U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Novel and Old School

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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Where does reading fit into all this? My conviction has always been that good readers make good writers, and that the reason so many students are lousy writers is that they either don’t read, or they read in ways that minimize their exposure to good writing. We all know that the internet seems to be promoting a kind of neo-illiteracy. Will normalizing internet standards by adopting the conventions of the blogosphere neutralize that or promote it, do you think? I’d be chary of telling students to take blogging as their standard when they haven’t even got the basics down.

    I want to be clear that I’m not positing a causal relationship between being a good reader and being a good writer. One can be the former without ever turning into the latter. So it’s not a sufficient condition. But it is necessary. If we want students to write, we must want them to read. Practice is important, but so is being exposed to what it is we want them to do. How can they write if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be writing?

  2. Varad, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not possible to be a good writer without being a good reader. I’m less clear on whether being a good reader requires reading “good” prose. This is one place where Cathy Davidson’s scholarship on “literateness” (as opposed to “literacy”) in the Revolutionary era and the Early Republic is quite germane. It seems to me that good readers are those who find a way to use what is available to move towards what is (or has been) unavailable. It’s surprising to see myself write such things. But there it is.

    After I wrote this post — but certainly not in response to it, I’m sure — Cathy Davidson posted this link in her twitter feed re: her own take on the NYT article: Should We Really ABOLISH the Term Paper? A Response to the New York Times. Her blog post is from a few days ago, and if I had read it before writing this post I might have constructed my argument along slightly different lines. Then again, maybe not.

    I will say this: as I surmised from the Times coverage, Davidson isn’t presenting the blogging form as some kind of panacea to address the problem of irrelevancy in rhetoric/writing pedagogy. Her aim is not to train bloggers, but to train good writers, and blogging is a tool she has found useful for that purpose. I especially appreciated this observation from her post:

    The point I want to make is that if you are an English teacher and you are convinced that everything about the way you assign, read, grade, and give feedback on that term paper makes students believe, forever after, that their writing makes a difference, then that is the context in which you absolutely should assign a term paper…. [Please do see her post for the rest of this paragraph — I wanted to quote it in full, but it put me over my character limit for Blogger comments]

    I think she’s spot-on here, about the potential usefulness of the term paper and the certain uselessness of any rhetorical form that, instead of empowering students to speak with clarity and conviction about their ideas, gets in the way of their doing so.

    My concern is really with the creation (or perpetuation) of a two-tier economy of knowledge. It’s no surprise that incoming Stanford students are better readers and writers than those students from earlier cohorts. What else do we expect from the most competitive university in the country? The rich become richer — how is this news?

    What I’m more interested in is the cohort of community college students, or regional state school students. Are they coming in as better writers, better readers? If so, what are they doing that makes them “better”? If not, what can we do to make them better?

    Believe me, though the conventional wisdom is that grad students are supposed to focus on their own work/research first, I bring the best that I can to the classroom. And that’s saying a lot. I have an English degree from Stanford. But I was a first-generation university student from a working-class background, and I think I owe my own students at least as good an education as I managed to get.

    A first-rate education in the humanities is becoming the new marker of class privilege. It may be the case that writing a sustained scholarly argument will become yet another marker of privilege, another gateway to empowerment. So never mind the real pedagogical value of teaching the research essay form — my students need to learn how to write these kinds of arguments so that they have access to the opportunities that this kind of writing can open for them.

  3. Anyone who wants to read my own point of view on the teaching of writing should check out my blog response to the NY Times piece:http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/01/21/should-we-really-abolish-term-paper-response-ny-times or the “Strangers on a Train” piece I did for Academe, Sept-Oct 2011, where these issues have much longer and more detailed discussion. You may not agree, but at least disagree with me, not an account about me! Thanks for listening and engaging in this interesting conversation about a subject near and dear to my heart: great reading, writing, and literacy in all its forms.

  4. “A first-rate education in the humanities is becoming the new marker of class privilege.”

    I’ll take issue with this assertion. A humanities education has always been a marker of class privilege. How that marker functions has changed over the years, but such a marker it has never not been.

    “I’m less clear on whether being a good reader requires reading ‘good’ prose.”

    It does, but not only good prose. Students need to read all kinds of things, good prose included. But the more they read the better.

    One thing that needs to be addressed in all this is the role of secondary education. (You touch on it obliquely, LD, but it should be discussed head on.) We at the college level complain and/or lament our students’ being unprepared or ill-prepared to write at the college level. What we mean by this is, that their high schools didn’t do their damn jobs, damnit! Hence the proliferation of composition courses, writing programs, writing in the discipline initiatives, that whole panoply. Funnily enough, almost all the writing I did in high school was on the English side. And boy did I do a lot of it. But I got that preparation somewhere. And as for doing term or research papers, I had an idea of what I was supposed to do because I was reading serious historical works when I was still in high school; on my own, I might add. That’s probably unusual, I’ll admit. But I was taking all these AP and honors classes which were intellectual demanding, and one of the demands was writing and reading a ton.

    What are high schools doing now? Is writing term papers still a standard practice in high school? I’m sure it is for students who are taking AP and honors classes, i.e., the kind of students who have the skills and abilities which get them into colleges where they receive first-rate education in the humanities. But the issue is about the students who wind up at state schools and community college. And another thing to ask is whether tertiary education really should take on this function. Does having to provide basic literary pedagogy detract from the university’s purpose to introduce students to higher levels of knowledge and understanding? If students spend four years at college catching up, will they always remain behind their peers who started at the college starting line and not twenty-five yards in arrears?

