Somebody Should Totally Just Stab the Research Paper!

Because of my own lack of digital proficiency, I don’t have my students complete any kind of digital writing projects. The closest thing to a “digital essay” that I assign them is the material culture multimedia project that serves as their last assignment of the semester. Now, I don’t mandate that they use digital media to transform their written narratives, but I’ve found that the students who opt to create original videos are almost always the most impressive.

Their “capstone” research papers, however, rarely are.

Which brings me to the moment in Cathy Davidson’s text where she discusses the term paper as a persistently problematic genre, especially when comparing it to digital writing: She claims that her students’ “writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional term papers they wrote for the class. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the Internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research paper writers. Term papers rolled in that were shot through with jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice, rambling thoughts, and even pretentious grammatical errors” (101).

Substitute “digital essayists” (which I’m using pretty loosely here) for “elegant bloggers,” and it’s almost as if Cathy Davidson is narrating my own difficulties with the research papers that I have to force myself to read through each semester in Critical Reading and Writing. And The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing—the text that we are “required” to use in E110 as beginning instructors—even has a term for all of that unbearable “jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice” and those “rambling thoughts, and…pretentious grammatical errors.”


Not even a LolCat can make Engfish charming.

Before reading Davidson’s text, as I commented for the seemingly millionth time, “What exactly are you trying to say here?” on another research paper, I found myself asking questions alarmingly similar to one she poses: “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” (101) I struggled to answer this question sufficiently, especially because my students’ in-class performance rarely, if ever, suffered the pitfalls of engfish: their comments were (and are) thoughtful, engaged, and always genuine (even if they were/are humorously off-base at times). So, again, what is it about a required research paper that has to be at least 2000 words that “invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledegook?” (101)

Following her realization that her “best friend” and Queen of the Plastics Regina George has been disobeying “the rules of feminism” by bossing her and the delightfully absent-minded Karen around, Gretchen channels her anger into this hysterical diatribe against Caesar, in which she assumes the perspective of a fed-up Brutus. Although statements like “Brutus is just as cute as Caesar” are clearly inflected with the jargon of a teenage girl, there is something undeniably charming about Gretchen’s passion and her juxtaposition of high school drama with historical tyranny (oh, the irony!).

And at times, I wish that my own students’ papers had even a shred of this kind of verbal passion, even if it completely undermines the kind of “academic discourse” that we are supposed to be teaching them in E110. At least then I would be able to discern their level of commitment to the jargon that infiltrates their written work.

So Davidson’s text has got me thinking: what would a research paper look like if it was done entirely through a digital medium like the blog, from topic proposal to the final Works Cited page, chronicling every stage of the research process in between? Would we be able to transfer “traditional” concepts of the research paper to the Internet without making any changes? If not, what would those changes involve? And of course, the idea of proper assessment rears its ugly head as well. But who is to say that we can’t marry traditional concepts and rubrics with the affordances of the web?

I fear I’ve presented more questions than answers in my post. Alas.

12 thoughts on “Somebody Should Totally Just Stab the Research Paper!”

  1. Maybe you have presented more questions than answers here, but shouldn’t our assessment of this blog post shift to fit the genre? : )

    I, for one, find that a blog post is more about generating discussion than something like an argumentative online article (and though they might be similar at times, I also think they are definitely different genres). In that sense, I think you’ve done a fantastic job. One of my major goals in taking this course was thinking through the ways that I could adapt my own classroom to digital media. Your example from Mean Girls is a good one–perhaps her assignment isn’t the most accurate in some ways, but I agree that her level of passion and understanding is so desirable (making the connection between Caeser and Regina George is actually quite brilliant for a high school student who isn’t used to connecting her homework to her own personal life).

    So how do we organize (1) the necessary bodies of knowledge we need to teach with (2) assignments that are meaningful and/or relevant even outside of the classroom and (3) our admittedly limited time frame, university expectations, and available resources? Haha that’s a question too–I’m not sure how to answer. Thoughts?

    P.S. I love your title.

    1. Callie,

      The second part of your question—how do we organize assignments that are meaningful…—is something I’m constantly trying to work through. The E110 research paper rarely strikes students as “meaningful” in any way other than constituting a major portion of their grade for their semester. They don’t seem to be interested in the kind of skills it’s supposed to teach them. I think that coming to terms (no pun intended, Joe!) with what we can do on a digital platform can help us create more meaningful assignments to better connect students with the material.

      Not a definitive answer but rather a lengthy way to say “I agree and your statements resonate with me” =)

      1. Callie, your questions about transfer here are really interesting to me – especially in the context of your larger post, Chris.

        Since this is my first semester teaching, I have no idea how this assignment will go, but I’m having my students remix their research paper into a Tumblr (surprised?).

