To cultivate undergraduate research, we may have to prune back the surrounding kudzu called the research paper. Often wretched, usually pointless, tens of millions of these artifacts heap themselves on faculty desks and inboxes every year. But to what end? Does assigning this form of "researched writing" teach students much about either research or writing?
In most cases, clearly not.
But airing this particular truth can be dangerous, as Rebecca Schuman found out recently. Trafficking, as she freely admits, in the "rage" of an academic generation that has been exploited, patronized, and left behind by $200,000-a-year graduate faculty members and $300,000-a-year MLA executives, Schuman’s relentless provocations have stirred the academic pot. Even people who disagree with Schuman admire her muckraking style. In columns, articles, blog posts, and a fire hose of a Twitter feed, she has skewered the cluelessness of overpaid MLA staff, demanded more accountability from hiring committees, defended edgy teaching, railed against student debt, and spotlighted adjunct exploitation.
But of all the battles Schuman has fought, which one generated calls to get her fired from her (adjunct) position? An attack on the powerful, the privileged, the comfortable, the condescending? The time she dropped the F-bomb? Nope. It was her attack on the research paper.
The piece, posted in December on Slate, where she is an education columnist (she also contributes to The Chronicle), was a paper-grader’s incandescent rant, a manifesto calling out the "students of the world":
"You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual ‘evidence,’ … All so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever."
The one mistake in this provocation is that Schuman conflates academic writing with this kind of task. Anyone with a background in rhetoric or composition knows that these assignments call up the kind of sad performance she describes. Then Schuman—somewhat satirically—doubles down, calling for high-stakes content testing to supplant academic writing altogether.
For the most part, however, the virulent reaction doesn’t address flaws in Schuman’s argument, satirical or otherwise. Outside of rhetoric and composition—places where folks actually study the widespread failure of traditional essay assignments—the reaction has been religious in its fervor, defending traditional writing with the level of hostility usually reserved for performance artists who stamp on communion wafers. In questioning this totemistic attachment, Schuman generated so many demands for her termination that supporters have circulated petitions in her defense.
Schuman herself is astonished at the virulence. "I honestly didn’t get it. How could people take this piece so seriously?" she asks in an interview. Not only was it "obviously written to blow off steam," but traditional, so-called researched writing deserves to be rethought by "a world that has outgrown it."
My own take is that Schuman provoked a necessary conversation. Of course we won’t substitute high-stakes content testing for academic writing. There’s no credible research to support this semi-satirical suggestion. But we do have to stop issuing the thoughtless writing assignments she describes.
Instead we need to construct meaningful opportunities for students to actually engage in research—to become modest but real contributors to the research on an actual question. When students write up the work they’ve actually performed, they create data and potential contributions to knowledge, contributions that can be digitally published or shared with a target community.
Schuman’s critique of traditional writing instruction is sadly accurate. The skill it teaches most students is little more than a smash-and-grab assault on the secondary literature. Students open a window onto a search engine or database. They punch through to the first half-dozen items. Snatching random gems that seem to support their preconceived thesis, they change a few words, cobble it all together with class notes in the form of an argument, and call it "proving a thesis." In many classes, if they perform that task well, we give them an A or B. If they do it especially poorly, we give them a C.
Where’s the "research" in this mess? What’s the future utility of this unique-to-schooling competency? What happens when a newly employed person tries to pass off quote-farmed drivel as professional communication?
Generally these papers are just pumped-up versions of the five-paragraph essay, with filler added. Thesis-driven, argumentative, like the newspaper editorials the genre is based on, this "researched writing" promises to solve big questions with little effort: "Reproductive rights resolved in five pages!"
Each paragraph is a brick pounded upside the reader’s head until, at last, the reader begs for the sweet release of the Repetitive Closing: "In conclusion, I pounded your head in the following ways … ."
Outside of occasional forays into bloggery and opinion essays (er, like this one), most scholars and professionals don’t deal in this style of argument, large claims, or the kind of bogus certainty that these performances evince. Actual writing related to research is modest, qualified, and hesitant: "Give me five million dollars and I won’t cure cancer. But by studying changes in two proteins, we might learn how quickly one kind of cancer spreads in certain environments." Instead of argument, our actual model involves elaborately respectful conversation, demonstrating sensitivity to the most nuanced claims of previous researchers.
Professionals rarely write anything like the writing we most commonly assign. Academic, legal, medical, and business writing has easily understandable conventions. We responsibly survey the existing literature, formally or informally creating an annotated bibliography. We write a review of the literature, identifying a "blank" spot ignored by other scholars, or a "bright" spot where we see conflicting evidence. We describe the nature of our research in terms of a contribution to the blank or bright spot in that conversation. We conclude by pointing to further questions.
That’s so simple, so straightforward. Why, an undergraduate could do it!
Let’s react to Schuman’s provocation by accepting her challenge to stop wasting our students’ time, and our own. Let’s ask them to address real research questions, and to compose in the same wide range of media actually used by scholars and professional writers.
Millions of pieces of research writing that aren’t essays usefully circulate in the profession through any number of sharing technologies, including presentations and posters; grant and experiment proposals; curated, arranged, translated, or visualized data; knowledgeable dialogue in online media with working professionals; independent journalism, arts reviews, and Wikipedia entries; documentary pitches, scripts and storyboards; and informative websites.
None of that requires killing off the essay. But it might mean elbowing it to the side, and reimagining it as part of a broad band of complex, carefully composed professional communications. After all, real researchers don’t write a word unless they have something to contribute. We should teach our students to do the same.
Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University.