Because of my own lack of digital proficiency, I don’t have my students complete any kind of digital writing projects. The closest thing to a “digital essay” that I assign them is the material culture multimedia project that serves as their last assignment of the semester. Now, I don’t mandate that they use digital media to transform their written narratives, but I’ve found that the students who opt to create original videos are almost always the most impressive.
Their “capstone” research papers, however, rarely are.
Which brings me to the moment in Cathy Davidson’s text where she discusses the term paper as a persistently problematic genre, especially when comparing it to digital writing: She claims that her students’ “writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional term papers they wrote for the class. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the Internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research paper writers. Term papers rolled in that were shot through with jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice, rambling thoughts, and even pretentious grammatical errors” (101).
Substitute “digital essayists” (which I’m using pretty loosely here) for “elegant bloggers,” and it’s almost as if Cathy Davidson is narrating my own difficulties with the research papers that I have to force myself to read through each semester in Critical Reading and Writing. And The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing—the text that we are “required” to use in E110 as beginning instructors—even has a term for all of that unbearable “jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice” and those “rambling thoughts, and…pretentious grammatical errors.”
Before reading Davidson’s text, as I commented for the seemingly millionth time, “What exactly are you trying to say here?” on another research paper, I found myself asking questions alarmingly similar to one she poses: “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” (101) I struggled to answer this question sufficiently, especially because my students’ in-class performance rarely, if ever, suffered the pitfalls of engfish: their comments were (and are) thoughtful, engaged, and always genuine (even if they were/are humorously off-base at times). So, again, what is it about a required research paper that has to be at least 2000 words that “invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledegook?” (101)
Following her realization that her “best friend” and Queen of the Plastics Regina George has been disobeying “the rules of feminism” by bossing her and the delightfully absent-minded Karen around, Gretchen channels her anger into this hysterical diatribe against Caesar, in which she assumes the perspective of a fed-up Brutus. Although statements like “Brutus is just as cute as Caesar” are clearly inflected with the jargon of a teenage girl, there is something undeniably charming about Gretchen’s passion and her juxtaposition of high school drama with historical tyranny (oh, the irony!).
And at times, I wish that my own students’ papers had even a shred of this kind of verbal passion, even if it completely undermines the kind of “academic discourse” that we are supposed to be teaching them in E110. At least then I would be able to discern their level of commitment to the jargon that infiltrates their written work.
So Davidson’s text has got me thinking: what would a research paper look like if it was done entirely through a digital medium like the blog, from topic proposal to the final Works Cited page, chronicling every stage of the research process in between? Would we be able to transfer “traditional” concepts of the research paper to the Internet without making any changes? If not, what would those changes involve? And of course, the idea of proper assessment rears its ugly head as well. But who is to say that we can’t marry traditional concepts and rubrics with the affordances of the web?
I fear I’ve presented more questions than answers in my post. Alas.