Research as a Part of Scholarly Life vs. "the Research Paper"

Arnie Sanders, English Department, Goucher College (8/02; rev. 12/27/04)

      Teachers and students trained in the last half of the twentieth century tend to use the term "research paper" when describing a particular type of academic prose produced by advanced high school and college students.*  The assignment typically involves either an assigned topic or a completely open topic in the course's subject matter, instructions on the use of the library catalogue and indexes of periodical publications, and students' perception that they must assemble as much "information" from as many "sources" as they can find into a document that summarizes what those sources say.  Some instructors in high schools actually require mere source summary as the end product, but by the time they enter college, students usually are instructed to develop an "original thesis" from their contact with those sources and to use the sources to support that thesis (Wilhoit).  However, this instruction "to think originally" often occurs outside the working contexts in which professionals develop original thinking within disciplines, and students often feel as if they are expected to guess what their instructors want to read (at worst) or to invent impossibly grand, innovative ideas in a discipline they have not yet entered.  Students' "sources" are completely exterior to their lives:  they are published in journals students  never ordinarily read, and they are written using words and rhetorical patterns that make little sense to the beginner.

        In brief, students cannot be expected to practice the methods and follow the rules by which intellectual property is created without practicing those methods and following those rules for their own original purposes created within an authorizing discipline.  Until students have been led within a discipline, they are outsiders and can "know" things only as believers in myths "know" the myths are true.  As long as no incontrovertibly contrary belief arises to destroy the myth they believe in, their myth will serve them as well as any other.  Mythic beliefs often are borrowed and adapted at will to serve the needs of outsiders when there is no enforcement apparatus to punish "misbelief" or heresy.   This may explain why as many as 45% of Kansas State University undergraduates surveyed in 1999 admitted to "copying a few sentences of material without footnoting them" and two-thirds of them thought it was not an important violation of the rules of scholarly practice (McCabe).  To scholars, such an act would combine two unimaginable violations of the rules of their professions: theft of another's intellectual property that inevitably will be detected and imposture, the assumption of the appearance of authority one does not have.  The combination would  destroy one's career, preventing further employment in that, or any other scholarly field.  For students who don't yet have careers to lose, however, the sanctions are distant and improbable.  Unless captured by the "Inquisition" (AKA an Academic Honor Board), students do not perceive that such thefts and impostures cause harm because they do not belong to the discipline that is harmed.  They are only "writing research papers," assembling mythic knowledge in exchange for a grade.

        The process of "writing research papers" is a terribly demanding one, however, and the strenuous effort required sometimes is thought to be as important as the paper product, itself--hard work, some say, is good for students no matter what its intentions or outcomes.  Unfortunately, both the process and its product are founded on faulty logic and disconnected from any real-world writing behaviors which adults typically pursue. Until Anglo-American colleges and universities invented the "research paper" in the mid-twentieth century, that genre did not exist (Larson).  Nevertheless, it survives and thrives despite the evidence of its futility which accumulates in stacks outside the doors of faculty offices and in the trash rooms of student dormitories at the end of every semester.  Far too many "research papers" assigned in American colleges are destined to be read only once before being thrown away, producing only one tangible result apart from fatigue--the grade.  Even while those "research papers" were being assigned in composition classes, scholars performed research, and they wrote about what they found, but they never called what they produced a "research paper."  Nor did the resulting document consist almost entirely of other authors' opinions strung together.  Scholars often refer to what predecessors and contemporary colleagues have discovered and to how they interpreted what they found, but those scholars were not trying primarily to reproduce that information in a summary. 

        This is also true in every professional occupation save, perhaps, the compilation of encyclopedias and college literature "study guides."  News reporters and feature writers investigated their topics, often going to libraries to seek previously published information, but they rarely publish something that is no more than a rehash of what others had published--they have to deliver "news."  Architects planning buildings research others' designs, as well as recent publications on materials and site data, and they write proposals based on their interpretation of what they found, but the proposal is not an end in itself--it produces buildings for people to live and work in.  Literary scholars seek evidence in their primary sources and, combined with other scholars' opinions, develop new understandings of what the primary sources meant, but even in the case of a "review of recent research," they never merely reproduce their colleagues' opinions--they have to contribute something original to how we read the literature.  Mathematicians investigating new ways to use numbers might head to the library to read what their colleagues thought, and they use the results of that research to introduce their work, but they never would mistake the value of a summary of previous work for a genuinely new contribution to the field.  None of those adult professionals, ever writes what many students and teachers call a "research paper." 

        Only students are assigned to write "research papers," and not enough of them really understand how those assignments are supposed to relate to their curiosities, their ambitions, and their ethical sense of "what ought to be done."  The resulting documents often are empty of passion, boring to read, and riddled with near- or full-bore plagiarism by paraphrase.  This section of English 105 will abandon the practice entirely.  Instead, I ask you to use research the way scholars and other professionals use it--to support a proposal to make something happen or to correct something that is wrong, to solve problems when you are trying to explain an original insight, to evaluate recent work in a discipline in order to discover what other scholars do not know and would appreciate being told, or to persuade someone to allow you to undertake advanced study of a topic.

