veni vidi vici said...

Not being disingenuous (nor am I making a "rearybid" lol) but have to say, it's nice to see Palladian back here after he seemed to be away for a hiatus a few months back.

His are some great comments because he seems to have a very good disposition that makes a big part of the Althouse blog experience so rewarding.


wv: "pownedg" -- seriously?

shiloh said...

"Let the book writers step up their game."

That would be quite a task keeping up w/this blog.

Of course some writers/and blog owners tailor their books/sites to a certain segment of society, whereas the really good writers try to reach everyone.

ricpic said...

...the really good writers try to reach everyone.

Dame Barbara Cartland isn't a really good writer no matter what you think, shiloh.

Ann Althouse said...

Okay, I returned the Kindle book I'd bought.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Really good writers do not try to " reach" everyone. Really good writers recognize that there is quite a small audience for their work. Sometimes they are surprised to the upside.

Henry said...

the brief ... blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing

Learning how to be brief is a key aspect of thinking and writing.

The first thing that goes wrong with student papers is the thesis statement. Just getting students to write one clear, pointed sentence is hard! Who wants to read 15 pages of meandering prose based on a foggy, poorly conceived idea?

Blogging gives you lots of practice writing headlines and ledes.

I once read an interview by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. In film school, in the time the other students took to create one finely-crafted 10 minute video, they would make twenty crappy, 30-second videos. They used to really annoy their peers.

William Newman said...

Ann Althouse wrote "Books feel padded after the concision of blogging. Let the book writers step up their game."

I recommend starting with Kernighan and Ritchie _The C Programming Language_, then working through Landau and Lifschitz _Mechanics_ if K&R wasn't concise enough, and continuing on to Spivak's _Calculus on Manifolds_ if L&L wasn't concise enough.

Kirk Parker said...

"Yes, yes, maybe we are crazy now. How would we know?"

By reading Kierkegaard?

deborah said...

Althouse said, 'books feel padded.'

I want to read Russian novels, but the time it takes. I would like to see some good abridged versions (sacrilege). For now I've decided to just listen to some on audio books on car trips. I've gotten a couple, one of which is Brothers Karamazov, cut by one-third. Also would like the same for Dickens.

Joe said...

pages of meandering prose based on a foggy, poorly conceived idea?

This pretty much describes the blogosphere and most politicians statements.

Scott M said...

Also would like the same for Dickens.

Don't you mean Edmund Wells?

shiloh said...

"Okay, I returned the Kindle book I'd bought."

Now you just need to delete this blog, as much as your conservative lemmings would be disappointed.

deborah said...

I went looking for a McLuhan quote I like...something about the television screen being thin, yet infinite. The quotes I saw though were awfully bullshitty/dated sounding.

Ann Althouse said...

"I want to read Russian novels, but the time it takes. I would like to see some good abridged versions (sacrilege). For now I've decided to just listen to some on audio books on car trips. I've gotten a couple, one of which is Brothers Karamazov, cut by one-third. Also would like the same for Dickens."

Those books, from that period, were about passing time. You got inside the book and it kept you going for a long time. That was the point! If you don't have time you want to fill, you're probably not going to take the journey those books offer.

Michael said...

You are only cheating yourself if you read abridged Dickens and the great Russian novelists. Dont do it!

deborah said...

lol Scott I had to google that to catch the reference, though I'm familiar with the sketch.

deborah said...

Okay, okay, Michael, but can I listen to them on audiobooks? A superbly rendered reading is a joy.

deborah said...

"Those books, from that period, were about passing time. You got inside the book and it kept you going for a long time."

Pre-cisely.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

On the drive home from Austin to Madison, as the passenger, I read the entire old book out loud

This explains the speed in which you arrived at home.

If I were Meade, I would put my pedal to the metal too just to get you to stop reading!!

:-P

Palladian said...

deborah is looking for "the expurgated versions".

Scott M said...

Scott I had to google that to catch the reference, though I'm familiar with the sketch.

I know it by heart, I'm afraid. It's a curse.

Ann Althouse said...

