Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 2.45.15 PMIt’s that time of year when high school English teachers recoil in abject horror, when wails of anguish reverberate through the halls, when the very survival of western civilization stands in jeopardy and restless spirits walk the night haunting not only Hamlet, but my luncheon ham sandwich.  No, I’m not referring to Halloween; I’m talking about research papers.

I actually like writing.  I had great fun writing police reports, which was a source of never ending amazement and revulsion for my fellow police officers. I even like reading the writing of my students, and I read everything they write, as they soon discover to their amazement.  I once wrote a 27-page paper on a female Puritan author, overnight, for a summer graduate class and had great fun doing it.  I know what you’re thinking.  But at least I’m in an occupation where I’m merely considered eccentric, rather than dangerously deranged.

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 to pay attention to detail–something most people lack–and intellectual 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.  That reality did, grudgingly, force me to learn to mentally organize, and to become a much more accurate typist.

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 onscreen was not what belched forth from the dot matrix printer.  This made achieving the level of detail necessary for research writing difficult, but 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 tale of heartbreak and tragedy.

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If past performance is any predictor, some 5% of my students will do good to excellent papers.  About 10% will do average work, and about 10% will do mediocre work, barely passing or barely failing.  About 20% will do miserably, and the rest won’t bother to turn in anything at all. This is so even though school policy makes the paper 1/3 of each student’s grade for the term. If they don’t hand in a paper, they fail the term.

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 Juniors this year, and the assignment is simple. The topic is an American author–they choose the authors at random–and the paper, in MLA format, is only three double-spaced pages long. They must also have a “works cited” page of no fewer than five sources, and proper parenthetical documentation in the text. This amounts to about 1.5 pages of single spaced, typed text. They’ve all done more than that already in writing other assignments. They’re expected to write about the upbringing, life, works and the professional standing of their author during their lifetime and now.

To discover for yourself how difficult it would be to research such a paper, merely google the name of any American author. You’ll find more information than you can possibly use in all manner of formats, academic to conversational.

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 complete the paper. Our library has multiple sources for each writer, to say nothing of the resources available online, and our librarians put those books on a special rack for the months of the assignment so the kids can easily find whatever they need. Not only that, we break the assignment up into manageable bits, 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. Each smaller part of the assignment allows extra credit: up to 30 points on a 100 point assignment. In fact, getting the final paper in early can earn up to 50 extra credit points. Very few take advantage of these extra credit opportunities. With the paper due on the 18th, only a single student has turned his paper in early to date.

What’s that?  That’s not enough time and support?  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 handout that explains everything, step by step with illustrated 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. Not only do they have paper copies of all of this, every document relating to the paper is also posted on my lesson plan website so they can read or download it as they require at home.

The grading standards are also uncommonly generous. And on top of that, if they get the paper in on time, I allow them to redo it for additional credit!

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? 

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 their Senior year 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 an easily researched topic.  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.

This ability is intimately connected to learning how to pay attention, to focus on a task. This is one of the most difficult skills we must master in life, and one that requires a lifetime of effort, yet little else is so important to basic human competence and success.

I speak not only of my students, but of the students of my colleagues around the nation. Far too many kids, emerging from the womb with smart phones clutched in their hands, are spectacularly unmotivated. Despite having every advantage, despite having every technological aid technology proponents claim would enable previously unimaginable academic achievement, far too many kids choose to do nothing.

One of my colleagues 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 angrily demanded to know why.  She pointed out the fact he did not have a single bit of parenthetical documentation on the final three pages (this means they are essentially 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 they need and more, don’t kids do better?  Is western civilization really doomed?  I look forward to your comments.  Do your part to save the world!

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