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Blogging vs. Term Papers

January 22, 2012

I’m a big fan of Matt Richtel’s writing at the NY Times, ever since hearing him talk about his series on technology and the brain on Fresh Air. Today he has written a piece on the debate in higher education between professors who have their students write “new literacy” blogs and those who prefer the “old literacy” term paper. The argument for the former says that the authentic audience and possibility for response are part of what makes blogging impactful. Supporters of the term paper feel its research, argumentative logic, and structure make it more intellectually rigorous than the blog, which from this vantage point generally looks like so much navel-gazing.

I think the longest paper I wrote in college was a 12- or 15-pager written for a seminar called Photographs as Historic Documents. I researched a Civil War photograph of a Union construction of a railroad trestle. In addition to the paper I gave a short presentation to my classmates and our instructors, the fabulous Wanda and Joe Corn (Joe was my advisor). I remember how great it felt to dive into a topic and to emerge feeling like a bit of an expert on this one glimpse of our nation’s history. I thought it was a highly valuable experience, and I know it helped me develop both analytical and expressive skills.

The flip side to this, of course, is that like most of us, I don’t often do work that produces anything that looks like a research paper, nor does my urge to write ever prompt me to crank one out. Yet intellectual rigor can also be a hallmark of effective blogs–it certainly is something I strive for in my writing. While millions of us blog because it lets us share our passions, reach a real audience, and react to the world around us, the best ones are those that produce new ideas, which we then mix with our own to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the things we care about.

The most compelling idea in Richtel’s piece comes from William Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, a publication of high school students’ research papers. Fitzhugh suggests the issue is not really which form the written expression takes, but rather the lack of reading students are now asked to do prior to writing. What we read is the spring that keeps the ideas flowing in our minds. The worst aspects of blogging–the much-ado-about-nothing posts and vacuous comments–lie in their lack of original thought. So the central concern for us should not be what kinds of writing college students have to create, but the amount of reading they do while writing. This is why liberal education can still serve us well, by demanding broad reading and rigorous writing that feeds ours souls and develops our culture.

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One comment

  1. “What we read is the spring that keeps the ideas flowing in our minds.” Indeed.



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