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Are Research Papers Worthwhile?

April 21, 2011

I’ve been thinking about Barbara Fister’s recent blog post arguing that the “research paper” isn’t working as an assignment for undergraduates.  While I agree with her that excessive focus on the mechanics of citation styles causes unnecessary stress for many students, I am more ambivalent about statements like this:

I have long agreed with Richard Larson who wrote way back in 1982 that the research paper as taught in college is an artificial genre, one that works at cross-purposes to actually developing respect for evidence-based reasoning, a measured appreciation for negotiating ideas that are in conflict, or original thought.

I do have a lot of sympathy for this paragraph, though, since I regularly see struggling students with these problems:

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.” How messed up is that? The other and, sadly, more frequent reference desk winch-making moment involves a student needing help finding sources for a paper he’s already written. Most commonly, students pull together a bunch of sources, many of which they barely understand on a topic they know little about, and do their best to mash the contents up into the required number of pages.

I don’t think the blame is to be placed on the research paper as an assignment, but I do think many undergraduates need a lot of support along the way if they are to write good research papers.  Finding a workable thesis, finding and understanding appropriate scholarly sources, and writing a competent argument are discrete tasks that each require multiple skills; I have trouble covering just the research piece in an hour-long library instruction session.

I do think there are valuable assignments at the undergraduate and even graduate levels that help teach many research paper skills without technically being research papers. In one undergraduate class, I was assigned several papers where the topic was a question, required to be used as the title of the (short) paper and answered within it, using scholarly sources which I had to find.  In another, we were given a controversial topic and a short bibliography of scholarly sources with contrasting viewpoints and required to write a paper assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments.  These types of assignment help teach some of the skills that a research paper does – analysis, critical thinking, and writing a persuasive argument.  Other assignments could be devised to focus more specifically on the thesis-development and research and source evaluation pieces.

While I have seen many students struggle with research papers, I don’t think the answer is to eliminate the research paper at the college level.  I think every college graduate should be able to produce a competent 10-page paper.  But I do agree that many undergraduates do not arrive in college with the skills necessary to do this, and we should be teaching them these skills in a systematic way, and not just throwing them into the process and watching them struggle.

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