The point of assigning research papers isn’t really the research.

9 09 2011

I think there is no question whatsoever that databases of both primary and secondary sources are the greatest boon to the practice of history that technology has brought us. Just this week, J-Store announced that they’ll be giving away access to pre-1923 articles for free and I couldn’t be happier as my university has yet to buy access to the Business/Economics collection that I really want (and which nobody in our B School seems to care about).

That’s why arguments like this one just drive me to drink:

“What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” [Cathy Davidson of Duke University] adds: “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

What if, indeed. After studying the matter, Ms. Davidson concluded, “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

So let me get this straight: At a time when students have easy access to more resources than professional historians at the best research libraries did just twenty years ago, it’s time to stop assigning research papers because students don’t write them particularly well? The New York Times did a Room for Debate piece on whether research papers were a waste of time and based upon my quick scan it seems as if all six participants answered that question in the negative. It makes you wonder why they couldn’t think up a better question.

The NYT traces this little boomlet of inanity back to this guy:

[T]he research paper, with its cool postponement of a judgment, reinforces the prevailing relativism of the professorial mentality and campus culture. In addition, the gross multiplication of sources and references since the onset of the Internet has put the task of student research effectively beyond instructor supervision, and the tracking down of sources is nowadays for most students largely the exploitation of automated resources.

This argument reminds me of the “Why take history classes when you can Google anything?” argument I covered over the summer. The resolution to both issues, of course, is that it’s not the research or the facts that really matter in history (or the rest of the humanities, for that matter), it’s what students do with them. Leave out the debate, discussion and analysis and all you’re left with is rote memorization. Leave out the debate, discussion and analysis and everything a student learns is likely to go in one ear and out the other. Include enough primary sources in their work and students who will never be historians can get the feel for what historians actually do to create the history they read.

This is another part of that dividing brainwork article from the Economist that I cited yesterday:

At the same time, the demand for educated labour is being reconfigured by technology, in much the same way that the demand for agricultural labour was reconfigured in the 19th century and that for factory labour in the 20th. Computers can not only perform repetitive mental tasks much faster than human beings. They can also empower amateurs to do what professionals once did: why hire a flesh-and-blood accountant to complete your tax return when Turbotax (a software package) will do the job at a fraction of the cost? And the variety of jobs that computers can do is multiplying as programmers teach them to deal with tone and linguistic ambiguity.

Research papers are a means to the end of higher order thinking, the kind of thinking that computers are going to have a really hard time simulating and is therefore the average student’s best path towards full employment. Kill these assignments in the name of simplicity or cost or some twisted notion of what the jobs of the future will look like, and you doom your students to a lifetime of being utterly expendable.



One response

12 09 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I’ve been wondering about this one for a while. Is it possible that technology and online writing isn’t the enemy of clear expression in research papers, but its supporter? In my experience, students who write online every week do write more clearly by the end of this sustained period of compositional effort.

My sense is that the wider problem in research papers is that we sometimes don’t place enough emphasis on the virtue of responding to comments on a draft, and re-editing. So if the result of our bad habit (the assessments we’ve always used, as they were used on us) is their bad habit (desperate and sometimes not very effective forms of writing), maybe we all need to change our habits?

The relation between the two might be the same as the relation between training and running a marathon: training, and result.

The pre 1923 release is very exciting.

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