“…and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d ‘a’ knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t ‘a’ tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Huckleberry Finn, last sentences).∞
Writing strategy textbooks often move us quickly through the rhetorical modes before introducing argument, where we are invited to pick a topic of interest, something we’re passionate about, but then are asked to write a research paper, as opposed to a personal essay, presumably to distinguish between mere opinion and rigorous discourse, where claims are backed by reasoned evidence and assumptions are explained. Hot topic items are sometimes suggested: abortion, immigration, addiction, gun control, health care, same sex marriage, legalizing marijuana. Following a research paper rubric, we search for articles for and against our stance. Thus the project begins in dichotomy, seemingly necessary to building an arguable thesis. But we usually go into the research topic with preconceived convictions and deep-rooted assumptions, and we don’t learn much about the topic, writing, or ourselves in the assignment process. It’s an exercise in frustration and futility, for the canon of hot topics has been worked over like road kill squirrel picked clean by hungry birds. And writing instructors, hungry for something new to read and talk about, but finding the trite and stale canned paper, can only respond to the mechanics of the research paper rubrics, issuing tickets for standard English violations, citations for lousy references, deductions for technicalities – as they scan the paper highway for plagiarism. Instructive readers will at least be able to comment on how effectively we have blended references into our discussion, but the standard research paper is doomed from the start to what has become an up or down vote, the proofs multiple choices from an existing canon, the conclusion an echo of something that’s already been said. The result is too often a laboriously boring displeasure for writer and reader.
We are in no position to tell others what they want, or even what they should want, while we all may value things that are not necessarily good for us. We need to invent, but to invent a solution, we must first see a problem. If we don’t see problems, we are not thinking. We are numb to our environment, unable to find the source of our limits. We must invent if we expect to think. But how can we uncover problems if we don’t know what we want? If we don’t know what we want, we’re unaware of specific antagonists creating obstacles. But how do we know what we want?
We lament that we are growing into a culture of non-readers, for reading is the [supposed] old way of learning what we want, but while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, did Huck ever read one? Tom Sawyer, Huck’s good buddy, is the middle class boy who covets pirate book fantasies, the expert who has done his research. But Huck’s genius is that he thinks for himself. He’s able to think for himself because he knows what he wants, and because he knows what he wants, he correctly identifies his antagonists, and because he knows what’s in his way, he’s able to invent solutions. But what happens to Huck when he winds up in a research paper writing class? Tom skates through while Huck suffers the fantods.
Why is research so important to academic progress and success? One answer is specialization, but specialization leads, as Fuller explained, to extinction. And academics are becoming extinct, the ones who teach writing, anyway, as their peers in competing disciplines begin to teach their own writing processes, better suited to their own needs, better suited to specialization and funding requirements. In English class, the topic seems almost not to matter anymore. The topic of the English class used to be literature, the essay, language. But the contemporary English class seems to have no topic of its own, thus the importance of picking one, passionately freewheeling. Consider the following, from a recent Chronicle article, suggesting the research paper should be abandoned:
“‘After all, students exhibit the same kinds of mistakes at the end of their first-year composition courses as they do at the beginning, regardless of the type of institution or whether the course is taught by a full-time faculty member or an adjunct,’ Ms. Jamieson said. ‘Part of the problem, she added, is the expectation that faculty members trained in composition have expertise in the subject being researched, whether it is abortion, the death penalty, or gun control [and there you have it, the canon’s greatest hits]: Unless it’s in your field, you don’t know what a good source is and what isn’t’” (“Freshman Composition is Not Teaching Key Skills in Analysis, Researchers Argue,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2012). (Also see: “Skimming the Surface”; The Citation Project.)
But the problem as described seems to relate to topic, which we assume is specialized, for why can’t an experienced, general interest reader tell a good reference from a bad one, particularly in a “Freshman Composition” class? In any case, we don’t always start our writing with a topic. We begin with reading and taking notes as we read. As our notes begin to develop into thoughts, reflective, evaluative comments on what we are reading, our topic emerges. The research paper writing assignment, as it’s usually rubriced (red chalked – it’s where the English teachers got the idea to correct using red ink), teaches a way of writing that few writers actually use. It’s not the way we write. We don’t begin with topics. We begin with reading, and we discover what we want to say as we attempt to join the discussion, the conversation of a particular community, and we know who’s working in the community, and what they’ve said. We know where to find them, and how they talk. We don’t need to apply the credibility and reliability tests. That’s done through the process of peer review – so the myth goes.
