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Gene Preuss • 7 years ago

I agree with the crux of your argument, that overemphasis on citation stifles creativity, is probably correct. But, I disagree with your assessment where you state, "I hate it when students who have hit on a novel and interesting way of looking at an issue tell me they have to change their topic because they can’t find sources that say exactly what they plan to say. I try to persuade them otherwise, but they believe that original ideas are not allowed in “research.”"

I think you're confounding creativity with opinion. One of the main purposes of the research paper is to teach students that learned and informed thought is based around facts that support your conclusions.  What you are describing is students who want to write opinion pieces, then find that the facts don't support them. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.c... Inside Higher Ed 

Sue • 8 years ago

For four years now, I have asked my freshman composition students to write a series of one- to two-page personal reflection essays over the span of the semester. Each essay must discuss how some experience the student has had in class has changed the way they perceive something outside of class.

In addition, the students must write three researched and documented essays about topics they select from a list of "researchable" topics. Over time I have reduced the length of each research paper from 2,500 words to 1,200 words, and I have reduced the number of required sources from six to three.

Students say they love writing the reflection essays because they "are like letters to the professor about things they know the professor can relate to." They express ideas very well in the reflection essays, I presume, because they have some sort of emotional connection to their ideas and opinions. The topics they choose to write about are relevant to their lives, and they recognize that writing about personally meaningful things is much easier to do.

On the other hand, their initial reaction to writing research papers is generally dread: They have to use a database or library that is complicated/confusing to look up stuff in which they have no emotional investment, and they dread documentation because they don't understand it and it just seems counterproductive to have to cite someone else's words if they are supposed to be developing their own ideas about a topic.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is wiser to combine the personal relevance of the reflection essay with the mechanical objectivity of the research paper than to treat them as separate and distinct forms. To that end, I show students how to narrow a topic to a single, focused point and encourage them to find something personally meaningful or relevant about that point to make the task of writing more interesting. Maybe their research involves a community service organization or their favorite endangered species or one of half a dozen short stories we’ve read in class, but it’s their choice – not mine – and that makes a great deal of difference in their level of enthusiasm for research. When I explain that, until they become experts in their chosen field they are going to have to quote experts to demonstrate that they’re on the right track, they make the choice about how to balance their own ideas with researched material; I don’t require a minimum number of quotes or citations. When I tell them that MLA Style is a set of communication standards for the academy and that one day they may work in an industry or professional field which likewise has its own set of communication standards, they accept more readily the fact that there are likely going to be rules of some sort in every environment. While I would love for every citation to be perfect, I tell them I want them to achieve the "spirit" of technical correctness and accountability at this stage in their writing.

Shorter essays about topics in which the students are genuinely interested have made a big difference in the quality of the research and writing. They are less likely to try to “borrow” someone else’s idea and claim it as their own because they are emotionally connected to the topic about which they are writing and they want their audience to know that they understand it. The end result is usually something quite readable and informative. If the students can view those research papers as “letters to the professor” with in-text and bibliographic citations, as many have done, I’m happy with that. I will feel like I’ve helped them develop a useful skill.

Alex K • 6 years ago

You're reflection essays sound like a great high school assignment. I'm sure you're students love them.

If students can't get "interested" in the actual academic topics then perhaps college isn't for them. I don't think research papers are failing students, I think students are failing themselves.

Lyle • 8 years ago

The problem is that academic writing and business writing are completely different. In business writing the point is to communicate to the time stressed reader. Yet again tech writing is different. Given that very few freshmen will end up in a job where academic style writing is important, why not writing courses attuned to the degree course, i.e. engineering writing, scientific writing, business writing etc? Or make the freshman class an overview of the various styles of writing. In my experience of 28 years in the oil industry, only 1 time did I ever write something over 3 pages. If you think about it Powerpoint slides are basically an outline of the issue which of course is a step in the preparation of the paper. Given the time stressed nature of business, perhaps an outline and then a discussion is better.

