Why do we assign research papers?
We’ve all asked this question, usually at about one in the morning during the last week of classes when we’ve just found a conclusion cut and pasted from Wikipedia, or have written “Where’s your thesis?” in someone’s margin FOR THE ELEVENTY BILLIONTH TIME. It’s our common burden during grading season: we lug home a tote bag full of papers, put on a put of coffee, and begin to do hard time in Grading Jail. Some of the papers are brilliant examples of mature research and analysis, and some begin with “since the dawn of time, man has engaged in conflict, and nowhere was this more true than in the Spanish-American War.” Some of them show wide research, and some don’t. Some of them are well written,and some are a word salad of colloquialisms and faux-scholarly terms lifted willy-nilly from thesaurus.com.
But even if I’m not slogging through a stack of papers to grade, I still wonder why I have my students do them. And I’m not the only one; there are some pretty powerful arguments in favor of ditching the research paper–at last in 100- and 200-level classes–in favor of, say, written and oral exams working in tandem. Yet, to even broach this possibility in some quarters is tantamount to telling people that you enjoy puppies for breakfast. In my field-History-we depend on the research paper, especially in our upper level classes. I wrote a ton of them as an undergraduate, on subjects ranging from the philosophical antecedents to Nazi racial policies to the First Red Scare in Pittsburgh to the diplomacy of Alexander the Great. And they were good experiences. I learned how to do good research, to track down primary sources, and to do the type of critical analysis and argumentation that served me quite well in grad school, as they would have done in any other venue. And I really want my students to have those types of experiences as well; I want them to learn how to frame a good question, discover the evidence out there, and know what to do with it. I want them to experience that thrill of finding that one source that brings the whole thing together, to look at the impressive bibliography and say, “I read all this and knew what to do with it.”
Sit any historian down and ask them why they assign their students research papers, and they’ll give you the same reasons. Critical thinking, good writing, research skills, information literacy–these are the sine qua non of a college education. They’re the skills that we in History feel like we do a particularly good job instilling in students, whether or not they’re our majors. But suggest that we stop assigning the research paper? Well, we’re back to the puppies-for-breakfast thing.
Well, guess what? I’m going to stop assigning them.
I think the History Research Paper–as it has been traditionally conceived–is no longer the optimal way for my students to develop the skills I want them to in my courses. Indeed, it may never have been in the first place. WAIT! cry the voices of thousands of historians. HOW DARE YOU ABANDON THE SACRED TRADITION OF OUR FIELD YOU ANARCHIST HOTTENTOT. A research paper prepares students for graduate school and introduces them at least somewhat to how traditional academic scholarship works. It’s a sustained clinic in writing and research. It develops time management skills, intellectual discipline, and promotes rigor. If you don’t make them do it, how will our students ever learn these things? How will they learn the content? HOW WILL CIVILIZATION SURVIVE
Sure, the research paper does these things. But does it do them uniformly well? Does it provide only opportunity for my students to acquire and develop these proficiencies? Is it the best way for me to get them where they need to go in my course? Am I assigning research papers because I’m coming out of the Ph.D. paradigm where that’s just what you do? What about my students who aren’t going to pursue a Ph.D. and become an academic historian? In other words, what about 99.99% of them? Are they well-served by this paradigm? I think not. My students who go on to graduate school do so largely in education or in public history, where the needs and conditions for researching and effectively communicating historical material come in a variety of different forms. My students who pursue careers right out of undergrad will most likely never have to perform a task that resembles the traditional research paper ever again. So, I face the realization that to continue to employ research papers as the only option for the “big ticket” projects in my classes is to essentially force students to commit significant time and effort to a project that will most likely not look like anything they’ll be asked to do down the road. And maybe this is at least part of the reason we have some students who never invest in the project: the ones who do little or no research, who slap something together at the last minute, who fail to cite sources and outright plagiarize–they do not see this whole routine as something they need.
Now, I’m not arguing that we need to cater to our students’ every whim, that if little Johnny doesn’t want to write a big scary research paper then we should let him do something more fun. I know that some might characterize what I propose in exactly those terms. But to abandon the traditional research paper is not to abandon rigor or compromise on outcomes fundamental to my courses and my field. Indeed, I think I can ensure more rigor and more sustained engagement with something different.
What if a student was asked to build a website on a particular historical topic? They would have to not only perform systematic research, but acquire enough intellectual control over the material to not only convey that information but to design the conveyance itself. Information literacy and proper attribution practices? Incorporating media, images, and primary sources into their website requires students to learn fair use standards, understand the need for attribution and proper citation, and to gain an understanding of intellectual property and copyright. I’ll trade knowing where to italicize in a Turabian-style bibliography for those any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And if I require a certain amount of their own text to anchor the site, then they’re writing and not just curating. If I have them build the site using WordPress, then they get experience working with the platform that almost 40% of the internet runs on. That seems…useful. Wouldn’t this type of project more closely mirror the types of intellectual and practical tasks they’ll be asked to perform as public historians, or teachers,or researchers, or analysts, or whatever?
And what if I had students visit each other’s sites and offer critiques? What if I reached out to colleagues in professional networks, or on Twitter, and had them visit and engage with the site–and leave comments and feedback for the students? Writing for audience is a crucial academic skill; wouldn’t creating a scholarly product for consumption by an informed public be better than a research paper that only the instructor sees? Knowing that their work remains “out there” in the discourse rather than going out of sight, out of mind when they “turn it in” would be a powerful model of how academic discourse is ongoing and dynamic. Wouldn’t it be cool if a student wanted to use it as the foundation for an electronic portfolio of their academic work?
And what if I got to grade these types of projects–each one a differently-organized and presented exhibition rather than a stack of uniform papers? And what if the students wrote a “process paper” that described their intellectual journey, from conception to launch, in all of its challenges and successes? Wouldn’t that promote reflection and metacognition, which is crucial to the type of deeper learning we want to promote in higher education, as opposed to merely regurgitating content?
This is just one possible alternative to the traditional research paper–one that avoids the limitations of that model yet still captures its benefits. I can see other possibilities as well; oral presentations coupled with a poster session, something performative perhaps–there’s a wide spectrum of alternatives out there, I suspect. If we’re honest with ourselves about what we want our students to learn and (this is important) why we want them to learn it in the way they would learn it, then I think there’s ample reason to abandon the research paper as currently constituted. Just because something has been the way for so long doesn’t mean it’s the only way, or even the best way. Intellectual and pedagogical honesty requires us to face that truth. So please excuse me while I step out of the paradigm.
PS-no puppies were harmed in the process of pedagogical readjustment depicted here.
Image credit: Wikimedia commons