The Paper Problem

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The best thing I read yesterday was on Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog. Valerie Strauss posted something written by Steven Horowitz, an economics professor from St. Lawrence University. Called “A guide to writing an academic paper”, it is a quick-and-dirty look (okay, it’s 4,000 words long, so not exactly quick-and-dirty, but you get the gist) at writing your average term paper:

Though it may seem excessive to write almost 4,000 words on how to write better papers, the reality is that writing papers in college (and the sort of writing you will do for the rest of your life) is not the same as you were asked to do in high school. My purpose in writing this guide is to help make you into better writers and to help you become better able to articulate your perspective….The point is not to give you pages of rules and regulations, but to give you the things you need to know to create and present your ideas in a legitimate and persuasive way.


He walks through each of the different parts of the paper and what constitutes a good paper, even getting into the details of proper formatting (the best moment comes when he says: “Automatically numbered pages. Figure out how to do it in Word.”). And it gets to the heart of the truly good academic paper: one that is clearly organized, whose thesis is exact, and that supports said thesis with thorough proof that is properly cited. So naturally, being a high school English teacher, I had to ask myself where his need to write a 4,000-word piece on how to write an academic paper comes from.

Why can’t college freshmen write? I have two guesses as to the answer. One is obvious, and that’s standardized testing. If you look at the way classes across various subjects have changed due to an increased focus on passing state tests, you can definitely see that the idea of the academic paper would fall by the wayside. But in all honesty, spending any more than a couple of sentences complaining about testing is kind of a waste of time because it’s taking the easy way out.

Besides, testing has been around for so long that teachers like myself are trying to find a way to teach what’s important in spite of the test (and even in spite of how tests have “damaged” incoming students), so it’s not like I am going to throw my hands in the air and not attempt it because it’s “not on the test.”

But again … why? Why is it so hard for them to grasp a concept that I have to say (not to brag … okay, to brag) that while I didn’t completely grasp in high school, at least had a decent amount of practice in (full disclosure: my big paper in my Ancient World History/Lit/Philosophy course my first semester of freshman year was a disaster; then again, that may have more to do with the fact that the semester itself was a disaster)?

I blame technology.

Now, I’m not going to go on some rant about Wikipedia in an effort to sound like every other scared English teacher out there. I happen to really like Wikipedia. I’d never cite it–for the same reasons I don’t cite the World Book Encyclopedia–but I still like it. Where I see part of the problem is in this push for project-based “meaningful” work for students when they are tackling large subjects. In theory, it’s a good idea because it seems more engaging and students can get their hands dirty and work with media that are better suited to their strengths. But in practice, it has resulted in a downgrading of the paper to something that is considered as much of a relic as the desks-in-rows “industrial model” lecture-based classroom that is the ire of all reformers and innovators (at least that’s what the talking points seem to be). It’s also resulted in countless bad PowerPoint presentations that feature groups of students standing in front of a class reading off paragraphs worth of information they have crammed onto a slide (and probably copied and pasted from Wikipedia, mind you), a clear demonstration of … well, that they know how to copy and paste and read what is on a slide.

I know that sounds flip, and I know that the point of doing something like a research project or a paper isn’t the end product, but teaching or developing the skills that lead to that end product, but if we keep throwing out the individually written academic paper in favor of PowerPoints or Prezis or something creative with iMovie or a Twitter feed, we aren’t necessarily preparing those who want to go to college for what their professors will expect. And yes, I can hear the voices of protest: not everyone goes to college, our job isn’t to prepare kids for college, papers aren’t the future. But when you have colleges like CUNY overloaded with remedial writing courses and professors complaining to the heavens that their students can’t properly write a basic research paper, talking about all those new things and collaboration sounds more defensive than anything. We need to make sure we don’t lose it completely. For my part, by the time my advanced English 10 students leave the classroom in June, they will have written at least four academic papers (in addition to at least two personal essays) because many of them have their eyes set on AP-level coursework and then college, so I would like for them to at least not be completely shocked when they’re assigned a 4-5 pager on I three weeks into their very first semester. For more information on how to write a research paper, check this out.


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