She’s in good company. Across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses. On its face, who could disagree with the transformation? Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications? Pointedly, why punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?
Because, say defenders of rigorous writing, the brief, sometimes personally expressive blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing. They argue that the old format was less about how Sherman got to the sea and more about how the writer organized the points, fashioned an argument, showed grasp of substance and proof of its origin. Its rigidity wasn’t punishment but pedagogy.
Their reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move right on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?
“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,” says Douglas B. Reeves, a columnist for the American School Board Journal and founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, the school-consulting division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting blogs. But nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.”
The National Survey of Student Engagement found that in 2011, 82 percent of first-year college students and more than half of seniors weren’t asked to do a single paper of 20 pages or more, while the bulk of writing assignments were for papers of one to five pages.
The term paper has been falling from favor for some time. A study in 2002 estimated that about 80 percent of high school students were not asked to write a history term paper of more than 15 pages. William H. Fitzhugh, the study’s author and founder of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school students’ research papers, says that, more broadly, educators shy away from rigorous academic writing, giving students the relative ease of writing short essays. He argues that part of the problem is that teachers are asking students to read less, which means less substance — whether historical, political or literary — to focus a term paper on.
“She’s right,” Mr. Fitzhugh says of Professor Davidson. “Writing is being murdered. But the solution isn’t blogs, the solution is more reading. We don’t pay so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.”
He proposes what he calls the “page a year” solution: in first grade, a one-page paper using one source; by fifth grade, five pages and five sources.
The debate about academic writing has given rise to new terminology: “old literacy” refers to more traditional forms of discourse and training; “new literacy” stretches from the blog and tweet to multimedia presentation with PowerPoint and audio essay.
“We’re at a crux right now of where we have to figure out as teachers what part of the old literacy is worth preserving,” says Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford. “We’re trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”
Professor Lunsford has collected 16,000 writing samples from 189 Stanford students from 2001 to 2007, and is studying how their writing abilities and passions evolved as blogs and other multimedia tools crept into their lives and classrooms. She’s also solicited student feedback about their experiences.
Her conclusion is that students feel much more impassioned by the new literacy. They love writing for an audience, engaging with it. They feel as if they’re actually producing something personally rewarding and valuable, whereas when they write a term paper, they feel as if they do so only to produce a grade.
So Professor Lunsford is playing to student passions. Her writing class for second-year students, a requirement at Stanford, used to revolve around a paper constructed over the entire term. Now, the students start by writing a 15-page paper on a particular subject in the first few weeks. Once that’s done, they use the ideas in it to build blogs, Web sites, and PowerPoint and audio and oral presentations. The students often find their ideas much more crystallized after expressing them with new media, she says, and then, most startling, they plead to revise their essays.
“What I’m asking myself is, ‘Will we need to keep the 15-page paper forever or move right to the new way?’ ” she says. “Stanford’s writing program won’t be making that change right away, since our students still seem to benefit from learning how to present their research findings in both traditional print and new media.”
As Professor Lunsford illustrates, choosing to educate using either blogs or term papers is something of a false opposition. Teachers can use both. And blogs, a platform that seems to encourage rambling exercises in personal expression, can also be well crafted and meticulously researched. At the same time, the debate is not a false one: while some educators fear that informal communication styles are increasing duress on traditional training, others find the actual paper fundamentally anachronistic.
Take Professor Davidson, who anchors a more extreme position, as she has for many years, even before the advent of the blog. When teaching at in the 1980s, she says, she infuriated some colleagues because she scrapped the traditional research paper — what she calls “researchese,” writing not relevant outside academe — and had her students learn to write cover letters and business letters, their life stories and essays about their chosen careers.
“I was basically kicked out of the writing program for thinking that was more important than writing a five-paragraph essay,” she says. “I’m not against discipline. I’m not sure that writing a five-paragraph essay is discipline so much as standardization. It’s a formula, but good writing plays with formulas, and changes formulas.”
Today, she tries to keep herself grounded in the experiences of a range of students by tutoring at a community college. Recently, one student she tutors was given an assignment with prescribed sentence length and rigid structure. “I urged him to follow all the rules,” she says. “If he’d done it my way, I don’t know he’d have passed the class.
“The sad thing is, he’s now convinced there is brilliance in the art world, brilliance in the multimedia world, brilliance in the world and that writing is boring,” Professor Davidson says. “I hated teaching him bad writing.”Continue reading the main story
There is no definitive distinction between papers and articles that can be applied to all scientific disciplines. Usage varies between disciplines. and within disciplines it can vary depending on context.
Both the examples quoted refer to ‘writings’ that are surveys (in other areas often termed reviews) — one in the field of a social science (economics) and the other in a numerical science (computing). However the term science is also (and perhaps more) associated with the experimental sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), where the types of ‘writings’ are different and where different words are used to distinguish them.
Articles and papers in the Experimental Sciences
Let me illustrate this for the Biomolecular Sciences (biochemistry, molecular biology, molecular genetics and the like). As a practitioner in this area, when I hear these terms, e.g. talking to colleagues, I understand:
Paper: A report of a piece of experimental research work in which the original data presented by the authors was central to interpretation and conclusions regarding advancement of knowledge and understanding of the field.
Article: A review or commentary in which the author was discussing the previously published work of others (perhaps including his own) in attempting to provide a perspective of the field or to present a new theory/model/interpretation by integrating such work.
However, despite this professional conversational use of the terms, if I go to any specific journal — here the US heavyweight, Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) — I would find a somewhat different usage:
JBC publishes several types of articles but only two of those can be submitted as an unsolicited manuscript: regular papers and accelerated communications.
Thus, JBC regards all the ‘writings’ it publishes as ‘articles’, in common with other journals such as The Journal of Biophysics , and this is consistent with general non-scientific usage — “I read an article in the Financial Times yesterday…”
The way JBC uses ‘regular paper’, is consistent with my specialist conversational definition (above), and although it doesn’t actually say what types of ‘article’ are unsolicited, but if you look at a table of contents of the journal, you would conclude that for this journal it is ‘minireviews’ and historical appraisals of the work of individual scientists.
The Journal of Biophysics only uses the term ‘paper’ in describing only one of its categories of ‘article’:
Comments to the Editor | Short commentaries on a paper published earlier in BJ.
Again using ‘paper’ rather in the sense I defined above.
To conclude, in the extended sense used by peer-reviewed journals in the experimental sciences, all published ‘papers’ can be referred to as articles, but not all articles would be referred to as ‘papers’. (One wouldn’t use ‘paper’ for an editorial, a news item and generally not for a review.) This is exactly the opposite conclusion reached by @1006a from his reading of the OED.
Conflict with the OED and non-experimental sciences
How can one resolve the conflict with the OED, mentioned above? I think the OED describes more traditional usage in the non-experimental sciences and the arts. It is pertinent, in this respect, to consider the phrase “reading a paper”.
As far as my area of science goes, this is just a rather outdated term for presenting one’s results orally at a conference. The talk in itself is transitory, the abstract unreviewed, and the information conveyed will most probably be published elsewhere.
However for colleagues in computing science the talk is likely to be based on a ‘paper’ that has been submitted to the conference organisers, selected after peer-review, and will be published as conference proceedings or in a journal associated with the conference. This is more in line with traditional non-scientific academic presentations, although in this case the ‘paper’ might never have been published.
The difference would seem to derive in part from whether the field of science is one in which original work is in the form of ideas or in the form of measurements and their interpretation.