Term(inal) Papers

One of the topics of conversation around here has been “The Research Paper”; in particular, the question of whether FE instructors are required to assign a research paper.  (You are definitely missing out on some productive conversations if you don’t hang around the FE Triangle [163, 126, and 125]). Many composition instructors are accustomed to assigning a final or penultimate paper that requires substantial research (usually for secondary sources).  You know the drill:  students are to find, evaluate, and use something on the order of five sources as evidence in the service of a cogent argument.  You’re probably also accustomed to the range and overall quality of sources that students include in that “Works Cited.”  While the practice of assigning a research paper is a familiar one, it’s also a practice that comes with a number of problems, not the least of which is the time we would need to spend to teach students how to find useful sources.  In my experience, it takes students more than a couple of “library days” to acquire the wherewithal to root out the best options for their work among the many texts they will find through the library portal and “out there” on the open Internet.  I’d rather spend the time working with students on what’s inside shared texts so that they consider how they might position themselves in relation to the words of others, how to work on the other writers’ words rather than use those words to reiterate their own claims, and how to fashion and follow through on their own lines of thought.  (See my first “Thesis” post on my thoughts about the Law & Order style of essay.) That’s critical thinking to my mind.

I’ve seen a number of problems when I’ve asked students to use several outside sources, three of which follow:

I don’t have super powers:  I can’t read everything students find, so I feel handicapped responding to their work in the context of those sources.  Five sources multiplied by twenty students. (If I were less concerned about what students added for their sources, I think that I’d be emphasizing one form of using other sources rather than engaging with how the writer is working with them.  The operative words here are “added” versus “working with.”)

So many sources, so little engagement:  Five sources–presumably journal articles, book chapters, whole books–seems a typical number required in essays that range in assigned length from six or so pages to fifteen.  The student is encouraged to include all as a “means of participating in the conversation,” and by doing so finds herself dabbling in the many rather than digging into the few.  I’d  rather work in class on ways of developing sustained engagement with far fewer texts.

The loss of the writer:  With so many texts in play, the student writer has precious little material space on the page to foreground her own ideas. I’ve seen the quoted material take over the essay because the student wants to demonstrate that he or she has put in the work reading those five sources.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Blog,  G. Kim Blank ponders how effective the “term paper” is in a first-year writing class.  He finds it “Boring. Boring. Boring.”, adding that it is also “Useless. Useless. Useless.”  I get it.  He makes makes a hardline recommendation: “Let’s Kill the Term Paper” (no bones about it, evidently).

Professor Blank and I would agree that the “research paper” no longer fits the mandates of the modern composition classroom.  And I do wake up in a cold sweat from time to time worried that he’s right when he asks, “Could it be that this whole writing business, with the essay as its poster child, has become a self-justifying industry, fueled largely by never-changing textbooks and ever-changing adjuncts?”  But I also worry about his recommendations.  In place of the research paper, he proposes “An obvious form . . . the report, where at least there is a chance of some real-world applicability.” I’ve done a few of those reports.   In fourth grade.   (I can probably still tell you about the Aztecan pyramid for Huitzilopotchli at Acatitlan.)   More disturbing than the genre (and its faint intellectual demands) is Blank’s hope for “some real-world applicability.”  In other words, we’re to train a workforce, and college is largely vocational.  “Utility” is the driver behind writing.

I’m not the truth-and-beauty type (most of the time), but I don’t support the utility of vocational training in first-year writing courses (or any writing courses).   I want our writing program to develop students who have begun to see ways of connecting what they think with how they write.  I want them to consider their options, accept and embrace ambiguities, take risks, and produce some new knowledge in the world–the kind of knowledge that might give us some pause about the world of work, or relationships among peoples, or accepting the status quo.  We’ll not get anywhere reproducing the material conditions and relations of production.

While I don’t advocate for the research paper either, I hope we instead guide students toward the practices and goals I describe here.

You can take a look at the statement on what’s required in FE on the “research paper” score.   You’ll also find some useful ideas about what to do instead.  (http://freshmanenglish.uconn.edu/instructors/literacy/index.php)