        As early as 1988, Ken Macrorie proposed replacing the "Research Paper" with the "I-search Paper," a document that grows as an answer to a question researcher genuinely cares about, a solution to a problem with practical consequences for the paper's author.  His title refers to the way his proposed assignments are motivated by "I," the person conducing the research, the origin of the process, rather than the motiveless function of "research," itself.  For Macrorie, the engine that drives successful "I-search" is curiosity fueled by passion.  Method and sources improve over time.  Though your objects of curiosity initially may seem trivial, "non-academic," you can learn to develop more academic curiosities by following the curiosity you already have until you reach the roots of knowledge about your topic, or until a new, more profound curiosity arises. All practicing scholars begin life being curious about simple things.  They just think carefully enough to become dissatisfied with "common knowledge," and they learn quickly to seek the foundations and implications and causes of those things.  That leads them to scholarly methods and sources.  You may not be ready to declare a major yet, but you are nearly ready to do so.  If you are not already curious about academic subjects, you need a path to get you there.  Whether we call the path an "I-search" or or not, our assignments will treat "research" as a natural outgrowth of the mind's need for correct explanations and satisfying outcomes.  When you have produced such explanations and outcomes, you "own" them in a way that the "research paper" writer is unlikely to own the product of the research process.  From this sense of ownership arises an innately motivated respect for intellectual property, an understanding of why sources deserve careful  acknowledgement, and a resistance to habits that result in plagiarism, whether accidental or intentional.  You won't have to fear the Academic Honor Board because you will be know how to work within the protection of disciplines, no matter what major you choose.

        Each assignment for this section will incorporate the search for helpful and reliable, expert information throughout the semester, rather than concentrating it in a single, mammoth assignment at the end of the syllabus.  Each assignment will delve deeper into its field of knowledge than the previous ones, and each time we will seek more expert sources for each new paper.  We also will compare the fields of knowledge in which we are working with other academic disciplines to help us understand how they create their intellectual property.  As a student of the liberal arts, you will be expected to understand how scholars in many disciplines do research so that you can know the grounds upon which their claims of knowledge may be understood.  That knowledge depends upon three attributes from which all disciplined knowledge arises: controlling theories which scholars agree are the best available explanations for what things in their discipline mean; practices or "methods" of doing work in the discipline which guarantee results are reproducible no matter who undertakes the effort; and facts, often expressed in "terms of art," which form the basic knowledge-base all scholars in the field accept as true or at least debatably true.  This kind of knowledge is not easy to accumulate because it depends upon theory, method and surrounding facts which must be carefully learned, so we will limit our exploration of literature and film to levels appropriate to entry-level scholarly research.  However, if you follow your curiosity and play by the rules, your insights for either segment of the course can result in publishable scholarship, and all of it can produce genuinely new ways of understanding what you are studying, things no scholar previously has discovered.  By the end of the semester, you will be ready to enter the scholarly community as an apprentice member.  If you successfully complete the course, you will have learned to think of research as a normal functional element in your everyday life, and you will be ready to join whatever discipline you decide to major in.  For instruction beyond English 105's period of apprenticeship, you must choose your masters from among the majors at Goucher, and faculty members in those majors will take you to the next level of instruction in research and in writing.

        The concept of apprenticeship helps us understand both the limits of what a lower-division college course can teach about research, and the way such a course must emphasize the transferability of those basic skills to higher level skills, concepts, method and theory taught in students' academic majors (Moxon, Thrupp, Postan, Dyer, Kermode, Nicholas).  Medieval crafts were learned by apprentices who accumulated skills and knowledge on the job, so even rudimentary skills were performed in close proximity to people practicing high-level skills, and their significance was thereby made more, rather than less important to the learner.  Bad masters, as we know from court records, were charged with failure to teach, letting apprentices work in isolation, and with punishing them for poor work because they had not bothered to keep the apprentice in touch with more advanced craftsmen who would insure the work was done properly.  Poorly trained students, told to go to the library and return with a set number of scholarly sources on a topic the instructor has chosen, are likely to feel much like a medieval apprentice who sued his master for failure to instruct and unreasonable punishment.  If we think of first-year students as apprentices learning the most basic tools and codes of scholarship based on their own need to discover reliable answers, we can eliminate the "Research Paper" assignment's tendency to teach the process out of context rather than as something arising from the student's needs. 

