Second Thoughts: The Value of Research Papers

From Library Babel Fish, July 6, 2011

Back in April, I wrote a bit cantankerously about my doubts that research papers as a genre are a particularly useful vehicle for learning and argued for doing away with the traditional “research paper” – the kind that Richard Larson described as a “non-form of writing.” This genre is primarily a vehicle for students to display knowledge by discussing a number of sources they have chosen on a topic using academic conventions for writing from sources. It’s a very common high stakes assignment that often lives at the margins of a course, but plays a big role in a final grade, and it often falls to whoever teaches writing to first year students to explain how it’s done.

Larson objected that drawing an artificial distinction between “research papers” and other kinds of writing suggests other kind of writing needn’t draw on evidence from sources and that the “research paper,” which actually does not involve students in any research design, research method, or proposal of an original hypothesis, is a misrepresentation of research as an activity by defining it as reporting what other people have said. Essentially, he argues “the research paper” should not be taught in writing courses as if it’s a genre unto itself, but that students should be encouraged to incorporate sources into their writing and to learn how to conduct research in the disciplines. Instead of asking English departments or writing programs to perform the service of teaching the “research paper,” we should instead “insist that students recognize their continuing responsibility for looking attentively at their experiences; for seeking out, wherever it can be found, the information they need for the development of their ideas; and for putting such data at the service of every piece they write.”

I still think that’s excellent advice, and would argue that there are any number of contexts in which students could practice the art of drawing on well-chosen evidence to understand and communicate ideas as a key part of their education. I agree with Larson that by isolating reasoning from sources as a practice used only in a certain kind of writing that is peculiar to a school setting diminishes the intellectual necessity of arriving at conclusions by examining the evidence. I am cheered by Andrea Lunsford’s findings that students can write compellingly using evidence when they have a reason to do so.

But I’m dismayed that in public discourse, few people seem to deal with information ethically. They either assume opinions are received as part of a belief system rather than shaped by observation, or seem to believe that facts are something one selects the way one chooses a weapon – for their edge, not as information that should influence what we believe. I worry that when we make research largely about citation formalities and a test of how well one can find and summarize other sources, we are putting a powerful kind of reasoning into a very small box, a small box that gets stuck in the attic and gathers dust along with other school memorabilia. That this kind of assignment will lead to reasoned critical thought in non-academic contexts is a leap of faith for which there is little evidence.

And yet . . . I keep thinking about a discussion I had with faculty a month ago, as we were wrapping up a three-day workshop on critical information literacy. Several faculty members argued passionately for the need to engage advanced undergraduates majoring in the humanities in deep and sustained writing about a topic that they explored thoroughly and made their own. The sheer discipline and complexity of reasoning involved in writing a fifty page thesis, they said, gives students an appreciation for building a sustained and evidence-based argument from the ground up that informs their understanding of the world around them and their place in it that has profound epistemological and cognitive importance. These assignments give students a chance to engage in genuine research using methods that humanists use to coax meaning out of texts, works of art, or historical events.

This made me wonder if students new to academia might find those research papers I complained about necessary practice sprints for larger projects that truly engage students in research. Yet I think not. I think we could get a lot more mileage out of requiring well-chosen evidence in all kinds of writing and verbal discussion and learning how to extract the main point from sources and write about them clearly without those tasks being contained in a generic “write a 10-page paper” prompt. Aren’t there other more exciting models out there, like a well-written essay in The Atlantic or a nimbly-argued opinion piece in Salon? These are forms of writing that don’t take pains to erase the authorial voice and yet draw responsibly from sources.

In the end, I am intrigued by the claim made by faculty in our workshop that creating an extended academic argument is the most effective means they know of engaging students in ideas and exercising their minds in ways that carry enormous benefits. I have interviewed students who did exemplary work and their responses bear out this claim. They have a grasp of ideas and the people behind them that is mature, and they clearly see themselves as being intimately involved in creating meaning. I suspect that they’ve gained skills in interpretation and communication that will be useful in any number of contexts.

But I still wonder whether students who aren’t as gifted gain, by engaging in these extended writing assignments, the confidence in evidence and well-reason argument and the respect for ideas that our best students do.