Things I Don’t Believe In, Education-Related

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?

Never?

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.

Davy

When people write about Davy Jones’ death, “Daydream Believer” will probably be the song mentioned most. That’s a favorite song of mine, of course, but the one that impacted me most was  Shades of Grey. When this song came out, I was in elementary school–maybe junior high. I appreciate the irony of this being my favorite Monkees song; it begins “When the world and I were young, just yesterday–” I was young, and really, so were Davy and Co as they sang it. But something in the ambiguity of the lyrics and the starkness of the music called to me. A couple years later, when I learned a few guitar chords that I insisted on playing for everyone, “Shades of Grey” was one of the songs I figured out the chords to and played endlessly.

In one of those odd synchronicities that Jung says are crucial signs of God, or Allah, or Yogi Bear or something, I thought of this song for the first time in ages last Sunday. In my Sunday school class, I made some comment–I don’t remember what, now–and my teacher looked at me and said, “You see shades of grey everywhere, don’t you?” I nodded and admitted that there are very few black and white issues in my life. I hummed this song the rest of the day. Odd, huh?

“It was easy then to tell right from wrong,

it was easy then to tell weak from strong…

It was easy then to tell truth from lies

Selling out from compromise…”

Right now especially, heading into the festivities of next week, those lines really call to me. I’m old enough now that I can remember “when the world and I were young,” and mourn the passing not just of Davy, but of the innocence, hope and belief that seemed to surround me years back.

So I could tell about baking cookies for Davy when he appeared in Toledo, or playing pool with him and him kissing me–all important events–or even that I’m possibly the pop culture hound that I am because of devouring 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat to learn all about Davy, then later Bobby and David Cassidy and Donny….but tonight, I’m drinking a bottle of wine and listening to this song, remembering when the world and I were young, and Davy’s death was decades away.