Are Research Papers Obsolete?

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While new pedagogical aids make sense for students, let's not forget that professors are desperate to escape the old ways of teaching, too.

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A few days ago, Matt Richtel wrote a piece for the New York Times about the traditional undergraduate term paper, or research paper, and how professors like Cathy Davidson of Duke are abandoning it in favor of blogs (among other things).

Richtel seems a bit skeptical: he identifies people opposed to Davidson's approach as "defenders of rigorous writing" -- which makes Davidson what, exactly? A hater of rigorous writing? And "defenders of rigorous writing" can show their ignorance: one, who appears to be under the impression that a blog is a personal diary, harrumphs, "the solution isn't blogs, the solution is more reading. We don't pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives." In general, Richtel's article is governed by easy oppositions, which annoys Davidson, who wrote a long but usefully complicating post in response.

Basically, I'm on Davidson's side. Especially over the past few years I have tried many of the pedagogical experiments she recommends, and have come to believe that if I want my students to understand literature better -- and I do -- there are often better ways to do it than to assign them traditional research papers. Some of my own experiments have involved digital technology (I often create class blogs), while others are considerably more old-fashioned (I make students memorize poems and recite them to me). The role of the traditional research paper has been diminished in all my classes, and it has disappeared altogether in some of them. The research paper embodies one way of coming to know a subject, not the only way; and in many cases not the best way.

But there's one thing that nags at me, and I think ought to nag at all of us who are trying new approaches: If I am to be honest with myself, I have to admit that over the years -- and many of them: I assigned my first research paper in 1983 -- I have grown really, really tired of reading research papers. One differs from another so little that it's almost impossible not to be bored even by good ones. After a while you get desperate to do something else -- anything else.

So there may be, and I think there are, sound reasons for diminishing the role of the research paper and trying alternative models. But we professors ought to admit that we very much want alternatives, and are therefore prone to exaggerating the virtues of the new methods and, equally, exaggerating the vices of the old ones. Wishful thinking is harder to eradicate than kudzu.


Image: Library of Congress.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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