Since the popular literature of the Early Republic, and especially the early American novel, is a crucial source for my work on the idea of home, I can’t avoid the scholarship of Cathy N. Davidson. Nor do I want to.
Davidson’s work on the novel as a democratic genre, her explorations of how novels were read, and by whom, and to what purpose and effect — all of her painstaking research, rendered into brilliant prose, has cut a path through the wilderness, along which I will gladly and gratefully walk for as far as it will take me in pursuit of my quarry.
At the same time, Davidson’s work on learning and pedagogy — especially writing pedagogy and the new literacy — is likewise unavoidable for me. I teach rhetoric (a.k.a. “freshman comp”) at my university, and our standardized syllabus requires a blog project as part of our students’ portfolio of work. This requirement is due in no small part to the influence of Davidson and other scholars who are championing the blog as a tool for teaching writing — perhaps even as a substitute for the research paper or term paper.
A recent article in the New York Times describes Davidson’s take on “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” and situates her as holding “a more extreme position” among professors and writing teachers who are all alike concerned with finding the best way to teach the best practices that make for the best writing both within and beyond the academy. The concern to teach writing practices that have some practical application beyond the ivied walls of the Ivory Tower is made explicit in Davidson’s pedagogy, but, as I will argue below, I believe a concern for practicality is implicit in the commitments of those of us who continue to see pedagogical value in the research essay.
Now, as the reader may have gathered, I am fond of blogging. It is a fantastic medium for exploring ideas and establishing connections with fellow explorers working at other institutions. (Oh mercy — what is it with all these metaphors of hunting, exploring, wandering in the wilderness? Clearly, I have been spending too much time with Catharine Sedgwick and James Fennimore Cooper.) Indeed, I think blogging can at least help create the conditions for establishing a vibrant intellectual community, a virtual post-modern Republic of Letters.
There’s no doubt that blogging emphasizes the sense of writing for an audience and highlights the potential for interaction with one’s readers in a way that writing a traditional term paper may not. The (in)formal conventions of blogging may help students better recognize that scholarship is not about building little (or big) monumental plinths that just stand there and gather dust — it’s not about writing essays, term papers, theses, dissertations as finished objects and final words. Rather, scholarship is about participating in and contributing to a larger conversation. So to the extent that blogging foregrounds this crucial aspect of scholarly work, I think it can be a valuable use of students’ time and energy.
But I worry that a near-exclusive emphasis on blogging is not a very good use of students’ money — especially working-class students, first-generation students, students who are going into debt to attain that which an education confers. As Davidson has made clear in her own research on the early American novel and its readership, education confers empowerment — often in ways that the educators never intended and that the educated never expected. And maybe that democratic and democratizing empowerment will be (already is?) the lasting legacy of blogging, the internet, the new literacy. In the meantime, though, I believe that championing the blog as the primary form of scholarly writing puts students at a profound disadvantage, not merely in the job market but, more crucially, in the public square.
In an era when most of the paths to erudition were closed to women, when a university education was not merely impermissible but also impossible because most women were not trained to read Latin or Greek, the novel democratized education and became a means by which disempowered women and men could not only gain knowledge but also produce knowledge and shape public discourse. As a result, the doors of educational opportunity that had been closed to women, to the working-class, to minorities, have been and are being opened. And I can see the similarities between the novel and the blog as genres that open up access to knowledge.
In some ways, though, championing the blog over the research paper as a cornerstone of a university education seems to be turning back the clock, taking back part of what has been gained. Knowledge is power, and the knowledge of how knowledge is constructed and deployed as a tool of empowerment and disempowerment — not just how to recognize the process, but how to do it — is the most powerful knowledge of all.
Judging from the Times’ description of how Davidson uses blogging in her pedagogy, it is clear to me that she doesn’t teach blogging as a substitute for careful research, but as a means of exploring new avenues for students to articulate what they have learned in ways that excite and ignite the interest of others. I’m sure that her students leave her class well-equipped to pursue and present a savvy, sophisticated argument across a full range of knowledge platforms. More power to them.
Nevertheless, despite the broad democratic potential of the blogosphere, there is still enormous privilege, power and prestige in traditional academic prose. Nobody — not even the English department at Stanford — is going to throw that baby out with the bathwater. So no matter the potential of blogging as a means of (re)producing knowledge, the best educated, the most privileged and empowered among us, will continue to learn the long-form, old-school research essay.
In this age of the soundbite, this era of intentional and celebratory ephemerality, this epoch of the quick and the slick and the flickering flash of momentary thoughts twittering across the collective mindscape, whose knowledge will carry the day? Whose perspective will endure to shape the present and open or close the future? In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the country of those who don’t learn to value, much less know how to construct, a sustained, logical argument based upon careful research and a judicious treatment of evidence, David Barton and Newt Gingrich will be our greatest historians, our most influential public intellectuals.