DEBATE: Are Research Papers a Waste of Time?

from “Room for Debate,” The New York Times, 8/28/11

NO: Papers Reveal Accuracy & Integrity of Students’ Thoughts  (by Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, which highlights high school research papers)

The Internet can supply information…but that information is manufactured. Knowledge has to be handmade by each individual….

To make knowledge…it is necessary to apply thought to information…. This is work only an individual can do. Reading books can help a person discover how others…have thought about a subject, but there is no better way to comprehend, consider, and digest information for oneself than to write a serious paper.

A research paper can show the student whether he or she has really understood as much as he or she supposed about a subject. The exercise of writing helps a student to organize and examine the information gathered in a careful way.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1625 that “reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” If students abandon the research paper, they will miss the only discipline that can reveal to them the accuracy and integrity of their own thoughts. The Internet can be a supermarket of information to assist such efforts, and books and fine teachers can also help, but the real effort of acquiring knowledge belongs to the student. There is, at least in the humanities, no better work for the student to undertake than a serious research paper.

YES: The Problems With Research Shortcuts  (by Mark Bauerlein, English professor, Emory University; author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future)

Thomas Bertonneau…rightly questions the research paper in an Internet era. These days, the research that students execute does not instill the knowledge and inquisitiveness such assignments presume. When students take on research tasks, here is what they don’t do:

  • Visit the library and browse the stacks.
  • Find an archive and examine primary documents.
  • Read widely in the subject before identifying a subtopic.

Instead, they:

  • Type a term into Google.
  • Consult Wikipedia’s entry on the subject.
  • Download six Web pages, and cut and paste passages.
  • Summarize the citations and sprinkle commentary of their own.
  • Print it up and hand it in.

If the goal is to rehearse prevailing opinion about an issue or event, the Google way has its advantages. If all a teacher wants is information, and the desired skill is information retrieval (plus some evaluation by the student), the Web works best.

But teachers aim higher. Research tasks are supposed to plant deeper understandings — knowledge of the subject, negotiation (not just listing) of diverse perspectives and rigorous habits of mind (curiosity, reflection, critical judgment). Digital tools…might foster them, but they offer too many shortcuts, conveniences and well-digested materials for students to use the tools in meaningful formative ways. Teachers demand better usages (“Don’t just rely on Wikipedia!”), but they’re up against 19-year-olds who love speed and effortlessness….

Teachers should remember the anti-intellectual temptations of digital research.

NO: A Learning Experience  (by Pamela Ban, Harvard University senior)

The Internet makes it easy to treat the research paper as a Google exercise. However, any perceived “failure” of the research paper isn’t in the medium itself or the use of the Internet, but in the way we are tempted to approach it. A research paper done correctly goes beyond the mere conglomeration of facts…and instead asks us to examine current literature and argue a thesis that is not directly from conventional wisdom….

When held to this expectation, the research paper has a comparative advantage in depth…. [It] requires more time understanding sources, forming an original question and proving a thesis [than an essay]. This process cannot be automated. The Internet is only an aide, providing sources more quickly than scouring library shelves.

Learning how to take what is already known and enhance it in a unique way is an unparalleled learning experience that we should not lose. My first experience writing a research paper in high school was a transformative step in developing how I think, argue and write…. I’m grateful that I’ve continued to be pushed at Harvard to treat the research paper as an academic exploration. Struggling to come up with an interesting, original idea that gives a new spin on what is already known…has taught me to scrutinize current knowledge more critically, think more originally and write more effectively. These skills will continue to help me not only in the classroom but also in the workplace….

YES: Student Are Under Pressure to Produce  (by Andrew Delbanco, American literature professor, Columbia University)

It’s certainly true that the nature of research changed with the advent of search engines that can do the looking and sorting and even some version of thinking — all things that students were once supposed to learn how to do for themselves. It doesn’t take long to gather lots of sources, fit them to whatever claim one wants to make, and thereby produce something that looks like the result of hours in the library spent reading and deriving conclusions from what one has read. But now, as in the past, a good teacher should be able to tell the difference between a phony piece of writing and an honest one.

[Students are under a kind of] distorting pressure. [They] are expected to produce work that shows off what looks like earned expertise, and to produce it too fast and too frequently. It’s much easier to do this by roaming the cybersphere than by reading the old, slow way, and then writing only when one actually has something to say….

See also in ClassWise: “This Is What It’s Like to Be a Writer”

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