¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author’s note: While this short essay did not appear in the Fall 2013 open peer review, I plan to expand it into an introductory section for the final volume. We don’t yet agree on what to call it. Digital historian Dan Cohen suggests the name “blessay,” somewhere in between a short blog post and a longer essay. Yoni Applebaum, a scholar and correspondent for The Atlantic, prefers “digital essay,” while still others favor “intellectual journalism.” 1 I’ve been trying to communicate this genre to my students by calling it a “web essay,” sometimes with, and sometimes without a hyphen. While I like the simplicity of Yoni’s suggestion, “web essay” is pronounced with fewer syllables, and in my mind implies that the content will be available on the (hopefully) open web, not just a digital essay that needs to be purchased and downloaded into our mobile device of the month.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Regardless of the label that prevails, there seems to be a growing consensus on the common characteristics of this genre. Dan Cohen envisions a mid-length essay (approximately 1,000-3,000 words, if numbers matter to you), informed by academic knowledge, written for specialists and general audiences, which uses supplementary digital evidence (links, visuals, audio, etc.) when appropriate. His list generally resembles the qualities of a web essay that I’ve assigned to my students. Here’s the core of my final essay assignment for my Educ 300: Education Reform Past & Present students:
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- Does the essay pose a thought-provoking research question that addresses change and/or continuity over time in education?
- Does the essay present a clear and insightful thesis that addresses the research question?
- Does the essay identify the most appropriate source materials and methods for researching this question?
- Is the essay’s thesis persuasive? Is it supported with convincing evidence and analysis?
- Is the essay organized, and does it include sufficient background for audiences unfamiliar with the topic?
- Does the essay cite sources (using any accepted academic format) so that future readers may easily locate them?
- Digital elements (such as images, charts, links to sources, etc.) are not required, but they may enhance your essay. If you include visual elements, be sure to add captions to properly credit the source.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 For my Educ 308: Cities Suburbs Schools seminar in Fall 2012, teaching assistant Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens and I attempted to prioritize and condense our web-essay criteria into 6 questions, with this preface to introduce the genre to visitors:
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Educ 308 – Fall 2012: Rather than typing a traditional final paper to be read only by their professor, students in the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar compose web-essays, which blend textual narrative and digital evidence for a public audience that includes invited guest evaluators. All readers are encouraged to comment, especially in response to our criteria:
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- Does the web-essay present a compelling argument or story about a significant aspect of the course? Does it inspire the reader to think in new ways?
- Are the claims supported with appropriate evidence and is the reasoning well developed? Is counter-evidence fully considered?
- Does it make effective use of web-essay format by integrating narrative text with appropriate digital elements (such as links, photos, charts, maps, videos)?
- Is the web-essay organized and well written?
- Does it include sufficient background for audiences unfamiliar with the topic?
- Does it cite all sources in an appropriate format that future readers may find?
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Whether using one set or the other, what’s important is that my web-essay evaluation criteria strongly resemble the guidelines I previously used to define quality expository writing, years before my students posted their work online. When preparing our First-Year Seminars in Fall 2008, Trinity colleagues Dina Anselmi, Zayde Antrim, and I responded to the College’s writing rubric by developing a more engaging set of criteria for students to use for peer review exercises across our different seminars:
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- Does the author present a clear and focused argument or thesis statement in the introduction? Does it respond to the assignment?
- Is the author’s reasoning persuasive and well developed? Are the claims supported with appropriate evidence? Is counter-evidence fully considered?
- Is the paper well organized with smooth transitions between focused paragraphs? Does it include sufficient background for audiences unfamiliar with the topic?
- Does the author choose precise and meaningful wording, with fluent syntax and correct grammar and spelling?
- Does the author cite sources in a standard academic format (or, if applicable, in the format designated by the instructor) so that readers may easily locate them?
- Does the paper inspire the reader to think about the topic in a new way?
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 I briefly trace the genealogy of my expository writing criteria to emphasize two points. First, years before requiring my students to post their writing online, I collaborated with faculty colleagues from different academic disciplines who recognized the value of making our students’ writing more public by sharing drafts with peers from outside our respective classes, to benefit from feedback through “other people’s eyes,” the broad theme of our seminar cluster. To make these cross-seminar conversations more coherent, we developed our criteria to serve as a common vocabulary for defining what made “good” expository writing. Second, now that I’ve transformed several of my student writing assignments into public essays for the web, the only significant change to my evaluation criteria is a version of the following line: “Does it make effective use of web-essay format by integrating narrative text with appropriate digital elements (such as links, photos, charts, maps, videos)?” Whether on paper or on the web, good writing must stand on its own two feet.