Writing Academic Essays in the 21st Century, or “What’s an Index Card?”

When I took high school English in the previous century, nobody drafted in Microsoft Word.  We were graded on our penmanship because it mattered: our final drafts were handwritten, and our teachers had to be able to read our work.

(A friend of mine once received an essay with “99” written at the top, along with the teacher’s comment: “Your arguments are outstanding, but your handwriting is atrocious.  -1 for my pain and suffering.”)

Word-processing software existed, but it was rudimentary – I remember being elated when I found a shareware word-processing program that used only 110kb (not a typo) of permanent memory.  Even when we could type a draft, the results from the terrible dot-matrix printers were scarcely better than our chicken-scratch handwriting.

Consequently, I learned to write essays and research papers in analog only: read paper books and articles, handwrite painstaking notes on individual index cards, and then draft in longhand.  Things like creating an outline were essential, especially if you had no intention of writing more than one draft.

The consequence of that is this: I have had to learn both to draft and to teach drafting all over again.

Some of the analog methods, like marking up a text’s margins, outlining, and proofreading your own work, are still essential.  Others, however, actually make the drafting process more difficult.  Note-taking on index cards, for example, is a waste of time and effort unless your family owns stock in the Mead corporation.  Ditto outlining by hand.  By far the most efficient way to draft is to open a single Word file, drop in your outline, set up a works cited page, and start populating it with notes from your reading.  Put the citations on the works cited page as you go and you’ll never have to write them more than once, even if you write the actual draft in a second Word file.

The challenge for me now is to teach good research and writing practices without teaching outdated methods for researching or writing.  The analog system was good, yes.  It was also far more time-consuming than a “doc-based” approach needs to be.

This raises questions like:

  • Which analog methods are inherently good research practices, and which contain good research practices but are outdated as to execution?  For example, the ability to identify a “single idea” in the text and to paraphrase it remains good; this skill requires one to understand the source and is essential for avoiding unintentional plagiarism.  But doing this on notecards is probably no longer necessary.
  • Which analog methods can/should be retained in analog format, and which can/should be “ported” to digital?  I and many of my colleagues maintain that there is no adequate substitute for marking up a text longhand.  But outlining within the word-processing document itself is much more efficient than doing the same in longhand.
  • How do we escape the romantic idealization of print sources and the “everything is reliable” allure of the Internet at the same time?  This is a particularly odd sort of cognitive dissonance I see within my students.  Print books are their gold standardin part because they’re “old” (even the new ones).  At the same time, anything they find on the Internet seems like fair game to them, because “if it’s published it must be real, right?”

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