The Death of the Research Paper

The poor, benighted research paper. Once the crown jewel of an undergraduate education (a proud little brother to the thesis and dissertation), it is now under attach from both sides. Works like Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift have attempted to show that the decline in longer writing assignments and research papers has demonstrable, negative affects on student learning.  In their work, the research paper is largely synonymous with sustained rigor in the university classroom. On the other hand, there is a growing chorus of scholars arguing that the research paper no longer represents a meaningful exercise for students. In their arguments, research papers encourage outmoded forms of expression characterized by stilted writing, hours of pointless research, and long form arguments which have very limited applicability in the “real world”.  Moreover, even if we accept that some good comes from long-from research papers, we rarely have a system for sharing research papers (even those worth sharing) so the design of these works ensure that they have almost no real world impact.

A recent article in the New York Times (h/t Kostis Kourelis) has argued for blogs or some kind of public writing should replace term papers. Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke, has suggested that the formal, mechanistic writing that typifies research papers, serves as “a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers.” The research supported in Academically Adrift as well as some research cites in the NYT article points out that high school students, even those at such high-powered institutions as Duke, rarely write long form research papers.  Davidson goes on to suggest that term paper writing tends to replace reading and with less reading, the term paper becomes more of a frustrating writerly exercise and less of a opportunity to compose a substantial, long form argument ground in the relative mastery of a body of information. Shorter, more focused blog posts, she suggests provide an opportunity for students to compose sophisticated, highly focused, writing, but without the time-sapping complexities and formalities associated with typical research papers. As you might expect, this position has critics who argue that writing blogs or shorter, public forms of writing will not replace the skills gained through enduring more complex and formal written work and, in fact, we need to start to introduce long-form writing earlier in a student’s career and certainly before the university level.

Of course, these arguments are of significant interest to me as not only do I blog, but I also teach both the undergraduate methods course as well as one of two required graduate courses in history. As I explained in a post last week, I have moved away from traditional academic writing in my graduate historiography course in large part because I found this kind of work torturous to read, and I felt that it detracted time and attention from the close engagement with complex texts.  In my undergraduate methods class, I’ve moved from requiring a 10-15 page research paper to a 3-5 page prospectus for a longer research paper, in part to give students more time to do focused research on a particular topic and to focus their writing energies on a shorter, but presumably well-honed text.

Finally, I am looking forward to teaching my first graduate research seminar in the Fall of 2012. It will be a seminar on world history focusing on landscapes. Traditionally, these research seminars produce a 20-30 page paper over the course of a semester. The pace of doing research, particularly, in an new area or employing a new method, can be brutal. In fact, I can’t imagine doing the required research and writing a paper in less than 20 weeks. So I’m on the lookout for a solution to this problem. Traditional historiographical essay or even writing a prospectus does not seem appealing to me. These forms of writing are useful exercises for undergraduates when they can have a kind of naive charm, but for graduate students they can often become utterly charmless slogs through piles of scholarship with little creativity and few insights. Perhaps a series of shorter (3 page?), case-study like papers that focus more closely on particular texts, techniques, theoretical positions, and even, in some way, historiography will liberate even the graduate seminar from the research paper induced malaise.


  1. What about a couple of wikipedia articles? or a website (surprising how much writing goes into a few webpages)? google map exercise in which they have to create map of (insert what works for your class) in which the icons contain click-able information. You could even have these be in some sort of order so that they create a narrative/argument of some sort. All relatively low tech “tech” work that is not an essay.


  2. One of my biggest business concerns is finding people who can write solid and meticulous technical reports (usually 20-30 pages, but 50% photos and tables). The limitation on my business growth is report writing. Field crew are relatively easy. People who can fill out forms, do basic GIS, and take comprehensible notes are out there (esp. in MN and ND). But someone who can bring a report to completion (and in a time frame much shorter than a semester)? That’s an exceedingly rare skill that I think now comes almost exclusively from graduate programs plus some on the job training.

    The closest thing in my academic training I can think of were those multiple short research papers Dr. Gregory had us do in Late Roman seminar. For those we had to generate the minimal necessary prose, but the summaries and citations had to be solid. Less exhaustive than a thesis, but functional. I think your case studies idea might be close


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