Brad • 8 years ago

After earning two master's degrees and then getting published, I thought I was a good writer. But then I confronted a startling reality: What makes for good writing in academia often fails to impress in the rest of the world.

I realized this after becoming an avid reader of "The New Yorker" and "Harper's". In those publications, one finds thoroughly researched, smart essays. Yet they often conform to few of the standards imposed on academic research papers.

For example, many of the best essays written have no thesis statement. Sometimes they do, but it's not given until the end of the essay. Yet university professors continue to cherish this artificial construct, as if it holds the secret to good writing.

If we want students to write and communicate well, we need to have them read good writing. Or perhaps we need to read good writing more frequently ourselves.

I applaud the suggestions in this article.

I won't comment on the writing, or the research, but rather on the burdensome citation practices in the academy.

I never prepare my own reference lists. As soon as I had enough grant money to hire a graduate assistant to do this for me, I happily erased all knowledge of the byzantine citation rules from my mind: it has freed me to think, and read, and write.

I do interdisciplinary research, and every publication requires a new scheme: APA, MLA, Chicago, Harvard.

The point of citations is to give enough information that your reader can a) assess the cited source as legitimate and b) find the source themselves to consult it. I leave in-text references for my RA and he easily finds the sources in our 1000+ item database, and painstakingly, over hours and hours, prepares the reference list, that is then, invariably, reworked by editors and sent back to us for a redo.

There needs to be an easier way to do this.

Barbara • 8 years ago

The problem, it seems to me, is that we believe the research paper (which is not writing up new research findings, so is not research the way scholars actually perform it, but is a thesis statement, a synthesis of information about the topic, and a conclusion) gives students an opportunity to learn several things: learn academic writing conventions, particularly those governing the use of sources; learn how to use the library and the internet to recognize high quality sources; learn how to read those sources and extract meaning from them; and learn something about the topic they are writing about as they synthesis the information.

We have ample evidence that these learning outcomes are rarely met as students write this kind of paper. We have some intriguing evidence in the Stanford study that other kinds of writing tasks do meet these goals.

I'm not sure how difficult it will be to get faculty to teach writing using other kinds of assignments, but I think assigning the generic "research paper" in the first year of college does not appear to help students learn things that are important and instead appears to be distancing students from what it means to ask genuine questions and seek out answers that matter and express their discoveries clearly and with conviction. They could do those things better by writing in other genres.

I agree with William Badke (for once! actually we agree more than you might think) that research writing can be an invitation into a discipline. At my college we have two kinds of required writing courses, writing intensive (focused on understanding writing rhetorically for all purposes) and writing in the disciplines (where students learn to write using disciplinary conventions. That's the kind of invitation that Bill's talking about.

But we also need to write using evidence in everyday contexts. I would argue (and Richard Larson will get my back on this) that the generic research paper is neither an invitation to disciplinary writing nor to the kind of writing that one does outside of college; it's an invitation to a generic form of "college writing," that is more misleading than it is helpful.

TomK • 8 years ago

@Barbara I don't think you've been misleading, and I don't mean to suggest that I think you don't value writing or the research process. But I do still think that you're missing the point. Look, it's not the research paper ("traditional"--whatever that means--or otherwise) that involves students in doing the things you mentioned; the students must involve themselves. The problem isn't the paper. The trouble with the claim stated in the title of the article is that it misrepresents the problem, and, if we can't see the problem clearly, then there's absolutely zero chance that we're going to be able to deal with it.

It's tempting to say that the problem is the research paper, because that's an easy thing to change--throw it out, and replace it with presentations, brochures, Wikipedia articles, and it's easy to feel like we've done something. Change curricula so that teachers focus more on research and writing? Train and oversee faculty so as to be sure that they are actually teaching (rather than merely assigning) the research paper? These are not easy things to do, and there's not even a simple way of figuring out when they've been done (not so with getting rid of the research paper). But if we take the route of doing the easy thing that we know won't work, instead of that of the hard thing that we can't be sure ever will, then the problem will be us.