"If I were Meade, I would put my pedal to the metal too just to get you to stop reading!!"

I don't read anything he doesn't want to hear (not out loud, anyway).

We had some great conversations from the material in this book (and the book is concise).

We alternated between reading that book (and the new issue of Adbusters) out loud, reading stuff on the iPad (from the web and Kindle books), listening to Audiobooks, listening to music, listening to talk/news satellite radio, conversation, and silence. It was great. Really, the forced company of a long car ride is a distinctive human experience, much better than being crowded here and there on some airline's scheduling.

roesch/voltaire said...

Consider "Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder," by Liu, Sun vonDenne at. al for interesting notes on whether or not our brain is changed by exposure to certain environments. Or note the inability of current students to put in the long hours of study required by STEM courses.

Dust Bunny Queen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palladian said...

I'm just envious that you can read in a car. If I even glance at text while in a car, I become nauseous.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I don't read anything he doesn't want to hear (not out loud, anyway).

We had some great conversations from the material in this book (and the book is concise).

I was joking. (It isn't like you were reading a bodice ripper outloud and making Mead listen. That would put the pedal to the metal :-)

My husband and I read to each other all the time. From various articles on the Internet or passages from various books that we are reading at the time. It often sparks some interesting discussions.

We are doing it right now since we are snowed in.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Really, the forced company of a long car ride is a distinctive human experience,

The true test of a budding relationship is to take a very long car trip together.

If you can enjoy being in such close quarters for a prolonged time it is a good sign. To be able to be comfortable and happy with each other through conversation, periods of silence and how you handle the inconveniences of travel is a telling experience.

If you get on each other's nerves after only 300 miles, just imagine after 20 years!!

EDH said...

As to books being "padded", I agree.

I can imagine eBooks eventually being edited and distributed with "abridgement levels" that allow the reader to alternatively select among different levels of detail.

Plus, did Althouse use a speech recognition device to write this post?

On the drive home from Austin to Madison, as the passenger, I read the entire old book out loud. It's full of effusions about how are brains have changed because of "the high speeds of electric communication."

Amy Schley said...

Those books, from that period, were about passing time.

With all due respect, many of those books were about filling an author's weekly line count in the magazine in which the story was being published. I can't speak for Tolstoy, but Dumas, Dickens, and Hugo were all writing their "novels" a chapter a week being paid by the line. Frankly, sacrilege it may seem, I would love to see someone trim down Les Mis. Yes, it has some fantastic plotting, which should stay, but we can easily do without the dissertation on street argot, for example. Likewise, the Hunchback of Notre Dame could do without the essay on architecture versus writing as forms of communication with the divine. Several of the lauded classics are great in spite of, not because of, their length.

Crunchy Frog said...

Frankly, sacrilege it may seem, I would love to see someone trim down Les Mis. Yes, it has some fantastic plotting, which should stay, but we can easily do without the dissertation on street argot, for example.

But what would we do without eight chapters on the Parisian sewer system?

If there were anyone in serious need of an editor, it was Hugo.

Kirk Parker said...

"Althouse said, 'books feel padded.'... ... ... I want to read Russian novels"

Hey, I feel that way about some of Tchaikowski's symphonies, too. :-) Lots of padding, like he thought (probably rightly) that a movement in a symphony needed to be at least X minutes long (but alas he only had X-N minutes of inspiration.)

Amartel said...

The medium is the massage except on the internet where the massage is the medium.

Amartel said...

Exactly, a certain sort of teacher is always trying to be all au courant and relate to the students. (Perfect example of the breed in "Bad Teacher" which was a bad movie but still.) Just assign a paper, don't try to be all hip and clever and make them blog for a grade. Blogs are supposed to be works in progress. No doubt information accrual techniques have changed and the brain has adapted somehow but don't pretend to know how or even how best to exploit the change and adaptation.

Mel said...

Bloggers are so full of themselves. Maybe she's trying to save some trees.

Ann Althouse said...

"I'm just envious that you can read in a car. If I even glance at text while in a car, I become nauseous."

I was like that too when I was younger. It completely changed at some point. There are some advantages to getting older. There's that. Plus the ability to nap, including in the car. A lot of things get easier!

