Here is a story in the New York Times about an issue in higher education writing assignments. It begins with Duke professor Cathy Davidson’s aim “to eradicate the term paper and replace it with the blog.” To Cathy, the long research paper is a “mechanistic” practice that “is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers.”
Others weigh in and defend the term paper, such as Douglas Reeves, founder of Harcourt’s Leadership and Learning Center, who says,
“Writing term papers is a dying art, but those who do write them have a dramatic leg up in terms of critical thinking, argumentation and the sort of expression required not only in college, but in the job market. It doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting blogs. But nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.”
And Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review, who attributes the decline of the research paper not to educational principle but to the reduced number of pages of reading required in high school classes. (The story doesn’t cite it, but NAEP data supports Fitzhugh’s assertion of shorter readings.)
I hesitate to criticize Prof Davidson, who contributed to this volume I edited last year, but a few words in defense of the long paper are in order precisely on the grounds that she and, in an implicit way, Andrea Lunsford of Stanford assert in the article.
The long research paper is sometimes considered an anachronism. Literacy has changed, people say, and 21st Century skills highlight the diverse, participatory practices of the Web, not the 19th-century skills of the term paper. Okay, but only to an extent. What about those professions in which lengthy, linear writing still matters. In law, medicine, science, and business, many communications still involve following a single issue through many pages, summoning research, compiling evidence, and composing it all in direct, objective, pertinent ways. To compose an argument over a dozen pages, to go in depth without interruption, to assemble data and citations in orderly fashion . . . the ability to do so improves with relevant homework assignments. True, the culture at large is moving toward faster and shorter communications, but here the answer is not to make the classroom an imitative one, but rather an adversarial one. With teenagers on cell phones running up 3,339 texts per month on average (according to Nielsen), piling up Facebook hours, tweeting, etc., with social media suffusing every hour and space of their leisure lives, the slow reading and slow writing classroom is a crucial and critical complement to the digital realm. Professor Lunsford is right that students have more passion for the latter, but that is all the more reason to resist in, now and then, on campus.
In my classes I include both types of assignments, short, one-page writings and longer 7-page papers (I rarely go over 10 pages these days, but I try to make the class have 25-30 pages of finished writing overall.) I also make students bring in their rough drafts so that we may go over them sentence by sentence, word by word. (I’m lucky to have small classes.) It is a novel experience for many of them. To have a reader pause over the placement of a modifier, and to have to think about such things as a writer, is altogether new. The deliberation simply doesn’t go along with digital communication habits. Until we see students paying closer attention to diction and syntax, we should keep traditional writing assignments as a good portion of the work.