The Freshman Research Paper
The freshman research paper appears to be in danger of displacement by controlled research materials in one volume. Such materials have their advantages in controlling cheating and in teaching the student how to use source materials, both of these being difficult problems in beginning research. Controlled materials have the disadvantage, however, of not really teaching research at all: of resulting from somebody clse’s research, of preventing the student from experiencing the excitement of exploring the library for himself on a topic of his own choice and learning how to collect as well as to organize and to present his materials. To teach genuine research is admittedly difficult, but it may well be the single most important thing the student is taught if he really learns how to learn for himself.
To teach the research paper well, the instructor himself should enjoy research and look forward with pleasure to this part of the course. It will be poorly taught by any instructor who loathes or despises research or who from failure to understand its significance makes the exercise a meaningless formality. Properly taught research can be one of the most palatable units in a freshman course, as I have repeatedly found on polling my own students; but to get this result, one must not try to make the exercise an easy library paper, but must see to it that research method is really mastered at an elementary level, even though at the cost of hard work on the part of both instructor and student.
The research paper is usually the most sustained piece of writing in the freshman English course. Its distinctive feature is that it makes systematic use of facts and opinions gathered from carefully evaluated sources. Preparation both in writing at greater length and in using library materials ought to precede the assignment of the research paper. We have a unit on the English language in our freshman course which I have been using for a number of years for such preparation. I lecture on the scientific approach to language study, and on something of what this approach has taught us about the historical evolu- tion of English out of the Indo-European family of languages and about the distinctive nature of the language itself. The students take notes on the lectures for me to scrutinize and consult, take notes on sources of information in the library, and write a series of connected papers on what they have learned. Most of them get so much information in the process that they write nearly as much as they will be required to in the research paper.
Some of them invariably echo either my words and phrases or those of their written sources in their papers, and one can stress the students putting everything into his own words that is not direct quotation. Usually at least one student, in attempting to paraphrase what he inadequately understands, attributes some ludicrous mistake to his source and thus demonstrates the importance of being accurate about such matters. By means of this exercise most students can be prevented from committing unintentional plagiarism, a real problem with the beginning researcher.
Naturally the students have been warned by their fellows of the horrors of the research paper, with all the exagger ation needed to establish the trials which the initiates have undergone. Their ap-
prehension can be an advantage, however, if it is directed into making a real effort. I always admit that this exercise is going to be hard work, but emphasize that I am going to give them careful and continuing direction. I assure them that, if they do their work carefully, they will get through the exercise until credit to themselves; and I add that they are actually going to enjoy this paper, as for the first time they will have ample materials, a clear plan, and precise knowl edge of what to do.
The actual process of doing the re- search is then covered in stages, each stage being reported to me in writing for criticism.
1. Choice of topic. I exclude before- hand a list of topics which I am sick of, or unable to direct, or aware are well represented by papers on file in the fra- ternity and sorority houses. However, I permit a wide range of choice in order to take advantage of variety of interests, and I have found that professors in other departments are very willing to advise any students sincerely interested in their areas. Some topics I severely limit, the ordinary student feeling that he is more likely to hit a topic as big as a barn than one which can actually be covered in a short research paper. These topics I cover rapidly in class, putting aside a few which look promising but difficult. These I discuss individually in confer- ence. Poor students, who are peculiarly under temptation, I practically assign topics to individually after exploring briefly the personal interests of each in conference. I make it clear that writ- ing a paper on any subject not approved by me will lead to failure of the paper.
2. Preliminary bibliography. I call for a minimum of 10 cards, four of which must be for articles, if the subject permits. Leeway has to be left for special research materials, however, for subjects that must be covered primarily from newspapers, or local manuscript or official documentary collections. I insist that two kinds of material receive stress: primary source material and recent dis- covery and opinion. The latter arc the materials that raise the keenest interest in the student.
3. Note cards. I insist on a considerable number of cards from a variety of sources.
4. A sentence outline. This outline I usually find needs substantial alteration. An outline which I suspect to be of a paper “on file” I change so substantially that the paper will have to be complete- ly rewritten, with large additions of new material. The outline should give a clear idea of what sources are drawn on, what interpretations of the facts already exist, and what interpretation the student is to make and why.
5. A first draft. This draft I correct thoroughly, and on it I write detailed instructions for revision, which I expect to be followed at least in spirit and pre- ferably to the letter in the final version. A final version which is merely corrected is graded down without remorse.
6. The final draft, preceded by the revised outline, properly annotated, with a select critical bibliography, and all the note cards.
This procedure practically guarantees that every student does his own work and that he learns u good lead not only about the subject but about research method. A desperate student or two may abandon everything and him in a paper on an unapproved topic, pleading inability to finish the other study. These I give F without reading, confident that justice is being meted out. To this method I know of only one objection: that it is a good deal of work. Unfortunately I have never found a way to teach effectively which does not involve hard work. This method will not always “take”: neither will any other.
My experience has been that it will take with most students, and that some students will do really sound research, even make original contributions, although their mechanics will not permit them to get more than C grades. Quite recendy a former student of diis kind returned to campus and gave me offprints of several of the professional articles which he is now regularly publishing in the field in which he did his freshman research paper and is currently taking the doctorate. His field is so remote from my competence that I had forced him to have the originality of the research certified by a professor from that field. He is of course, a rarely spectacular success, but modestly encouraging results may be expected from a large proportion of a typical freshman class.