TomK • 8 years ago

As a teacher and administrator I have dealt with all of the problems outlined in this article, and I understand the frustration that the author must feel at seeing students struggle with the same issues, term after term. But, for me, it doesn't make sense to get rid of the research paper on the grounds it isn't an assignment that students can quickly and easily complete. In fact, I'd argue just the opposite: that we need to keep the research paper, precisely because it does challenge students to push beyond the limits of ability that they bring with them to college. The fact that students find it difficult isn't proof that it isn't working; it's proof that it is.

Keith • 5 years ago

So I'm paying the college to frustrate me with a paper to "push me beyond my limits"? I was hoping I was paying the college to teach me things I want to learn, not to force me to push myself. I can force myself to do things for free, and it's just as hard! We write research papers just because they are hard. I have never learned anything useful from writing a research paper. EVER!

Tony • 8 years ago

I agree! I see the drive for citation correctness as a barrier to many students. It is an artifical wall created by elitist to keep out those deemed not worthy. I do see the whole citation standards disappearing in 10-15 years. We can just link to the sources within the paper, much like in this blog post.

Andrew Nelson • 3 years ago

Good little post. I agree with some things, and disagree with others. I am a practice oriented person. I've read wonderful little ideas (theories) about research papers for freshman comp sections, and practically none of them work in practice--imagine that. Here's how I teach my research paper: pick at least four scholarly, prose articles, examine the argument and rhetoric of each one, and then argue for which one was most persuasive. Simple.

Ayy Bola • 3 years ago

"I try to persuade them otherwise, but they believe that original ideas are not allowed in “research.”"

This really resonates within me as I am currently enrolled in the capstone course for my degree and the course consists of 4 papers- papers in which we are required to merely find sources, rephrase and summarize the sources, and follow the format given. No original thoughts allowed.

It also makes me wonder if so much of our 'research' is nothing but a cyclical rip off of someone else's ideas? God forbid university students do original research for once.

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KyuWook❤ELF • 5 years ago

very much agreed. i'm in the middle of writing a mock research report for a class right now, and it's such a tedious process. i actually do enjoy writing in general, but so many of my courses in college requires me to write boring research papers in which i could hardly incorporate any original methodology because they're not supported by any studies. i find that humanities majors appear to fare slightly better than the sciences (i'm a science major) - I was allowed, encouraged even, in my English and Sociology electives to write papers with few citations in order for the bulk of the paper to be composed of my own thoughts. of course, such papers were unsurprisingly essays rather than research papers. i understand that research is important especially in the sciences, and being able to do lit reviews and incorporate others' work into your writing is an important skill to have, but at some point i'd just like to take a breather and let some of my creativity pour into my science assignments. i found writing essays to be a lot more enjoyable than writing research papers and would honestly like to see more essays assigned in my science courses.

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Jennifer Heise • 7 years ago

One thing I find appalling about the Citation Project work is that it argues that we can fix this by restricting students' training in accessing outside sources in learning to write. So far, doing so has not been documented to help the students' writing, but it sure lowers their self-reported tendencies to use scholarly tools to find information rather than just Google. Students may not end up writing research papers for a living-- most don't. However, every student out there will someday need to find reliable information on a topic. Cutting students off from instruction on this subject, in favor of concentrating on subject material (English writing, then major disciplines)-- how does this make students better able to consume information again?

Mark • 8 years ago

The typical freshman "research paper" is neither research nor a paper. Spending time on teaching freshmen details on citations is a guarantee to create brain freeze. Our experience is to focus first on understanding what the scholarly, peer-review process is, and why it matters. Once the students learn that, much falls into place. Database spelunking (great term!) is a waste of time. Give the students a discovery tool like WorldCat Local, Summons, etc, or even Google Scholar. Why show a freshman with a 5 page paper a list of databases to search? More brain freeze. Give them something like EasyBib for the citations... even better, start getting faculty to start using DOIs and permalinks and leave traditional citations behind.