        Medieval apprentices performed necessary work for their masters while practicing the fundamental skills of their crafts.  Even if what they made was only a small portion of a "masterpiece," their valuable labor rarely would be wasted on  products destined to be thrown away.  The traditional seven-year term of apprenticeship was far longer than that needed to learn the craft because their work was considered valuable to the master in its own right.  More importantly, once they had passed the most basic levels of training while working side by side with journeymen and masters, they were taught the social codes, language, even gestures and jokes which formed the craft's members into an interdependent cultural unit.  Some of that more advanced information was taught to them as secrets which never should be revealed to those outside the guild, but in practice such "secrets" easily could be discovered by anyone willing to invest the time and routinely were stolen by rivals in other cities or lands.  However, within a city or land, those "trade secrets" and the non-secret socialization built a quasi-kinship among practitioners of the craft, which led members to respect and support each other rather than destructively competing against each other.  Apprenticeship has acquired an unsavory connotation in the modern era, and it's true that unscrupulous masters and ne'er-do-well apprentices can be found in printed records due to their presence in legal records and their superior appeal to poets (e.g., Chaucer's "Cook's Tale").  The system's overall success at turning apprentices into practicing masters can be judged by its spread throughout Europe, Britain, and the British colonies, including those in the Americas. 

        From your first day in English 105, I will consider you my scholarly apprentice in the conduct of research and the practice of writing.  In return for your faithful adherence to the scholarly methods I will teach you, I pledge not to assign any research or writing tasks which can not produce products you will value.  All that is required of you is a healthy sense of curiosity.  As we will discover, every artifact (short story, film, cell, painting, social event) is a universe of potential topics which can be accessed by a multitude of curiosities, each with its own motives and participating in its own discipline.  I will show you how to apply methods from literary scholarship and film studies, but you can negotiate your research strategy and the paper arising from it based upon the unique interests you bring to the class.  My goal is to bring you into the family of scholars to which I belong, no matter what major you eventually choose.  The rest of your progress as a professional scholar, beyond what I can teach you,  must depend upon higher-level mentoring in the advanced practices of your major, which the final independent research project may help you choose.  That is what Writing Proficiency in the Major requirements are intended to insure.


 *       Pedagogical theory suggests that teachers should always offer prepared and curious advanced students a passageway into the teachers' reasons for teaching.  If you want to know more about what caused me to write the short essay above, I offer you this clue.  I received a valuable cognitive boost in my thinking about English 105 from an article in the February 2000 issue of College Composition and Communication on teaching college-level research, "'Building a Mystery': Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking" by Robert Davis and Mark Shadle.  They point out that, when we teach research with extremely tight control on student's topics, resulting only in studies whose outcomes already are known, "we teach them to fear the unknown" (426).  That simple conclusion impressed me.  Some teachers' idea of a well-constructed assignment amounts to a set of instructions whose every outcome already has been foreseen by the teacher.  Such an assignment might even be described as "impossible to fail," though the students' experience of them may make them feel so controlled and uncreative that they remember or care about little they have been taught there.  Davis and Shadle encourage students to understand research as the pursuit of mystery, and writing about research as the story of that pursuit, its motivation, and its outcome.  They propose teaching students to produce portfolios of research results which might include many things other than typical academic prose (e.g., web pages, photographic montages, etc.).  If you were to think creatively about academic papers, especially in this era of web publishing, you might see ways to implement their ideas in any course you are taking, while satisfying the writing requirements of the course.  If you are my student, I would be happy to discuss such an approach with you.  Although the authors derive their article's first title, "Building a Mystery," from a modern song by Sarah McLachlan, any competent Middle-English-speaking apprentice or master would have called their "mystery" what we would refer to as their "craft" or "profession."  We are all professing a mystery. 

Works Cited

Davis, Robert, and Mark Shadle.  "'Building a Mystery": Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking."  CCC 51:3 (February 2000): 417-46/

Dyer, Christopher.  Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages: Social Change in England c. 1200-1520.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Gay, Yvonne.  "The Business of Cheating Stirs New Solutions: Mellon and Hewlitt Foundation Grants Propose to Keep Students Honorable." 

Kermode, Jenny.  Medieval Merchants: York, Beverly and Hull in the Later Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Larson, Richard L.  "The 'Research Paper in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing."  College English 44 (1982): 811-16.

Macrorie, Ken.  The I-Search Paper Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988.

McCabe, Donald.  "Academic Dishonesty Survey Preliminary Report."  Undergraduate Honor System: Kansas State University.  1999.  Formerly available online at (8/8/02).

Moxon, Joseph.  Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683-4).  Ed. Herbert Davis and Harry Carter.  London: Oxford UP, 1958.

Nicholas, David.  Trade, Urbanisation and the Family: Studies in the History of Medieval Flanders.  Aldershot, Hampshire: Variorum, 1996.

Postan, M. M.  The Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain 1100-1500.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.

Wilhoit, Stephen.  "Helping Students Avoid Plagiarism."  College Teaching.  42:4 (Fall 1992): 161-65.