Earlier this year the New York Times ran a story about an English professor at Duke University named Cathy Davidson, who decided to replace more traditional term papers with a course blog for which students would regularly contribute 500-1500 word posts. While much of the Times article focused on the arguments for and against what Davidson called the “mechanistic writing” and “researchese” of term papers, Davidson developed the argument for blogging in a response to the article.
Acknowledging that blog entries “can become just as meaningless and routinized as any other assignment unless they are used carefully and strategically, with an aim to their larger purpose” and insisting that “‘blogs vs term papers’ is a nonsensical binary. There are good and bad ways to use blogs just as there are good and bad ways to use term paper or any other assignments,” she made several compelling arguments for the value of this kind of writing assignment. Just to pull out three she identified:
- She found that her students would “write more than they think they are writing because the context is so urgent, compelling, and interactive that they enjoy it and it doesn’t seem like drudgery.”
- They were learning a skill that translated well to a variety of careers: “They are learning how to write for the world they are about to enter, in their jobs, in their careers, and they are learning how to improve their active discourse already happening on line.”
- But they were also engaging in better conversation (in part because she built student responses and discussion leadership into the course): “Students learn to evaluate one another’s thinking and challenge one another–and, far more important, they learn from one another and correct themselves…. They are learning that some of the best thinking (as Socrates would say) is dialogic,and their writing is part of an interactive, vibrant written dialogue.”
- All of which, she thought, fit well with the “open architecture of the Web,” which is “built on the principle of diversity and maximum participation–feedback and editing–that gives us a great tool for compensating for our own shortcomings.”
- And the professor was part of that discussion, which also improved feedback on writing. Davidson realized that, instead of scribbling comments on a stack of papers as the semester expired, she was responding much more often and more quickly to student writing.
- Finally, it permits students to contribute to discourse on the web. She accomplished primarily by designing two blogging assignments that were meant to provide “public contributions to knowledge,” but more generally, she was trying to provide a service in training her students in this way: “The Internet needs more people committed to its improvement, to serious discourse.”
Like many who have read about Davidson’s experiment, I find myself torn: I still find the term paper an important way to develop and test not just writing abilities, but research, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation. (Not that shorter writing can’t do that, but there is something uniquely valuable — perhaps especially for history — about learning to ask and answer a complex question in a longer form.) At the same time, I’m excited to take advantage of blogging — which I find so rewarding on an individual level — and integrate it into courses.
So I’ve been dipping my toe into this water in my upper-division survey HIS354 Modern Europe, assigning students to keep a kind of online course journal, in which they regularly reflect on readings, lectures, films, etc. from the course. Each entry is about 350-500 words. Now, those “journals” exist within the confines of our course management system, but I’ve also given students the option to have what they write be considered for publication at our department blog, AC 2nd.
Beyond the benefits for those particular students and for me, as their instructor… As a department chair, I think that bringing at least a bit of course blogging into a more public arena helps current students better understand what happens in that course (e.g., if they’re trying to decide which courses to take next year), connects alumni with what’s happening in the department, and also gives prospective students some insight into our program.
If you’re interested in this series, here’s a kind of index to the entries posted so far:
History and Ideology
Can historians escape ideological bias? Should they try to do so? After listening in to Marxist and neo-liberal historians debate the quality of life of the British working class in the 19th century, one of our History/Social Studies Ed double-majors found it “nearly… impossible for historians to avoid bias in their accounts” — and then reflected on her own biases.
Biography and Social History
During our sprint through the British Industrial Revolution and similar phenomena on the Continent, I revisited an earlier discussion of treating biography as history and asked students how biography (both as a source — memoirs — and an approach to the study of how people experienced the past) could be integrated into the social history of industrialization and urbanization. Here’s an answer from a senior double-majoring in History and Philosophy.
Last year at this time, I posted a series on the “best national anthems,” using a system that concluded with a survey featuring the opinions of students in this same course. I didn’t repeat that assignment, but I did ask students to listen to two or three anthems of European nations that gained their independence in the 19th or 20th centuries, read up on the histories of those songs, and then reflect on similarities and differences. (And, if they chose, to consider whether there was such a thing as an objectively “better” national anthem.) Here’s the response from another of our History/Social Studies Education double-majors, who listened to the anthems of neighbors Germany and Poland.
Immigration and Family History
As we discussed European migration in the 19th century (from countryside to city, within Europe, and then emigration from Europe to Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Western Hemisphere), I invited my U.S. historian colleague Diana Magnuson to teach a session on the causes of immigration to the United States and the experience of European immigrants (en route, and once they got to these shores). Students then wrote a journal entry in which they reflected on how the themes of Diana’s presentations resonated with what they knew (or, over the weekend, learned through conversations) of their own family histories. (Or they could reflect on the significance of an immigrant identity to their family in the present day.)
For this assignment, I chose to post three responses. One represented the most common type of response from most of the class’ nineteen students: a reflection on being part of a Euro-American family that had lost much sense of European ethnic identity over time. But I also have two students in the class whose parents are recent immigrants themselves from other parts of the world: one from Egypt, and another from Laos.