Barbara • 8 years ago

Wow, this comment thread has grown since I last looked. Thanks to all who have shared their thoughts and experiences. I'd like to add a couple of responses....

@Redawoo - you ask a vital question: "is it the final product that matters (a research paper, a blog entry, a PowerPoint presentation) or the process that one took to get there (evaluating, collecting, analyzing, synthesizing information)?" I'm choosing the second option, but your point is well taken that the process needs to be taught and the requirements of the final product (whatever it is) also needs to be clear to students. I think it's hard to make the format of the generic research paper clear to students in part because it's an artificial construct; it doesn't exist outside of the lower-division undergraduate curriculum, yet it's taught because the things it is presumed students learn as a result (how to write from sources, how to weave evidence into an argument, how to write in an academic voice, how to organize your thoughts) are learned through writing research papers. I suggest there's not much evidence to support that claim. (And I agree that "creative projects" that can be tossed together with little thought are unlikely to teach the writing and thinking skills that we need. And learning to use Powerpoint seems a teeny tiny subset of learning how to communicate effectively in writing and not a particularly good platform for such learning.) Which brings me to another comment....

@Sue - "I show students how to narrow a topic to a single, focused point and encourage them to find something personally meaningful or relevant about that point" - yes, yes! Your experience of merging researched writing and the personal essay (or turning the personal into a researched essay) is a great way to rescue the "research paper" and turn it into writing that draws on evidence (and makes the sources of that evidence clear to the reader) and to help students write from sources effectively. Oh, this is worth framing. Thank you. Though it's often the case we have to write about things that may not be personally meaningful (I have some of such projects on my "to do" list right now), it's easier to give students practice writing if they can use these skills doing something they don't dread and that they don't think is mainly about page length and numbers of sources cited properly. Which is how most research paper assignments are interpreted by students and described in assignment prompts, since most emphasize length, number of sources, citation style, and even margin size - none of which seem in any way related to learning how to write effectively using sources.

Ed V • 8 years ago

The discussion here has been interesting, and I think many participants will agree that part of the problem is that Freshmen are often introduced to too many different skills at one time. I have to teach a "research" paper as part of a first semester Freshman Comp course, but where I used to teach (21 years ago), neither sememster of Freshman comp included research. The college had a separate 1-credit research course, taught by the English department, but attached to a variety of upper-division courses. The papers were submitted for both courses at once. Thus the major questions of topic, interest, etc. were greatly reduced.

Redawoo • 8 years ago

It’s an easy argument to say that the higher-level thinking skills are more important than practical steps, but if you don’t have the tools to do the task, you’ll have a difficult time producing a product. If a teacher chooses to assign a PowerPoint presentation, the teacher must spend time teaching PowerPoint, if the teacher assigns a research paper, the teacher has to spend time teaching the structure of a research paper.

Which is a better use of time? Both methods engage users in technology. Both can require analysis and synthesis of information. One reflects a standard used in academia, while the other reflects more of a standard used in business. The PowerPoint could require an oral component, but so could the research (poster presentation).

Then, there’s the real life skills component. I do not think it’s the ultimate job of all high school teachers to prepare students for college, but in a program that is labeled “college prep,” this seems to be the implication. So, is it the final product that matters (a research paper, a blog entry, a PowerPoint presentation) or the process that one took to get there (evaluating, collecting, analyzing, synthesizing information)?

From my librarian perspective, what I care about most teaching information literacy. Whether you’re a high school drop out needing to get a loan or a PhD student looking for the latest research on a bacterium, you need to know where to find information and how to determine if that information is relevant and reliable. Written and oral communication are also critical, though they are not my fields of expertise.

