Blogs vs. Research Papers vs. NYTimes vs. Cathy Davidson

Cathy Davidson of Duke and HASTAC fame is one smart cookie and last week she had this interesting post/response to this New York Times article, “Blogs Vs. Term Papers” by Matt Ritchtel.  I came across this one kind of backwards, via Davidson first, though it works as well IMO to read her first and Ritchtel second as it would to work it in the original order.  It’s interesting stuff as much because of the reporting and response on display here as much as the subject matter itself, so I’d encourage to read both of those on your own first.  The order is up to you.

A few thoughts in response (to the response or the original?):

  • I completely understand Davidson’s take on being misquoted at best and misrepresented at worse in Ritchtel’s article.  I’ve been interviewed by reporters for different things over the last decade or so 2 or 3 times and I have learned to be extremely careful about what I say.  Because let’s face it:  Ritchtel knew the story he wanted to tell and then he went out and found people to talk to confirm that story and when they didn’t, he told his story anyway.  I don’t think that this was a “I’m just going to observe the world and report the truth” sort of piece, and I frankly think true “reporting” is rather rare in journalism nowadays.  Feel free to call me cynical.
  • Having said that, while Davidson might be misquoted and feel used and abused here, Ritchtel does come around to talk about the problem of the false dichotomy of blogs versus term papers.  Sort of.  He writes:

    “As Professor [Andrea] Lunsford illustrates, choosing to educate using either blogs or term papers is something of a false opposition. Teachers can use both. And blogs, a platform that seems to encourage rambling exercises in personal expression, can also be well crafted and meticulously researched. At the same time, the debate is not a false one: while some educators fear that informal communication styles are increasing duress on traditional training, others find the actual paper fundamentally anachronistic.”

    I’ll get to some of the problems there about his definition of blogs as “rambling exercises” in a second.

  • Davidson tells a compelling story of giving up on research paper writing assignments in her first year composition class at Michigan State back in the 1980s. Instead, her student wrote resumes and letters of application and she turned her class into what she describes as a mini employment agency of sorts.  She also says she got in trouble for this.  I don’t disagree with this approach entirely, but what Davidson has done here (and I suspect she realizes this but doesn’t weigh in on the matter) is stumble into one of the long-standing and unsettled arguments about the purpose of first year composition:  is it for students to write “for life” and beyond the classroom, or is it to write “for school” and for upcoming classes in these students’ academic experiences?  The simple answer is both, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to abandon research and academic writing entirely.  Maybe her students were able to get some kind of job for the summer, but how’d they do writing research-oriented essays in their other classes in the next year or two?  Oh, and as someone who has been a WPA off and on a few times, I have a lot of sympathy with the person who had to tell Davidson to get with the program.
  • There is no debate between “research papers or blogs” much in the same way there is no debate between peanut butter and jelly, and everybody– even Richtel sort of– admits that.  But what exactly do these people mean by “blog?”  Richtel suggests that the definition of blog is based on content– the blog as genre approach– but even that’s inconsistent because while he says blogs can “also be well crafted and researched,” he suggests it is more often a form that is “rambling,” focused on personal response, and anarchistic.  Davidson more positively characterizes the genre blogging/blog writing as context specific, urgent, compelling, and interactive.

    I’ve written and presented about all this in many other places, but I think the short answer is blogging is perhaps best understood as a publishing platform much in the same way that paper books are (maybe were) platforms, and what one publishes in both depends a lot on your purposes, intending audience, etc.  It seems pretty clear to me that Davidson is not asking her students to blog about whatever they want– personal and anarchistic writing is likely not encouraged.  That’s great, but it seems to me they don’t really agree on what blogging even is.
  • Davidson points out that she’s working with an exceptional group of students at Duke, young people who I think likely fall into that top 1% in all kinds of ways and who are eager to take what sounds like a pretty cool class, “This is Your Brain on the Internet.”  I’d like to suggest that this is what makes her students’ writing compelling, not blogging per se.  To paraphrase myself from “When Blogging Goes Bad” for a moment, just because you give students the opportunity to write in a powerful and public space like a blog doesn’t mean they will automatically write.  Students (and everyone else, I suppose) needs a reason to write, be that reason personal or an assignment in a class.  I’ve assigned blog writing in many different ways in classes where I was probably not as compelling an instructor as Davidson and where the students were significantly less motivated and/or academically inclined, and I can assure you that the  platform/genre of blogging did not magically translate into success.
  • Finally, Davidson will get no argument from me or most contemporary comp/rhet scholars that there isn’t much point to assigning traditional research papers, meaning the “go out and write a research paper” assignment with no discussion of audience, purpose, apparatus for supporting process, etc.  This might be the difference between teaching composition now and teaching it 30 years ago.  But I am increasingly convinced that the reason why students write more effectively with new web tools (blogs, wikis, Google docs, and before that, web 1.0 web sites, newsgroups, and before that, MOOs/MUDs, email mailing lists, etc.) is largely the novelty of it all.  And blogs can certainly can become stale busywork when students get assigned blogs again and again and when they are used poorly.  In fact, at this point, the most novel thing a good teacher like Davidson might be able to do is to restrict students to writing a paper-based five paragraph essay.  Heck, require it to be typed with a typewriter– it’d be a history lesson for students.

3 thoughts on “Blogs vs. Research Papers vs. NYTimes vs. Cathy Davidson”

  1. I agree with everything you write here, especially number 4, where you point out that people like Ritchtel attack blogs without really defining what they are or allowing for the myriad types of blogs or uses to which they can be put.

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