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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Lost Art of the Research Paper

I can't exactly say it's all fond memories, but I wrote research papers in high school and assigned them to my own students before the age of educational deformity. 

In ninth grade, my teacher guided the class through every step of the process.  We picked a topic, developed a thesis, searched for sources, made index cards for potential bibliographic entries and took notes on, larger yet, cards.  We learned how to properly quote, paraphrase and cite our sources.  We learned something that comes hard to kids today, the definition of plagiarism.  We outlined our paper, wrote a draft, suffered through multiple revisions and then handed in (either with pride or like a hot potato) the final project framed by a cover page and bibliography.  I wrote my ninth-grade history paper on Don Miguel de Cervantes.

I continued to use my paper-writing skills throughout high school.  You'll notice a common theme, no matter the nature of the course, I managed to find a history topic.  In eleventh-grade U.S. A.P., I wrote my paper on John Adams' defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre.  That same year, I wrote an English research paper on Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  As a senior English student, I wrote "Walt Whitman:  Man as Mirror."  In Economics IB, I wrote my paper on the Massachusetts Land Bank and Manufactory Scheme of the 1740s; that was reaching a bit. But in my mind, a good teacher allows students wide latitude to research their own interests.

By the time I got to college, and had to write even more papers, it seemed tolerable given my preparation in high school.   Moreover, my research taught me good life skills.  I learned how to weigh sources.  I learned how to organize ideas.  I learned how to think and write coherently.  
In this day and age with so much information instantly available, it seems even more important for students to be able to distinguish between credible and non-credible sources.  People need to be able to weigh evidence, filter out biases and try to understand the complexities of truth.  Students need practice organizing information, putting their thoughts into words and structuring an argument. 

For many years, I gave students a research paper or two.  Plagiarism was always a concern, and time-consuming to track down, but it was not the modus operandi for most.  In the internet age, however, plagiarism is more prevalent.  I designed some assignments to be almost plagiarism-proof, but also great fun to read.  I once asked students to write a creative piece, placed in another time period, in which they could show their understanding of some problem and have their characters work to solve it.   I enjoyed grading these papers, although it had its ups and downs.  One student handed me the most remarkable description of Napoleon on the battlefield.  Too bad it turned out to be Tolstoy in translation!

Unfortunately, many students are no longer getting practice writing research papers.   Instead of guiding students through the process, teachers are asked to take students by the hand for time-consuming test prep for potentially punitive exams.  We practice writing, but we are asked to turn the DBQ into a project that affords students too much time to do too little, geared primarily towards test prep.  

In this age of educational deformity, so much rides on standardized scores.  If our students fail, the teachers fail, the administrators fail, the school closes and only the privateers smile.  I doubt research papers ever brought great joy to anyone, but, in my opinion, they are a heck of a lot more valuable than the test prep made mandatory these days by those who would punish us with their exams.  

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