IggyRules said...

No. Formatting and flow are compromised. Half the battle in writing is structure. Silly idea that I'm sure will be embraced as the new vogue.

John said...

I've been teaching in class since 1982 and online since 2009.

In an online course on Strategic Management one of the assignments was for each student to do a blog (Using Blackboard)

Week 1 - Pick a company to evaluate strategically and explain why.

Week 2 - Background and current state of the company.

Week 3 strengths

Etc.

There was also a requirement, for turn in at week 12, for a report on the company.

The idea was that the report should be a synthesis of the various blog entries.

I graded each week's blog entry, students were expected to comment on other student's blogs.

I was very impressed at how it came out. The reports were far higher quality than in other classes I have taught with only the report due at the end.

Most students start working on reports a couple days before they are due (I know I always did) and it shows.

This forced them into a discipline of working on it a little bit each week.

I will use the same techniques wherever applicable. I was very pleased with the results.

John Henry

Penny said...

John Henry, congrats on teaching kids some personal discipline, and hopefully, good habits that they'll take with them for the rest of their lives.

Beth said...

The freshman composition program I teach in requires about 3500-4000 words over the course of a semester, spread over two projects, each requiring short and long writing assignments, and incorporating research.

We are also required to work in some media other than print, and I use those shorter assignments for that purpose. I like what John Henry describes, as it takes short, low-stakes work and builds a longer work from that, with feedback that encourages editing and revision along the way. I think Lundsford is right about the value of finding an audience.

I like to offer students options of which blogging is only one; another option is to keep a research journal using delicious, bookmarking and annotating their research as it develops.

Essays are the core of composition class in my teaching, but a lot of different elements can go into learning to research, develop, revise and edit good essays.

Kurt said...

I'm late to the discussion as usual, but while FedkaTheConvict pointed out that Davidson was a member of the group of 88 no one seems to have yet mentioned her ridiculous, recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education lamenting the use of pepper spray against "Occupy" protestors at UC Davis. The piece was entitled "A Plea to College Presidents: Exercise Your Moral Leadership" and in it she complains about the students at UC Davis being unnecessarily "victimized" by campus police, and how college presidents should never call campus police to deal with protestors, and so on and so forth. Funny how she was so willing to attack and victimize students who, it turned out, were falsely accused at Duke. As one might expect, K.C. Johnson has much more on her astounding hypocrisy at his blog.

David R. Graham said...

"Let the book writers step up their game."

Their books would lose filler and go to pamphlets and their publishers would reject them for commercial inviability.

The economics of book publishing would collapse.

Upon graduating from seminary I set myself the task of writing the Bible in three pages. This was in the days of mimeograph machines.

I accomplished the task. Somewhere the result may stil be in the teepee, not sure it is.

But I realized then (late 60s) that I had no future in commercial publishing. I could not make the product long enough to interest publishers because what required saying could be said so succinctly it was not commercially viable.

That is still the case. What we see/read is 99% fill.

Blogging is a godsend for self-publishing, but the content to fill ratio remains as it is in commercial publishing, @ 1-99. So I stopped blogging.

Easier to just think and realize. That goes out on the universal commo lines ... without an internet access fee. What was Teilhard's word for those? Just as effective as commercial-or self-publishing. Probably more so because it appears anonymous.

... and comment occasionally, of course. But a book? Impossible! Unnecessary! Redundant!

Egon said...

I've often wondered what it is about blogging that I enjoy so much. "A feeling of relevancy," is certainly one of the reasons.

Thanks for drawing my attention to this article.

craig said...

How about we eradicate the English professor and replace it with the blog instead? The quality of learning would probably improve.

madAsHell said...

We r so f**ked

yetanotherjohn said...

I actually see a lot of value in a series of "blog posts" showing the student's work in progress. Tidbits of research can be posted, first drafts, revisions (and perhaps why), peer critiquing, etc. The paper can be turned in "on time" and the teacher can provide constructive criticism through the process. Of course for those who aren't going to start until the night before, all of this might not be seen as a feature.

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