        I went into the assignment mainly thinking that I want them to have a better understanding of affordances, and that I think it will be a fun way to end the semester. I’m thinking now though of the other elements I really want to transfer. There are the more obvious questions around audience and genre that students need to take into account. And I’m also interested in complicating the revision process in requiring them to remediate their texts. I imagine they will either buy these meanings for the assignment as important and transferable, or share the view that it is just another assignment at the end of a busy semester. I’ll report back when I know in April!

  2. I’m not sure this is effective pedagogy or just a PhD student gradually breaking down in his performance of teacherly authority, but at this point I frequently emphasize to my students that, though the academic essay requires a certain crazy formality, it can break the rules pretty much however it likes as long as it is both “pretty” and “cool.” I use those actual words. For all of our (likely rooted in grad student insecurity) anxiety about performing the academic, it seems like the academy rewards a certain blogish, internet sensibility of genre as flexible tool for creating “pretty” and “cool” more often than it stomps on it. Experimentation, after all, is often permitted once literacy is guaranteed–as long as we know you know how to do the tradition, you can break rules if you need to. I try to teach my students that by modeling it–I teach them all the cultural conventions around a thing, and then say “but if it makes it ugly, just drop it.”

    Either that, or I’ve become haughty and reckless in my academic writing and teaching, and no one has had the courage to tell me yet.

    I’m still bound up in my traditional paper-style writing paradigm, though, and so I have to say your question about what this sort of academic exercise looks like in digital environs “resonates with me.”

    1. Michael,

      I like “haughty and reckless,” so long as it is in the service of student writers. I don’t think the E110 should be about teaching students what they need to do; I think it should be about showing them what they might be able to do.


  3. Chris,

    What a terrific post! What you point to, for me, is how we need not only to deal with constraints posed by media, but constraints posed by institutional structures and expectations. The good news is, I think, that we have some real input into those structures and expectations. We don’t need to teach a stultified form of the “research paper” if, for instance, we have a more dynamic form of the “critical essay” to offer in its place.


  4. Chris, et al,

    This hesitancy you’ve expressed between rp as we know it and rp as it could be gets at the heart, I think, of what we are doing in this class: thinking about what writing could look like in this digital age. I really wish that I had another semester or so to teach here after this spring term, because I feel like there are so many kinds of writing that I could have had my students try out and create with.

    One thing that I tried out over the winter term is researching sources with the same intensity that one would give a research paper (and all of this is really done digitally). The idea then becomes: how can I use my Googling skillz to understand who this author is, what they usually write, and how this writing I am working with gives me an understanding of their work.

    This is as close as I’ve gotten to making the research paper more modern, though. Perhaps we should go big this semester and shake up the research paper (there’s still time!).

    1. Katie, I think you bring up a excellent point about researching sources–I model this in my own classes (we actually did it yesterday). Finding out a bit about the author and his/her credibility, as well as the tenor and nature of the publication/publisher is something that I think students can easily overlook–a lot of them are actually able to make much more complex arguments just by doing this–what I call–“stalking your research” than by trying to grapple with an article in a vacuum. It seems obvious to us, but it is SO often not for them.

  5. I’m really interested in your idea of marrying the research paper with more digitally-based platforms. Personally, I love traditional research papers. The whole process, however scattered, non-linear, and occasionally boring it may be, makes sense to me, while the point and process of blogging does not. I think it would be interesting, though, to assign a research project where the final product follows a format similar to the blog posts on this site. Papers could be of a similar length to traditional assignments, but integrate audiovisual elements (videos, images, gifs, interview clips, etc) and link to actual sources as appropriate or necessary throughout the post. Such supplementary elements could break up the forever-problematic ‘wall of text,’ as well as jolt the reader out of the stupor that sometimes accompanies reading a long composition. Fans of the traditional research paper would be satisfied, and so would those more inclined to online work.

    I agree, though, that this does raise a lot of questions. When I picture how this could work, for example, I get concerned that the options for interaction and supplements that digital writing affords (linking to actual sources and articles, audiovisuals, etc) would overshadow the ideas of the actual research paper itself by providing a layer of more extraneous things to distract the reader.

    Awesome use of Mean Girls, by the way 🙂

    1. Gab,

      You’ve highlighted precisely what I’m excited about with the possibility of a digitized research paper: the ability to link to videos or other articles, and incorporate memes, audio, and other pictures. I’m sure things could quickly become gratuitous, or as you rightly said overshadow the ideas of the actual paper, BUT I’m becoming more and more enamored with this prospect!

      And thanks for the snaps re: my use of Mean Girls =D

  6. I usually pay close attention to the essay prompts of different courses that my tutees bring to the writing center. First of all to help them with a better insight, then to increase my own knowledge of the possibility of designing effective writing assignments. I call it designing as I have seen how some instructors have designed a truly challenging context for an assignment that could be repetitive and boring. I have found several assignments of history courses insightful and generative, and several Eng110 assignments boring and mechanical. Regarding the fact that Eng110 students are from different majors, I think we could redesign our tasks, activities and assignments by looking at other courses, besides our own territory, to find out how they are coping with the demands of the new age.

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