From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1935 edition. Illustration by Norman Rockwell
by Joe Linker
Writing strategy textbooks often move us quickly through the rhetorical modes before introducing argument, where we are invited to pick a topic of interest, something we’re passionate about, but then are asked to write a research paper, as opposed to a personal essay, presumably to distinguish between mere opinion and rigorous discourse, where claims are backed by reasoned evidence and assumptions are explained. Hot topic items are sometimes suggested: abortion, immigration, addiction, gun control, health care, same sex marriage, legalizing marijuana. Following a research paper rubric, we search for articles for and against our stance. Thus the project begins in dichotomy, seemingly necessary to building an arguable thesis. But we usually go into the research topic with preconceived convictions and deep-rooted assumptions, and we don’t learn much about the topic, writing, or ourselves in the assignment process. It’s an exercise in frustration and futility, for the canon of hot topics has been worked over like road kill squirrel picked clean by hungry birds. And writing instructors, hungry for something new to read and talk about, but finding the trite and stale canned paper, can only respond to the mechanics of the research paper rubrics, issuing tickets for standard English violations, citations for lousy references, deductions for technicalities – as they scan the paper highway for plagiarism. Instructive readers will at least be able to comment on how effectively we have blended references into our discussion, but the standard research paper is doomed from the start to what has become an up or down vote, the proofs multiple choices from an existing canon, the conclusion an echo of something that’s already been said. The result is too often a laboriously boring displeasure for writer and reader.
We are in no position to tell others what they want, or even what they should want, while we all may value things that are not necessarily good for us. We need to invent, but to invent a solution, we must first see a problem. If we don’t see problems, we are not thinking. We are numb to our environment, unable to find the source of our limits. We must invent if we expect to think. But how can we uncover problems if we don’t know what we want? If we don’t know what we want, we’re unaware of specific antagonists creating obstacles. But how do we know what we want?
We lament that we are growing into a culture of non-readers, for reading is the [supposed] old way of learning what we want, but while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, did Huck ever read one? Tom Sawyer, Huck’s good buddy, is the middle class boy who covets pirate book fantasies, the expert who has done his research. But Huck’s genius is that he thinks for himself. He’s able to think for himself because he knows what he wants, and because he knows what he wants, he correctly identifies his antagonists, and because he knows what’s in his way, he’s able to invent solutions. But what happens to Huck when he winds up in a research paper writing class? Tom skates through while Huck suffers the fantods.
Why is research so important to academic progress and success? One answer is specialization, but specialization leads, as Fuller explained, to extinction. And academics are becoming extinct, the ones who teach writing, anyway, as their peers in competing disciplines begin to teach their own writing processes, better suited to their own needs, better suited to specialization and funding requirements. In English class, the topic seems almost not to matter anymore. The topic of the English class used to be literature, the essay, language. But the contemporary English class seems to have no topic of its own, thus the importance of picking one, passionately freewheeling. Consider the following, from a recent Chronicle article, suggesting the research paper should be abandoned:
“‘After all, students exhibit the same kinds of mistakes at the end of their first-year composition courses as they do at the beginning, regardless of the type of institution or whether the course is taught by a full-time faculty member or an adjunct,’ Ms. Jamieson said. ‘Part of the problem, she added, is the expectation that faculty members trained in composition have expertise in the subject being researched, whether it is abortion, the death penalty, or gun control [and there you have it, the canon’s greatest hits]: Unless it’s in your field, you don’t know what a good source is and what isn’t’” (“Freshman Composition is Not Teaching Key Skills in Analysis, Researchers Argue,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2012). (Also see: “Skimming the Surface”; The Citation Project.)
But the problem as described seems to relate to topic, which we assume is specialized, for why can’t an experienced, general interest reader tell a good reference from a bad one, particularly in a “Freshman Composition” class? In any case, we don’t always start our writing with a topic. We begin with reading and taking notes as we read. As our notes begin to develop into thoughts, reflective, evaluative comments on what we are reading, our topic emerges. The research paper writing assignment, as it’s usually rubriced (red chalked – it’s where the English teachers got the idea to correct using red ink), teaches a way of writing that few writers actually use. It’s not the way we write. We don’t begin with topics. We begin with reading, and we discover what we want to say as we attempt to join the discussion, the conversation of a particular community, and we know who’s working in the community, and what they’ve said. We know where to find them, and how they talk. We don’t need to apply the credibility and reliability tests. That’s done through the process of peer review – so the myth goes.
Does specialization in the academy prohibit a common reader response, disallow generalized thinking? But not even English teachers can read everything, and perhaps it’s because they haven’t read everything that they might be quick to dismiss Wiki, blogs, et al., and insist, instead, on scholarly journal references, never mind the nonsense that also goes on in that arena (I’m reminded of “The Music Man”: “Just a minute, Professor [Hill], we want to see your credentials!”). Lack of experiential reading might also be why some insist on writing or grammar “Handbooks,” prescriptive and expensive tomes that become their own justification.
Claims are supposed to be debatable, to invite argument. Argument is a good. But specialization and the consequences of funding seem to be putting unusual pressure on the hallowed process of academic discourse and peer review. Three recent examples illustrate: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” from the November, 2010 Atlantic, exposes fraud in the medical journal peer review process, and funding appears to be a significant source of the problem; “Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism,” from the March 5th New Yorker, describes another debate, this one focussed on E. O. Wilson’s recent reversal of his prior stance on the explanations of altruistic behavior, a change of mind which has earned him the scorn of his peers – and, again, funding would seem to underlie much of the critical response; and “Angry Words,” from the March 20th Chronicle, summarizes the ongoing brouhaha in language study, and Geoffrey Pullum followed up, also in the Chronicle, with “The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute” – the title alone might sound surprising to the general interest reader of academic research papers. The three examples taken together don’t inspire much confidence in the processes at work, yet the comment discussion following Pullum’s short article is instructive in a number of ways. It appears that specialists and scholars engage in writing inventions of all kinds and don’t appear to have the market on credibility and reliability cornered. But it’s enlightening and heartening, and, perhaps, entertaining, to see that they are human and given to the human foibles inherent in argument and opinion, in the fight for truth, justice, and the Academic way.
Piece originally posted at The Coming of the Toads |