Does specialization in the academy prohibit a common reader response, disallow generalized thinking? But not even English teachers can read everything, and perhaps it’s because they haven’t read everything that they might be quick to dismiss Wiki, blogs, et al., and insist, instead, on scholarly journal references, never mind the nonsense that also goes on in that arena (I’m reminded of “The Music Man”: “Just a minute, Professor [Hill], we want to see your credentials!”). Lack of experiential reading might also be why some insist on writing or grammar “Handbooks,” prescriptive and expensive tomes that become their own justification.
Claims are supposed to be debatable, to invite argument. Argument is a good. But specialization and the consequences of funding seem to be putting unusual pressure on the hallowed process of academic discourse and peer review. Three recent examples illustrate: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” from the November, 2010 Atlantic, exposes fraud in the medical journal peer review process, and funding appears to be a significant source of the problem; “Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism,” from the March 5th New Yorker, describes another debate, this one focussed on E. O. Wilson’s recent reversal of his prior stance on the explanations of altruistic behavior, a change of mind which has earned him the scorn of his peers – and, again, funding would seem to underlie much of the critical response; and “Angry Words,” from the March 20th Chronicle, summarizes the ongoing brouhaha in language study, and Geoffrey Pullum followed up, also in the Chronicle, with “The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute” – the title alone might sound surprising to the general interest reader of academic research papers. The three examples taken together don’t inspire much confidence in the processes at work, yet the comment discussion following Pullum’s short article is instructive in a number of ways. It appears that specialists and scholars engage in writing inventions of all kinds and don’t appear to have the market on credibility and reliability cornered. But it’s enlightening and heartening, and, perhaps, entertaining, to see that they are human and given to the human foibles inherent in argument and opinion, in the fight for truth, justice, and the Academic way.
The more we fragment the further we get from the emergent whole, a picture that is satisfying for its very wholeness – in a way that an examination of any one pixel or isolated group of pixels can not be satisfying. A study of a part of something can never be as interesting as a study of the whole to which the part belongs. Yet the Humanities has fragmented into so many divergent and divested parts that an emergent, whole picture is now easy to miss. And this is true not just in the continuing bifurcations of disciplines, but in the splitting apart of self-contained disciplines. Consider, for example, the English department. English was once the repository for the study of literature, by which was meant a unified study of composition, language, and literature. Perhaps one concentrated in language and linguistics as opposed to literature. Still, the proper study of the English major was literature. (A recent article in The Oregonian reported that in most of the last 20 years the Portland Public School district has ignored its ESL responsibilities to disastrous results. This should come as no surprise, since we have meantime mangled teaching English as a 1st language.)
The English department is now the place students go to learn to write research papers, and even this part is at risk, as various specialty disciplines have already begun to teach their own. The “art for art’s sake” attitude is in part responsible, for it denies the literary work its ideas, while “art for art’s sake” is an ideology, not an idea. In “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” Trilling explains: “Whether we deal with syllogisms or poems, we deal with dialectic – with, that is, a developing series of statements.” In other words, what we have come to call “creative literature,” is no different in form than what we must now call “non-creative literature,” though of course there is no such thing: there is only one literature, all of it creative, and while literature may consist of various genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, poetry and drama, the impulse to further split non-fiction into creative or non-creative fiction can only have its source in funding disputes arising from the splitting of the discipline – for it can’t possibly have anything to do with reading, writing, or critical thinking. This is true because, as Trilling says, “The most elementary thing to observe is that literature is of its nature involved with ideas because it deals with man in society, which is to say that it deals with formulations, valuations, and decisions, some of them implicit, others explicit.”
Ideas are organic; ideology is manufactured. Ideas are malleable; ideology is rigid: “Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.” And so in ideology, Trilling explains, we lose sight of this wholeness: “…an intimate relationship between literature and ideas, for in our culture ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology.” If Trilling could say that “poetry is a heuristic medium…a communication of knowledge,” then why do we feel compelled to divorce essays (personal or any other kind or name the latest textbook has invented) from research papers? The very idea of the research paper is essay turned ideology. We must either abolish the research paper or watch literature continue its slow demise toward extinction, an extinction of ideas.