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.

The MLA’s discovery of “digital scholarship”

Let me first explain why I have such a big chip on my shoulder about all this.  In summary:

  • I’ve had some kind of web site where I’ve published various scholarly and non-scholarly things since about 1994.
  • I can’t remember if this was in 1995 or 1996, but somewhere in there, I was one of the first members of the editorial board of Kairos, one of the first if not the first completely web-based and multimedia-oriented “journals” for work on computers and writing.
  • I published my dissertation online (along with the more traditional paper format, of course), also in 1996.  That site has been visited thousands and thousands of times, and while I am quite sure most people stumble across it and leave, I do get an email once in a while about it, folks at conferences tell me they’ve read parts of it once in a while, it gets cited here and there, etc.
  • In 2001, I gave a presentation– at the MLA convention in New Orleans no less!– titled “Where Do I List This on My CV? Considering the Value of Self-Published and Maintained Web Sites.”  This was part of a panel on digital scholarship put together by Todd Taylor and that featured myself, Bump Halbritter, and (the clear “headliner”) Gary Olson.  We had quite a large crowd as I recall, though I will confess it was the only thing I went to that year at the conference– the French Quarter was too close.
  • In 2002, I published an essay version of this in the then brand-new CCC Online.  A few years after that, I was disappeared by NCTE, a result of sloppy handling of online scholarship by NCTE, a practice that is, IMO, continuing (but that’s a different post, really). In any event, in 2007, I published  “’Where Do I List This on My CV?’ Considering the Values of Self-Published Web Sites, Version 2.0” in Kairos.
  • Also in 2007, I went ahead and self-published my failed ultimately rejected by the publisher textbook project, The Process of Research Writing.  And one of these days, I’m going to create a “new edition” based on this one and try to market it myself, but that too is a different post.

So I have experienced a few things about digital scholarship first-hand.  In fact (and I realize this is rather egotistical of me to even admit), the first thing that irritated me about the special section on “Evaluating Digital Scholarship” in the MLA’s Profession 2011 was the fact that no one cited me let alone barely anyone in composition and rhetoric in general or computers and writing particular, two fields/disciplines/groups  that a) have been working on issues of digital publishing for decades, and b) I  thought were areas of interest in English studies and thus MLA.  Though maybe not.

I agree fully with Cheryl Ball’s editorial in Kairos on much of this, and I am sure Cheryl has read and thought about this special issue more carefully than I am likely to anytime soon.  From what I have read at this point, the articles here are pretty good and potentially useful for edifying the clueless those who haven’t contemplated the changing patterns in scholarly publishing in English studies.  I do find it insulting that the introduction pretty much lumps my entire field into “other” as far as MLA is concerned, and there is also for me a bit of a helplessly haughty tone, kind of like the asleep at the wheel captain of that ship that crashed in Italy who has suddenly realized there might be some kind of “sinking problem.”  But this isn’t exactly new.

(Not that NCTE or Kairos has all of this digital/multimedia scholarship stuff completely figured out either, I should point out.  But that too is a different post, and probably the ultimate topic of my CCCCs presentation in St. Louis.  Stay tuned).

I did want to bring up two other issues that are different from what Cheryl and others have brought up.  First, at no point in time (at least as far as I can tell) is there any questioning of what exactly it typically takes (in terms of scholarship) to get tenure.  The assumption seems to be that to get tenure, professors in literature (and other “English” related fields) need to publish a book, that this is a universal standard, and that this is more or less the way it should be.  Thus the crisis in evaluating digital scholarship:  how can we make sure this stuff is as rigorous as a book?  Second, the assumption here seems to be that academic “books” (and their related counterpart, academic “journals”) are going to disappear completely and in the very near future, everything is going to be hyper-this and multimedia-that.

Both of these assumptions are ridiculous.

I’ve been a graduate student or faculty person at four different universities since 1988, and while none of these places have been particularly “prestigious” or “important,” I can name dozens of tenured faculty at these places who have not published a book or much of anything else.  I can point to many other institutions where this is also the case.  To quote myself from version 2 of the “Where do I list this on my CV?” piece:

Perhaps this is so obvious that it goes without saying, although perhaps this is something that is not said enough. I don’t think the variable nature of scholarship (and teaching and service, for that matter) is made clear enough to Ph.D. students as they prepare for academic careers; it certainly wasn’t made very clear to me. I recall the horror stories of the publish-or-perish phenomenon, of assistant professors who had books published by good presses and were still denied tenure. The picture that was painted by my advisors made me think that tenure at most schools was a fifty-fifty proposition, at best.

The fact of the matter is that this happens almost exclusively at Carnegie Classification Research I or Research II institutions, or it happens in situations that probably have more to do with complicated politics and personalities than it does with publications. The vast majority of community colleges, colleges, and universities in this country are not research institutions and do not have the same notions about what does or doesn’t count as scholarship for the purposes of tenure, review, and promotion. Yet this reality is routinely ignored in documents that offer advice and guidelines for tenure, promotion, and review.

And, as a slight tangent to that, because a lot of places like EMU consider lots and lots of different things as “scholarship,” I would argue it is these more common and less prestigious institutions that are ironically on the “cutting edge” when it comes to digital scholarly work.

As to the demise of books and journals:  paper is going away, not books and journals.  I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb in predicting that it will not be long before there is no point in the paper version of academic journals when the PDFs are available through various databases, and when the vast majority of books will be read on kindles, iPads, and other devices.  (And I wait anxiously for Apple’s “GarageBand for Textbooks” announcement, too. That has the potential to shake up this whole “book” thing even more– or not.)

But so what?  The shift from scroll to codex didn’t end books– just changed them.  The same with the advent of print and paper as a medium.  Or let me put it this way:  I will believe this grand transition to something truly different when scholars stop turning to electronic (albeit refereed) journals like Kairos in favor of self-published web sites (especially for the purposes of tenure and review), when people like David Weinberger are invited to speak at a symposium at U of M based on his blog and not his book, and when Kathleen Fitzpatrick (and others) encourage PhD students take risks in a series of tweets or write about the end of publishing in academia on a wiki and not a book.

I do not believe this grand transition is going to happen, and, I have come to believe, it shouldn’t and it can’t happen.  I don’t have time to go into all this now, but I think there is an intrinsic value to a finished, uneditable or commentable and “object-like” (even if it is an electronic one) state of a text.  Not everything should be “in progress” and “in discussion” all the time.  And I am also convinced that all rhetorical situations– like so many other things– must come to some kind of end, and I think that end is print.  Or, in an electronic age, “print.”