An issue currently highlighted in the New York Times’ Room for Debate feature is on whether research papers are a "waste of time" and no longer “justifiable as a means of grading a college student's performance.” As regular Babel Fish readers will know, I am not a huge fan of teaching the research paper as a generic form in the first year of college, but I have never thought research papers were a means of demonstrating performance; I thought they attempted to encourage critical reading and clear, organized writing in an academic mode. I also have never heard the argument made that “it is outdated because the Internet has made sources so readily accessible” or that it promotes “deference to conventional opinions.”
Let’s take a closer look at these claims.
The debate takes for its text an opinion piece by Thomas Bertonneau published by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education, which promotes “the principles that have traditionally guided public policy in the United States: limits on government; freedom to pursue goals through voluntary means, both for-profit and nonprofit; accountability through private property rights; and the belief that competition is an excellent regulating force.” Bertonneau has taught literature at a number of institutions and his writing credits include a book analyzing the Christian subtext of science fiction television classics and a study of the declining standards at Michigan’s public universities sponsored by the Mackinac Center, a think tank that, according to its IRS 990 form, “is committed to providing the free-market perspective” and recommend “approaches to public policy issues consistent with the traditional American values of free markets, limited government, and respect for private property.” Yes, there's a theme her.
Bertonneau argues that research papers teach students to be too deferential to authority, neglecting their own intuition while promoting “the prevailing relativism of the professorial mentality and campus culture.” Further, he claims using the Internet leads to an atrophy of intuition that physically retrieving print sources somehow promoted. It is much too easy, he argues, to find and copy sources, now. Also, students instead should write essays modeled on classics, because if they’re given contemporary models, their teachers will provide “utterly predictable declarations of the victimological dogmas so dear to the Left.” Students instead should study and write essays about timeless topics following great examples from the past. Research papers, he believes, are an artifact of Germanic ideas about education. Not so the well-wrought essay on timeless topics. “The essay is central to the West. It is how the West thinks.” Apparently, English educators had a better grasp of the Western tradition than those research-obsessed Germans.
I agree with the author that the research paper as a genre taught in composition courses is often too deferential to authority – in that students often are led to believe the purpose is to collect and organize quotations from authoritative scholarly sources rather than use those texts to develop ideas of their own. This, by the way, is not a problem created by the Internet; books also lend themselves to uncritical transcription, and I’m old enough to remember that students often did just that. Students also tend (like too many news editors) to feel they should give both sides equal time, even when there are more than two sides or when some positions hold compelling evidence against them in contempt, so should not be taken seriously as legitimate positions. It's understandable. Learning to critique and reject arguments that fail to present compelling evidence in their support is asking a lot of inexperienced 18 year olds, but developing those skills comes with time and practice. The relativism that takes every opinion on its face is often a developmental phase that people grow out of - but that's not really the kind of relativism the author objects to.
The claim that relativism is a moral failing of the Left seems curiously blind to the simultaneous insistence on “intellectual diversity” that argues evolution, fundamental to biology and other sciences, should be optional for those who choose to believe otherwise and that courses should allow overlooking compelling evidence so that students may believe human activities have no proven effect on the climate out of personal conviction. But I digress.
Respondents to the essay are not fully in support of the traditional research paper, or at least in support of the way it has been characterized and is often practiced by unengaged students, but they defend the usefulness of asking students to write about self-selected sources as a vehicle for learning to read and write clearly and practice information skills that will remain useful after college. Mark Bauerlein concurs with Bertonneau in part and dissents in part, saying digital research is anti-intellectual, but properly conducted in the face of student resistance, it can have its pedagogical uses.
I still have my reservations about the research paper as a generic exercise taught outside disciplinary content and conventions. They just aren't the objections that Bertonneau has. He has opened my eyes to a whole new set of criticisms that I fear could equally apply to libraries. I mean, we have a lot of books on our shelves that offer conflicting opinions and focus on current issues. I am sure libraries, given they resist offering the answer, but rather provide lots of answers that squabble with each other, could also be accused of promoting relativism. And lord knows we have a lot of digital content and do our best to make research convenient.But we are probably safe because the Internet is an easier target for those who want us to return to tradition, even if the tradition we are urged to return to only exists in a mythical golden age.