From Library Babel Fish, April 12, 2011

I recently returned from a brief encounter with some fascinating ideas at “4Cs” – the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. For years I have found people in the field of composition to be some of the sharpest minds around, and like librarians, they tend to be unusually attuned to the baffling glossolalia that students encounter when they reach academia and are introduced to the discourse norms of psychology at 9 in the morning, biology at 10:30, and history in the early afternoon of the very same day, each with its unique assumptions, language, values, and rules. Librarians want students to learn skills they can use after college, and those who introduce undergraduates to writing for college also want students to learn how to write, full stop. And yet, like librarians, they tend to be seen as providing a “service” to other departments and feel they owe it to their students to help them survive college. That often means librarians help students look up information on topics about which the students know little and care less; composition instructors get to put first year students through the grueling paces of writing about sources they barely understand in a format that few will ever use again after college.

Though I’m not in the field of composition, I got invited to contribute to a panel after writing a bad-tempered blog post back in 2009, during the Great APA Catastrophe. Briefly, both MLA and APA published major updates to their citation rules within a short period of time; the APA added some frustratingly convoluted conventions, and then had to issue a multi-page set of corrections that we were supposed to add to the new edition by hand. We were not amused. But more than that, we questioned the emphasis on painstakingly citing sources correctly when it detracts from more important issues such as asking interesting and genuine questions, understanding evidence, and communicating persuasively.

On our panel I questioned the fetish of citation correctness, Doug Downs and ZuZu Feder examined the double standard that we impose on students (are we so careful of whether we need a colon or a comma in that part of a citation? Would we reject an article submitted to a peer-reviewed journal over trivial mistakes in citations? Is the whole point to get students to confess what they don’t know?) Nick Carbone made the refreshing suggestion that students first learn to write using sources the way people outside academia do—drawing them into the text as journalists and essayists do. The fussiness of citation rules can be left until students are writing something truly academic, in their junior or senior year.

I’m in love with this idea. 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’m honestly a bit amazed that anyone was surprised by the results of the Citation Project study, also presented at the conference, that found students “skimming the surface.” This is a problem that existed long before the Internet, but has only grown more obvious as students are asked to do more documented expository writing than ever before. (This finding was published in a national study published in the CCCC’s journal in 2008; subscription required.)

The first year “research paper” has always sent a mixed message. You’re supposed to be original, but must quote someone else to back up every point you make – while in constant fear that you’ll be accused of stealing from them. The obscure rules of citing sources only exacerbates the confusion and focuses attention on mechanics.

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 wince-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. No wonder the Citation Project leaders learned students “have nothing to say.” I probably wouldn’t, either.

Yet they have plenty to say when they are not writing “research” papers. Another presentation at the conference by Paul Rogers and Andrea Lunsford looked at extracurricular writing that students do and how differently they approach it. (There’s lots more at the Stanford Study of Writing website.) Students writing for a real purpose (other than to prove they can adhere to a set of rules) are able to engage with ideas, understand their audience, use sources ethically and convincingly, and understand and care about the subject they are writing about.

This totally matches up with the recently-released study from Project Information Literacy on “everyday research.” In that study, drawing on survey results from over 8,000 students at institutions across the country, students reported on their experience with finding and using sources for both academic and personal purposes. In interviews and focus groups, the researchers, Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg, probed what the survey results suggested and found that the hardest part of academic research – finding a topic and narrowing it down – is not an issue for everyday life research. Findings sources is also not much of a challenge, and I was cheered to learn that students use library databases and books as well as web and personal connections in their personal research. Where they have trouble is evaluating the results – the part of the process that gets the shortest shrift when we try to help students learn the ropes. An hour in the library goes by fast, particularly when students are looking up scholarly sources they can’t understand using search terms they have only just encountered for the first time and probably can’t define.

All of this convinces me of something I’ve thought for years. We should abandon the traditional research paper.

If you want students to learn about a topic and be able to synthesize information effectively, fine – but don’t call it research. Turn it into a presentation, an informational brochure, or a Wikipedia article. If you want students to make an argument, start from something they know and care about, something that matters to them and about which they can hold an informed opinion. If you want them to read and understand scholarly material, focus on close reading and have the class jointly prepare an annotated edition. If you want them to write academic prose, wait until they know enough about the discipline to know what they’re talking about and how to ask a meaningful question about it.

But if you want first year college students to understand what sources are for and why they matter, if you want them to develop curiosity and respect for evidence, your best bet is to start by tossing that generic research paper. As for those who will complain that students should have learned how to paraphrase and cite sources in their first semester – we’ve tried to do that for decades, and it hasn’t worked yet. Isn’t it time to try something else?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.