Some intriguing thoughts about the essay and the blog post — from a panel of Stanford professors. Excerpts:

[The speakers all agreed that] the essay is undergoing metamorphosis. Its very definition is becoming blurred – with photographic essays, musical essays, documentary essays and even audio essays potentially diluting the term.

… [One noted that] Stanley Fish’s game-changing blog posts qualify as essays, allowing reader response and follow-up posts. For example, Fish’s New York Times blog post last August, “What Should Colleges Teach?” inspired 619 responses.

“That’s what makes the Internet exciting,” said [one participant]. In the past … the reader “could throw the book against the wall – but that was the limit of engagement.”

… Essays differ from academic writing, which relies on evidence, depending more on the power of language instead: “As an academic, you can get by on so-so language,” [a speaker] said, but not so with the essay. The essay can nevertheless be “much more influential than weighty tomes.”

“The identity of an author is just as important in persuading as the arguments,” said [one professor]. “Paul Krugman doesn’t need pie charts and tables to persuade us of the soundness of his arguments. He just has to sign his name.”

… “Without the heavy armature of footnotes,” [a participant] noted that the Internet offers new ways to incorporate evidence. The hyperlink, for example, “makes the citation part of the essay itself … without making a big fuss about it.”

[One speaker offered a definition of the essay:] “[A] condensed meditation on one topic with a personified voice.”

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3 Responses to “Essays, Academic Writing, Blog Posts”

  1. david foster Says:

    "The identity of an author is just as important in persuading as the arguments,” said [one professor]. “Paul Krugman doesn’t need pie charts and tables to persuade us of the soundness of his arguments. He just has to sign his name.”"

    Sort of like the common practice of medieval scholars of resolving matters by referene to whatever Aristotle said.

    And they managed to fall into this intellectual fallacy without benefit of the Internet, or even of printed books, so I’m not sure why this professor is justifying his lack of intellectual rigor by blaming it on modern technology.

  2. tony grafton Says:

    Meh. Nothing against these four professors, the one of them whom I know is terrifically clever and doing pioneer work in digital scholarship. But I’d rather hear what some of the great writers in Stanford’s English department think about where the essay might be going. In particular, I’d rather hear real writers than professors who don’t seem to have thought hard about evidence and how it works in essay writing (and those quoted, if they were quoted accurately, haven’t done a lot of hard thinking).

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I know what you mean, tony. I cited the story because of its suggestions about blog posts v. essays, but in fact I was sort of surprised by the thinness of what they said about the traditional essay. I wonder whether this reflects not very good reporting, or a not very good panel.

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