I fully support creative ways of conveying information, but sometimes students take creative projects less seriously than they do research papers. A research paper is perceived to be a serious, hefty amount of work that is tricky to fake (especially if your teacher is on the anti-plagiarism brigade). A diorama or a PowerPoint may seem like something that can be thrown together last minute with some fancy visuals to distract the viewer from what’s missing. If this attitude could be changed, then the results from a non-traditional research project could be just as good as a research paper. I know teachers that assign projects such as brochures, posters, and PowerPoints, but I don’t see those students learning how to gather and assemble information. They’re printing out Wikipedia blurbs and gluing them to cardstock. That is not okay. I would love students to produce creative projects at the same quality level as they do research papers.

KCJ • 8 years ago

@Matt: your response is exactly why I believe we still need research papers in Freshman Comp. Scholary sources lend credibility to your ideas because you're adding the weight of your sources' education, experience, and background--their ethos--to your ideas. They're more credible than you because they've proven themselves in the field by earning advanced degrees and writing peer-reviewed publications; in other words, they're experts. Even at their level, they have to incorporate evidence to support their ideas--whether it comes from theoretical paradigms or empirical research. Thus, while your ideas are very likely interesting, engaging, and perhaps even original, they still need evidence to support them.

I encourage my students to disagree with the 'experts' and read against the grain, to discover their own point of view and express it--but to then take it a step further and support it with evidence. If together, we can't find evidence from studies that have already been done, so much the better--we'll conduct empirical research in the form of surveys, observations, etc. to see if it's possible to support that student's proposed thesis--and what a wonderful learning opportunity that can be!

The point, though, is that without evidence, what one says is just an opinion (versus an actual argument), and there's little for students to learn when they're just re-stating what they believed to be true when they began--especially if they can't fully articulate credible reasons to support that belief. Learning doesn't happen in an intellectual vacuum, and if all students are going to do is tell us what they already know (or think they know), we're not educating them.

It's not just about what students produce, but about the process they go through while they're producing it. When students read a variety of credible sources and really explore a topic they find interesting in greater depth, they often discover the issue is much more complex than they first imagined, and throughout this process, they not only learn analysis, synthesis, and research skills, they learn to think and read more critically. They may also discover the joy of learning and the confidence to express their ideas in increasing depth and complexity.

I don't believe the key is to ditch the research paper, but instead, to spend more time on it--to break it down into managable chunks and focus on building it from the ground up. I teach my students to use an online citation tool that generates the citations for them regardless of what style manual they're using. Citations, while important, are only one small, but necessary, aspect of the whole. Like generally accepted grammar rules, I think it's as ridiculous to throw citations out altogether as it is to spend an inordinate amount of time picking at them.

Lyle • 8 years ago

The whole concept of long enough papers dies in the real world, the shorter a document the more likley it is to be read, in an environment where the reader has insufficient time to read everything. Why not require one or two page papers instead. (Much more typical of what goes on in business). In essence make a written version of the elevator pitch. It seems that the length requirements exist to put some minimal effort requirement ala the old we pay you for sitting at your desk 9-5 not for getting things done. Most reports in my 28 years of life in industry were at most 2-3 pages. And of course no one worried about citation styles and the like, which is a purely academic conceit.

matt • 8 years ago

As a full time college student i am constantly asked to do research papers; sometimes on things i know very little about and could really care less. When i go into wright a paper for a class it is approached a lot different than my personal writing. There is a constant worry of being punished for plagiarizing because most subjects have been researched by many different people and they're only so many ways that you can word the same thing. The traditional research paper guide line should be abandoned. Why can’t i make a point without having someone i have to cite? What makes that person creditable, the person he cited? It’s just a big domino effect of who's creditable. When given a paper i believe the student should have total free rein on what he is to say. Yes, sources are needed but the citing and following MLA guidelines are not. Another of the problems that was mentioned in the blog post was that students find a book or topic they are enthusiastic about but they have to change the topic because they cannot find enough sources to cite what they may already know or have in their heads what they want to say. i have personally had to change topics for the exact reason. i have also wrote argumentative papers arguing the side i dis agree with just because it was a lot easier to argue that side. That’s crap that students are writing on what they don't believe just so they can make their papers long enough and have proper MLA citations.

