It’s that time of year when high school English teachers recoil in abject horror, when wails of anguish waft through the halls, when the very survival of western civilization stands in jeopardy and restless spirits walk the night haunting the sleep of teacher and student alike. No, I’m not referring to Halloween; I’m talking about research papers.
Please keep in mind that I actually like writing. I even like reading the writing of my students. I once wrote a 27 page paper overnight for a summer graduate class and had great fun doing it. I know. I’m deranged, but at least I’m in the right occupation.
Research writing has traditionally been thought to be an obstacle to learning rather than an aid. In the past, this was often true. Now, if properly taught and focused, it’s an invaluable exercise in learning and growth.
I graduated from high school in 1972. I wrote research papers on manual typewriters using carbon paper for a copy. A single mistake on a given page meant starting that page from scratch. And I had to use footnotes—footnotes! Oh, the misery of that method of documentation. Make the slightest mistake in organizing the number of lines on a page and rewriting multiple pages, perhaps even the entire paper, was mandatory. On one hand, these stumbling blocks could be enormously frustrating. On the other, they forced a high level of concentration and adherence to attention to detail that produced quickly and greatly enhanced abilities.
The next big step was electric typewriters—remember the amazing technology of the IBM Selectric typewriter with it’s madly dancing spheroid print ball?—and end notes, which helped—a bit. Even so, the number of redone pages was maddening.
Then came word processers and Microsoft Word, but for many years, what appeared on the screen was not what belched forth from the printer. This made achieving the level of detail necessary for research writing difficult, but still, it was an enormous improvement over the past. Redoing an entire page—or an entire paper—suddenly became far less painful, far more rapid and much more accurate.
And then–glory be–came Apple, and what you saw on the screen was what you got from the printer! Research writing suddenly became much easier, and PCs eventually, grudgingly, caught up.
Today, Microsoft Word even offers automated Modern Language Association (MLA) citations (The MLA format is standard for research writing in English classes—in high school and college—throughout the nation). Never before has research writing been so fast and easy, yet human nature never changes, and therein lies the horror of this little tale of heartbreak and tragedy.
If past performance is any predictor, some 5-8% of my students will do good to excellent papers. About 30% will do mediocre work, barely passing or barely failing. About 30% will do miserably, earning no more than 20-40%, and the rest won’t bother to turn in anything at all.
What’s that you’re saying? That’s understandable? You remember your own crazy English teachers and their unreasonable demands and nit-picky attention to unfathomable details? Let’s see how reality matches memory.
I teach sophomores—there is great meaning in that title—and in the tenth grade year, the focus is on making sure students understand and master the MLA format, so only 15% of the available points have to do with content. Grammar and mechanics earn 20%, 25% has to do with source entries on the Works Cited page (older—er, more seasoned—readers might recall the term “bibliography”), 25% is devoted to parenthetical documentation (AKA in-text citations) and 15% has to do with proper page formatting.
The assignment is simplicity itself. Students may choose virtually any topic, but it cannot be a book report. They must write a clear thesis statement, which is at least somewhat controversial and requires proof to be accepted. They do research to prove that thesis, which is the point of the “research paper.” Their paper must be a minimum of three full body pages—double-spaced—and one works cited page. In the MLA format, there is no separate title page. The first body page is also the title page. This amounts to about 1.5 pages of single spaced, typed text, or a short essay. Oh yes, Times New Roman font, size 12. They must have at least four separate sources: a book source, an Internet source, an interview source (they must—shudder—actually communicate with another human being to gather part of their research), and one other of any kind.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s not much—and you’re right—but there must be a catch. Evil English teacher that I am, I must be giving them only two days to produce it, right?
They have two months—including week-long trips to the library and computer lab—to turn in the first draft, and two weeks thereafter for the final draft. Not only that, we break it up into manageable bits, first working on choosing topics and writing thesis statements, writing source cards, writing source entries (for the Works Cited page), writing a practice Works Cited page, etc. And we discuss what is required virtually every day of the process and actually practice
What’s that? That’s not enough? What about attention challenged youngsters for whom this level of detail is unimaginably difficult?
