Term papers and gobbledegook

Another part of Cathy Davidson’s article that caught my eye was her discussion of term papers in college. She asks a question I’ve been asking for a while now:

What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in college—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process? I hadn’t thought of that until I read my students’ lengthy weekly blogs and saw the difference in quality. If students are trying to figure out what kind of writing we want in order to get a good grade, communication is secondary. What if “research paper” is a category that invites even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?

I know where my prejudices lie. And Cathy’s answer resonates for me:

Research indicates that, at every age level, people take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers than when it is to be judged by teachers. Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers. Longitudinal studies of student writers conducted by Stanford University’s Andrea Lunsford, a professor of English, assessed student writing at Stanford year after year. Lunsford surprised everyone with her findings that students were becoming more literate, rhetorically dexterous, and fluent—not less, as many feared. The Internet, she discovered, had allowed them to develop their writing.

It’s not only in education that I think we’ve become way too reverent of long form writing. Government so often tackles difficult issues by inviting someone, either a judge or a TV star, to write a long report. The length of the report often belies the quality of the thinking. Social workers, teachers and policemen often seem bogged down in report-writing instead of being in contact with their communities. Having a book to your name appears to confer mystical powers.

1 thought on “Term papers and gobbledegook

  1. Dwight Towers

    In my experience, the further along the food chain the student is, the worse their writing is for anything approaching communication with normal people. Long sentences, passive voice, multiple subordinate clauses, latinate words instead of good ol’ fornicating Anglo-Saxon ones… They really do need to be trained/deprogrammed…

    And a lot of the time it’s because what is being said is either banal or obvious or both…


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