JLG • 8 years ago

I completely agree with Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur in noting the differences between a research paper in the Humanities (for example) and the Social Sciences (in general). These are completely different writing assignments and should be understood and treated as such. In all the discussion on the research paper, no one expect Mikaila really highlighted the differences in language and meaning with respect to this issue.
I, too, experience this issue when students take social science classes and are completely confused about the writing assignment they will be required to complete. They are confused, frustrated, and perplexed when I attempt to explain to them that what they are completing equals a literature review, not a research paper; that research in this discipline means something different than the way they are using that term.
We have created or are creating a group of students who not only cannot tell the difference between a quality source and a bad source, but who do not understand the differences between courses and disciplines in terms of language and goal. Where is the discussion in each course and discipline about why assignments are called what they are, how these assignments fit into the discipline for which the course is situated, the purpose of the writing assignment, and why the assignment is important and/or relevant? This process may be asking more of faculty, but if we want informed and knowledgeable students (and citizens) it may be something we need to consider.

As a social scientist, I have a related but somewhat different set of problems with the idea of the Freshman Research Paper that this post describes: namely, that it doesn't involve what social scientists call research. I teach a two-semester research methods sequence in which students learn to plan and carry out the collection and analysis of empirical data--to us, this is what research is. The collection of sources and the construction of a paper that makes an argument based on those sources is only one of the stages of preparation for research. Those student who struggle to find sources that will allow them to say what they want to say end up in my class, struggling with the opposite question: if the research has already been done--in other words, if what you want to say has already been said--you need a new research question! Every semester students tell me they need to change their topic because they can't find articles about it, and I tell them that means it's the best kind of topic of all. And to us, those citations are truly important--because that's what you use to trace the intellectual lineage of the scholarly conversation your own empirical project is participating in. I'd love it if students learned to write real empirical research papers in Freshman composition, but if that's not what the course will do, I wish the course would at least not treat literature reviews and empirical research as if they were the same task.

Critical Theory • 6 years ago

Actually, is it really the case that a student needs a new research question if what they want to say has already been said? The social sciences already has this perverse "if it's been tried, don't bother replicating it" mentality, as consequently no one trusts a great deal of your discipline's data.

Cathy • 8 years ago

To make the research paper work, the instructor can make the topics timely and interesting. I have the students post the topic on an on-line forum and then all comment (and more than "good idea"). The results are often a lively discussion and a better understand of audience. This easily progresses to good sources and how to cite (how do you cite forums?) to prove who is right.
Also, by encouraging current events, I get unique papers, with unusual angles - "Cloning is feasible in the next 50 years", "Netflix has a better business model than Blockbuster", and "Credit Card should not be given to anyone under 21". A nice change from steroids and the death penalty. Plus the students wanted to write them.

Carolyn G • 3 years ago

I really like your idea of letting the students pick their own topic. In my opinion, this will allow the student to open up to new ideas and suggestions from their peers. It also takes the stress away from having to look for sources. Often times, if you're passionate about what you are writing, then the entire paper kind of just falls into place.

quidditas • 8 years ago

I came to this post via the CHE, which has an interesting post up about students' ability to understand what they are reading in the disciplines and using it effectively in their own writing. (It also deals with the issue of plagiarism).

http://chronicle.com/blogs/...

Barbara • 8 years ago

Ah. That's the "lab rat training exercise" reason for the research paper: the learning outcome is to be able to follow rules.

Sorry; I think we're bound to disagree on this topic. I happen to think research papers water down the significance of writing clearly and understanding the importance of evidence.