On the very first day we embark on this project, I give each student a complete, 33 page handout that explains everything, step by step. It includes examples of everything necessary to complete a paper, including a complete example paper.
They also receive a checklist. When they finish their paper, if they follow the two- page checklist, it will, point by point, show them exactly what they’ve done right and what they need to fix.
So. A three page paper, double-spaced, with about a half of a page of source entries, completed within two months. What do you think, gentle readers? Could you manage it?
Before you answer, let me explain parenthetical documentation for those who have not completed a research paper in—ahem—awhile. It’s an enormous improvement on footnotes and end notes.
Let’s say the topic of your paper is the bombing of Hiroshima and your thesis statement is: “The atomic bombing of Hiroshima was a military and humanitarian necessity.” That’s a workable thesis. It’s controversial and requires proof to be accepted.
You find a book by Bob Smith titled “Hiroshima: Nuclear Holocaust?” From page 93, you take a particularly appropriate quotation and use it in your paper. Immediately after that quotation, in parentheses, you write the author’s last name and the page number: (Smith 93). Turning to the Works Cited page, I can determine that quotation came from the book by Bob Smith. The idea is to use the minimum information that will lead the reader to one—and only one—source on the Works Cited page. You do this for quotations and paraphrases, any information that did not originate between your ears. If it’s an Internet source and there is no author—pretty common—you use the first significant word in the title. So if the article title is: “The Unconscionable Bombing of Hiroshima,” the parenthetical documentation is: (Unconscionable). Most Internet sources don’t have page numbers, and you ignore words like “the,” or “A.”
Obviously, there must be one piece of parenthetical documentation for each source entry on the Works Cited page. If not, that work/source isn’t being cited, so why is it present? Equally obviously, there can be multiple bits of PD for each individual source.
Oh yes, one more thing before you answer, gentle readers: the rationale for research papers.
There is the primary practical reason: anyone attending college will need the skills. One usually ends up writing at least one paper per semester for each class (there are, of course, exceptions). And of course, students need the skills for the Junior and Senior years in high school. But there is a better reason.
Research writing is a different and higher form of writing than one normally engages in school. It employs third person and academic voice. This requires of each student higher level thinking and reasoning. It requires problem solving and argument, argument that anticipates the arguments of one’s opponents. It requires thinking and planning ahead. And it requires more actual effort than students normally have to produce.
But most importantly, it requires attention to detail. Much of life out there in the real world of work is far more difficult than producing a three page, double-spaced research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Practicing for that real world is essential, and people often forget that such practice at life is a significant part of K-12 education (just civilizing them to the point that others won’t try to murder them on sight is also of some importance and takes varying degrees of time). Being able to anticipate, identify, and accurately deal with details, no matter how many or how small, is a vital and valuable human skill. In many occupations, attention to detail can spell the difference between life and death. In others, it is the difference between fortune or failure, success or disaster. However, I am continually amazed at how poor so many people are at dealing with details, and how little so many care about that failing.
As I noted earlier, far too many of my students will do poorly, at least on the first draft. After my careful and voluminous corrections and suggestions—I bleed all over their papers—their final drafts will be much improved, and sometimes in spite of themselves, they will be better able to pay attention to detail because they will have built bigger, better brains made of innumerable new neural connections. They’ll be more capable human beings.
Some, however, are proud to be dumb, and determined to remain so. They expend enormous energy avoiding learning. Over the years I’ve come to understand that if they are that serious about failure, who am I to stand in their way?
One of my colleagues, as I was writing this, told me a wonderfully ironic story. She gave a senior student a “0” on his research paper (we’re much more strict on upperclassmen than those just learning the MLA format) and he was angrily demanding to know why. She pointed out the fact he did not have a single bit of parenthetical documentation on the final several pages (this means they are plagiarized). He informed her it wasn’t his fault; his mother wrote those pages!
What do you think gentle readers? Why, given two months and all the help, don’t they do better? Is western civilization really doomed? I look forward to your comments. Do your part to save the world!