Posted in English 1103, Teaching, Writing

ENG 1103: “On its Face, Who Could Disagree with the Transformation?”: Revisiting Richtel’s Report on the Blog-Term Paper Question

In The New York Times article “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of City University of New York’s Cathy N. Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for the American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations. Although Richtel’s article appears to present an objective account of the disagreements among experts, a close examination of the diction and structure of “Blogs vs. Term Papers” reveals an implicit preference for the innovations advocated by Davidson and Lundsford.

The opening paragraph of Richtel’s article focuses on the academic paper as a primary cause of “angst, profanity, and caffeine consumption” among high school and college students. In stark contrast to the images of the term paper-induced misery in his lead, Richtel writes in the second paragraph that students may be “rejoicing” because Cathy Davidson—a professor at Duke when Richtel interviewed her—favors replacing the term paper with the blog. Richtel refers to Davidson as a “champion” for students and outlines her use of a course blog as a practice that has become commonplace in a variety of academic disciplines. Richtel reports that blogs provide students with a “feeling of relevancy” and “instant feedback,” then poses the question: “[W]hy punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?”

From that question Richtel turns to the argument of defenders of the traditional academic paper, namely that the term paper teaches essential components of writing and thinking that may be absent from blog posts. Yet after letting the advocates of old-school writing have their say, Richtel undercuts their claim with this one-sentence paragraph: “Their reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?” To assert that defenders of traditional academic writing carry their opponents’ argument to an absurd conclusion presents those advocates of old-school writing as purveyors of the same flawed logic that their own traditional rhetoric supposedly teaches students to avoid.

Notably, the one-sentence paragraph, unlike paragraphs with multiple sentences, places heavy emphasis on a single idea. It says to readers, this is important. By introducing an apparent contradiction in the argument of the advocates of old-school writing, Richtel subverts their claim; and by presenting that incongruity as a one-sentence paragraph, he highlights the issue.

Richtel’s reductio ad absurdum paragraph is one of only two one-sentence paragraphs in his article. The other consists entirely of Professor Davidson’s own words. Speaking of the mechanistic quality of the term paper, she says: “As a writer, it offends me deeply.” In addition to devoting that one-sentence paragraph to Davidson’s negative feelings about term papers, Richtel returns to those feelings of hers at the end of his article and lets Davidson have the last word, literally.

In the final paragraphs of the article, Richtel recounts a tutoring session Davidson conducted with a community college student. Though she frowned on his assignment’s rigid guidelines—including prescribed sentence length—she told the student to follow the rules, knowing that teaching him what she deemed the best practice might have led the student to fail. Reflecting on that moment, Davidson said, “I hated teaching him bad writing,” and with those words of hers,  Richtel’s article ends.

Along with giving Davidson the last word, Richtel devotes far more of his article to the new literacies she and Lunsford foster in their students. Arguably, the innovative nature of the work could account for the considerable space that Richtel devotes to it. After all, what readers are familiar with—in this case the traditional term paper—isn’t news. But the preponderance of word choices that place old literacies in a negative light combined with a structure that diminishes the merits of old-school writing reveals Richtel’s implicit preference for Davidson’s and Lundsford’s innovations.

Readers revisiting Richtel’s article now, nearly ten years after he wrote it, may wonder how he would respond to the question he poses about the shift from page to screen: “On its Face, Who Could Disagree with the Transformation?” Richtel wrote “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in 2012, the year deemed the year of the MOOCs (massive open online courses). Once touted as the key to revolutionizing higher education, their success has been hampered by the same issues linked to the learning losses experienced during the pandemic. For the many students who have had little or no face-to-face instruction—writing or otherwise—in recent memory, more technology may not seem like an answer, much less an innovation.

Work Cited

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-term-paper-tradition.html.