Note: I wrote this in 2012, and I predicted that within ten years, the traditional college freshman-style research paper would change dramatically. I’ve taught college courses this year (2020), and yes, they have changed quite a bit. Citation styles are very different, expectations and paper types are different–change is in the air.
When was the last time you curled up to read a research paper? When was the last time Oprah or Dr. Phil or Matt Lauer suggested you really needed to catch the hot new research paper that everyone else was reading?
Research papers–the standard, gotta-have-footnotes/citations/endnotes with a Bibiliography/Works Cited/References at the end type paper–don’t exist outside of a very specific climate. Even if you have written one, you probably never read one, except the examples your English teacher provided as a model. Unless you read professional journals, you probably haven’t read one outside of the English class where you wrote one.
As a highly qualified teacher, a part-time college instructor, and a fairly smart cookie who spews words for fun, I have a professional opinion about research papers: they suck. If that’s not clear enough, how’s this: as a benchmark of student success, the process of producing a standards-based paper following the current MLA or APA guidelines relies on an antiquated educational paradigm and provides inconclusive data about a student’s critical thinking ability, research capabilities, and essential writing skills.
With all that said, I believe whole-heartedly that we need to push critical thinking and research. Teaching students to ask good questions, be curious, and to engage in meaningful discussion about ideas–whether face to face, via technology, or in a written format–is crucial. Getting them to evaluate the quality of information they find and put it in a context is paramount, too.
Learning to write a research paper, following spacing guidelines, formatting rules, and worrying about punctuation, transitions, and the mechanics of good writing do not further all of the things listed in the previous paragraph. In fact, the emphasis on learning to write the formal paper de-emphasizes the crucial skills listed above. Form matters more than content, at least most of the time at the high school level.
In fact, I’m going to don my Amazing Kreskin hat and predict that in a few years–a decade at the most–the “research paper” is going to change format dramatically, with the wide-spread acceptance of first person (which is usual now in some journals) and hyperlinks to sources instead of traditional citations. We’re on the verge of that change now.
The research paper as it’s taught and written in high school is a completely artificial form of communication, and needs to change to utilize the technologies we have now while emphasizing the baseline research and critical thinking skills that are even more important in the age of information glut.
The “research paper” needs to give way to a more relevant form of writing that reflects those concerns and priorities.
And part of the reason? Research papers thrive in the hot-house of academia, but not out in the world our students live in. Not in the world we live in, either. The skills to write a correctly formatted paper can be learned with relative ease when they are truly needed–and that’s not at the high school level. The research and critical thinking skills, yes. Emphatically. But the hallowed formal “research paper” that I spend weeks teaching? It sucks.