Mark Ridge • 8 years ago

An editor recently lamented that writers do not know how to follow guidelines and document sources properly for publication. These skills are taught to freshmen, and if followed correctly can be easily adopted to many uses in other classes. Sure there should be "one-style-fits-all", but almost every profession has its unique problems when dealing with citing sources. The hypertext model someone mentioned earlier is already here, but only works in electronic format--say an ePortfolio. Students should always be allowed to choose their own topics when conducting research; anyone who doesn't do that is asking for vacuous writing. Brochures and such? Those types of documents are for document design class, professional writing classes, and public relations classes. Already too many people use PowerPoint--incorrectly--in too many classes. Give students real world topics on which to write as well. But calling an end to the research paper is madness. That would be watering down an already watered down system. And, if your students are not learning to paraphrase and summarize in your class, you are probably not providing proper instruction, or the students don't care. This broad-brushing of students needs to stop, and we certainly do not need to turn college into high school.

Melissa • 8 years ago

I think the research paper in the first year does have merit, but I think we need to both lower and raise our standards. First, we need to stop assuming that students know how to go beyond Wikipedia and TEACH them how to do research. Building blocks, if you will. Have a librarian come to class (or the class goes to the library!) and show them how to find information. Have them start with a bibliography, then annotate it, then write more than one rough draft.
And yes, by all means....I tell my students I don't care about citation perfection...as long as I can figure out where your information came from, I'm good. Time enough in upper division major courses to figure out APA, MLA, or Chicago!

William Badke • 8 years ago

I've sparred a bit with Barbara on such issues over the years, but here I find myself agreeing with her about generic research papers for first year students. Those things have been dead horses as long as they've been assigned. But this does not mean the research paper itself is dead. It is merely misunderstood by students and, dare I say it, professors alike. The research paper, properly understood, is a doorway into a discipline, a way of helping students begin to engage with the discipline rather than only learning about it. But the average student sees it only as a mystifying and often terrifying requirement because their professors fail to grasp the opportunity they have been given actually to teach method to their students by walking them through sample papers or literature reviews, then teaching those students how to formulate meaningful research questions/theses that can actually address interesting and significant problems in the discipline, while making use of the best thinkers in the field. That may sound unrealistic, but it can be done. I've done it for years. Bottom line: Students don't succeed at research papers until they understand what research papers are intended to do. Professors aren't going to be able to help their students write good research papers until they understand that these much maligned products are not merely intended to give a student a chance to learn more about something and/or a way to fill in grading requirements. A research paper, done rightly, with professors spending significant time teaching purpose and methodology, is an invitation: This is discipline I teach. I am going to help you begin doing this discipline. Welcome to my world. I hope you like it.

Andrew Nelson • 3 years ago

^^^Best post in the thread. See the post above, in which, I describe the research essay I've been teaching for years. I think my assignment "... is a doorway into a discipline, a way of helping students begin to engage with the discipline rather than only learning about it." That is what the freshman English research assignment should accomplish. By the way, I remind students research can be fun--that is possible.

Barbara • 8 years ago

@TomK - I hope I haven't been misleading, though probably I have. I think students, even beginners, should engage in inquiry that involves them in finding, selecting, and reading sources carefully. I think they should have opportunities to write from sources, learning to integrate ideas gracefully and paraphrase information from sources accurately. I think they should develop a knack for knowing when a direct quotation is effective and how to attribute sources. I think they should work hard on these things. I just don't think the traditional research paper involves them successfully in doing these important things.

Barbara • 8 years ago

@Donna - "database spelunking" - I am SO going to quote you on that. What a great phrase. I think one reason this kind of work in the humanities comes so late is that ideas and language in the humanities is so slippery. The connections among ideas really link up more clearly in the citation web than in keyword or controlled vocabulary databases. I was just experiencing the same feeling when searching MLA - and thinking "I know I'm missing a lot, but all of this is not what I'm looking for."

@StevenB - right, knowing how to satisfy curiosity and find and evaluate evidence should be part of education at ALL levels. It's a shame it isn't. Of course, school librarians and library funding tend to make it onto the chopping block when funds are tight, and I too think the test emphasis of NCLB has contributed to the problem.