    I’d be interested to know if debates like this exist in other countries. Do Oxbridge “tutors” kvetch about what awful writers their students are and how their papers are infected by IM-speak? The grade inflation controversy has made it over there (the UK, I mean), so there’s no reason for this one not to. Oxbridge. Now there’s a marker of class privilege if there’s ever been one in this solar system.

  5. @Cathy, thanks for weighing in. As I mentioned in my comment above, I had not seen your blog post when I wrote mine, but I did point people towards it for a more complete view of your pedagogy.

    @Varad

    Yes, a first-rate humanities education has always been a class marker — but for a while, anyhow, it was a marker available to the American middle class. Public university systems committed resources and accorded prestige to things like literature, foreign language, history, etc. A poor kid could go to UCLA and major in English or history without graduating with a debt load worthy of a med school student.

    Now the funding is disappearing, the institutional support is disappearing, because the public support is disappearing. Middle-class and working-class students are taking on mountains of debt to attend public universities that were chartered and charged with the task of providing a (nearly) free public education. The University of California system is a case in point. California taxpayers should hang their heads in shame at what has happened to a higher education system that was absolutely the envy of the world.

    Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, it wouldn’t have been financial suicide to 1) attend college and/or 2) get a degree in the humanities. But now a traditional university education in one of the core humanities disciplines is no longer an opportunity available to all, but a LUXURY affordable to some.

    As the market takes over the academy, and state legislatures come up with ways to evaluate the value of humanities programs based on the cash flow of research dollars they bring in to the university system — this is not a joke, this is the basis of the “accountability” push in Texas higher education — the humanities will receive fewer and fewer institutional resources, and become even less of a priority.

    We have come full circle in about sixty years, so that now only the children of money and privilege will have the luxury of pursuing an education in the humanities. They’re the only ones who can afford it. And state legislatures are chipping away at the core requirements in the humanities education, which used to be a part of every university education, no matter the degree.

    So when I see suggestions to replace the term paper with blogging, I don’t just see a move to empowerment through a democratizing medium — I also see something like resignation and surrender. I’d like to believe that empowerment will win out. But I’m not holding my breath.

  6. LD,

    I think we’re starting to get into the whole question of the relationship of higher education to the formation of the American middle class in the post-WWII era. I am far – very far – from an expert on that subject. But I’ll throw in my uneducated two cents anyway.

    Obviously, the expansion of college education played a part in expanding the middle class after the war. That was the whole point of the GI Bill. But even though that increased the number of people going to college (and the influx of women increased that number even more), as a proportion of the entire population, those with even a semester in college were still a distinct minority. Even now, when more people go to college than ever, less than 30% of Americans have a college degree, and when you get to graduate degrees, the numbers decline to under 10%. Those of us who have higher degrees are unusual compared to our compatriots.

    One of the arguments in favor of having even more people go to college is that the BA has become the basic credential in the way the high school diploma was for so long after the war. And that in turn reflects the pressures, social and economic, on opportunities elsewhere. The decline of American manufacturing has curtailed what was a traditional, and more well-trod, path into the middle class. Hence the phenomenon you point out, of middle- and working-class students taking on mountains of debt (even at public schools) to get the entry ticket into the middle class that a college degree is supposed to be. But it may not even be valid now, at least not universally.

    That too leads into the arguments that have been made that it’s a mistake to compel or even encourage all students to go to college, and that what is needed is to create or re-invigorate other ways of getting our kids on the path to success in life. The path to a job, to an income, to a house, family, etc. only rarely traversed the groves of academe. If everyone has to travel it now, does it benefit everyone? The question becomes whether it is a disservice to all, because it devalues the college education for those who want it while compelling those who don’t want it onto a track they otherwise wouldn’t choose.

    Having a college education is a pathway to success, to the middle class. But it has never been the only one, or the dominant one. If it ever becomes one or the other, let alone both, I’m not sure that would be an unalloyed blessing.

  7. Varad, everything you’re mentioning here is part of the picture.

    Though I ended my last comment with a pledge to help my students have access to the kinds of opportunities that academic writing can open up for them, my statement smacks too much of instrumentalism.

    I certainly feel an obligation to all my students, working-class or not, to help prepare them for the job market. But my bigger concern — though you’d never know it from my post, where I talk about students getting their “money’s worth”! — is the idea that education is/should be all about preparing for the job market. Yes, corporate America would appreciate it if state colleges/universities would take on the task of training their employees. But that’s not what a university education is, or should be.

    So, yes, education is the gateway to the middle class. But it also opens the door to new ways of knowing and being in the world. The humanities matter because they are about what life is all about.

    So I don’t want us to have an educational system where only the students at Stanford and Harvard and Reed College have the luxury of joining that ongoing conversation about the Big Questions. You can grapple with Big Questions without being an academic, or writing in an academic style. But I don’t want to say to my students, “There’s no need for you to learn this form of discourse; what you really need is to learn how to write for the job market.”

    They need and deserve BOTH. And, to be honest, it’s working-class and first-generation students’ access to that more “privileged” realm of discourse that most needs defending.

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