The problem of not understanding what they are reading is a fascinating aspect of this issue, and our emphasis on using "scholarly sources" often compounds it for novice researchers. Rory Litwin had some interesting things to say about this at Library Juice some years ago - saying the reason students prefer Google to databases and those scholarly sources is that they simply find things they can actually understand. http://libraryjuicepress.co...

RR • 8 years ago

Neither are my students particularly challenged by the citation rules (in fact, they adapt frighteningly well to what, at times, appear to be arbitrary rules). Summarizing and phrasing others' writing seems to be the larger challenge--I can't count how many of my students this semester have simply misrepresented magazine articles because they can't understand them.

Philogenes • 8 years ago

In community colleges, we do have a problem of too many faculty who don't have much research experience. They are more comfortable with the mechanics of citation than with the construction of knowledge. That's why the focus is on how to cite sources instead of why to use sources. Students often end up writing orations and polemics rather than thoughtful, well documented papers.

Some suggestions:
1. Give students a starting point. We shouldn't be bad-mouthing Wikipedia; we should be telling students that it's a quick, convenient way to get an overview of a topic before they begin more detailed research.
2. Require reviews of books or articles--not reports, but reviews that focus on the work's contribution to the body of knowledge on the subject.
3. Require review essays that allow students to identify areas in which they can mediate among diverse approaches to develop new knowledge.

donna • 8 years ago

I got to the "capstone" course in English Lit. without knowing how to do a research paper, i.e. how to use the databases correctly. I was frustrated with my lack of knowledge, and I blogged about it. (On Writing a Research Paper for an English Literature Course at http://fusedephemera.wordpr...

Barbara • 8 years ago

@ Amy - this is why I think understanding sources and why we use them is so important - and the "research paper" doesn't seem to providing that understanding. I also think the idea of how using ideas (with credit) improves your argument - which redirects the discussion from "stealing" to "why bringing smart people's ideas (and their names) into your writing makes your argument stronger."

Amy • 8 years ago

I expected my students to be more challenged by the citation format. I was prepared to explain the nuances of APA (which I'm required to use even though I teach history a normally MLA subject). However, while they don't necessarily get the format correct, they get the basic format idea. What they don't understand is what is a quote, how and when to use quotation marks, how to use in text citations, how the in text citations support the reference list, that they still need to cite even in online discussions and homework that isn't a formal research paper...the list continues. They are not freshman! They are adult students in their junior or senior years! I learned all this "stuff" in junior high and it was reinforced in high school. I didn't go to school that long ago either. I know there are a lot of high schools that don't or aren't able to teach this "stuff." I don't have a good solution, but I don't think the citation format is the issue. The issue is the underlying information behind why citations are necessary (not stealing!) and how this applies to their lives (even references to Enron etc. don't seem to help them understand). It would be nice to have a universal, non-changing citation format, but I don't think it will solve these problems nor will getting rid of research papers.

StevenB • 8 years ago

I totally agree with the points about the challenges of teaching the proper citing of content and the problems we artificially create with citation madness. I've previously asked why we don't simply all agree on a common, simply designed format.

But here's a different thought on why the freshman research paper fails. Perhaps it's not that we should wait until later when the students are more engaged within their discipline rather than trying to get them to write about something they don't care about. Perhaps what we should be doing is starting earlier. Over at From the Bell Tower I wrote about it here: http://bit.ly/dhwO8O

The tools are out there. Students could be introduced to basic research concepts, strategies and resources as early as grades 1-3. We shouldn't be waiting until they are freshmen to get to this. Sure, high school students are supposed to be writing research papers, but perhaps this is where they're picking up the behaviors described in the 4Cs presentation about citation patterns. Admittedly the problem with starting way earlier is that we're spending less on primary education and focusing far too much to teaching to the test rather than allowing for writing and research creativity.

David Eubanks • 8 years ago

Backtrack:

http://highered.blogspot.co...

Summary: Proposes a framework for understanding and solving the problem of artificial pedagogy.