Sending the Term Paper Back into the Game

Brian Taylor

January 23, 2013

Faculty small talk and big education news alike agree that the term paper, once the standard genre of university writing, is now as passé as the Victorian three-decker novel.

Why? First, the remote reason. The recent blockbuster Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found a 50-percent decline in academic rigor that's reflected in the time that students spend in class preparation. A quick study by The Washington Post found that seniors at area campuses reflected the trend: Seniors at George Mason University spent 14 hours a week (the national average) studying; at the universities of Maryland and Virginia, 16; and at Howard University, 13. An exception was at Washington and Lee University, where students spent 20 hours a week studying.

Compare those numbers with the old standard that some universities still invoke: three hours of study for every hour of class time. One reason for the disjunction between the real and the ideal may be that contemporary students are an audience of intellectual groundlings. Or it may be lower expectations by faculty members as a quid pro quo for higher student evaluations.

Worse, it may be professorial cowering at the hours and labor in guiding a long paper through the semester. So thought Adam Smith as far back as 1776 in The Wealth of Nations: "The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the ... ease of the masters." Whoever the culprit, the clothes have no emperor.

The proximate reason for the disappearance of the term paper is the decline in critical thinking that's resulted from the lack of rigor, say Arum and Roksa. Critical thinking has been a routine goal ever since high schools long ago punted fact-learning back into history. Still, a critical thinker without knowledge is a sculptor without a stone. While students may be assigned a dozen short papers, their one-week deadlines preclude substantial fact-finding, intensive reasoning, and time for diverse facts to interact and jell. In the absence of a fact-filled memory, it is almost impossible for students to make allusions to events, people, and ideas that enrich a paper. A Gresham's Law is at work here: The volume of the lesser displaces the better; SparkNotes for scholarly databases, sound-bite papers for research papers.

One answer is to bench the sound-bite papers and send the true term paper—the 15-week project resulting in a 20-page argument—back into the game. But in too many courses, the term paper doesn't even ride the bench. It's as rare as a sophomore in black tie at a tailgate party.

Yet it can play well at every level of undergraduate education. In the freshman composition course that I like to teach occasionally, I've assigned The Iliad and The Odyssey. I meet in a required conference with each freshman, and we come up with a question. There was the nursing major flustered about writing on Homer. So I prompted her to wonder how many wounds occurred on Homer's battlefield and how they were treated in the epic. She then reread the text and counted the number and their treatments. At our next conference, we came up with new questions: If Hippocrates or Galen were corpsmen, how would they have treated the wounds? The general question for the paper became: Is Homer realistic about battlefield wounds?

In the sophomore literature-survey course I teach, I conferred with a finance major to whom I had assigned a paper on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1. The question to him: In the time Shakespeare allows, is he realistic in getting the king's men from London to Shrewsbury to battle the rebels? With guidance, the student had to do research on the distance; the weather that day and the night before (muddy or dry roads) and thus the rate of the march; the weight in equipment that dray horses could carry, that wagons could haul, and that chargers could carry in armor; the time spent in foraging for food, for renting extra mounts, for bartering with farmers for goose feathers for the arrows, and for recruiting along the way.

Posing a new question that can't be answered by a Web search or even by scholarly sources may shock most students, but it will obviate plagiarism and motivate better critical thinking.

Besides experiencing a tutorial, students in these conferences come to see that the friction between good minds ignites sparks of insights. And then putting different things together—nursing and battle, meteorology and marches, history and literature—becomes a critical jigsaw puzzle that, once completed, is a fresh if not an original term paper. Even by novices.

Likewise, in the required course for upper-division majors, "Literary Research and Applied Criticism," I assign each student a little-known or neglected author in my field of 18th-century British literature. Modern editions of the writers' works usually don't exist, so the students must read facsimiles of the original printings. And after a bibliographical search of scholarship, they find that little if any critical matter has amassed around the texts. That's a first-time shock, but they learn what a scholar knows: The first discovery is that there's a patch of field open for cultivation. So the students must go it alone, face to face with the original text, without standard-source help—neither facing the briar patch of conflicting scholarship nor lured by the siren-song of plagiarism.

Most students balk at writing the required 20 pages. Their tremulous question—"How can I make it longer?"—seems to assume that length comes from pinning a tail on the document. But they learn that length comes from cross-examining every paragraph: Has everything necessary in it been defined, exemplified, compared, contrasted, classified, given cause and effect? Do allusions grant reach and analogies import distinctions to the thesis? Have the reader's questions and objections been anticipated and answered?

Moreover, they learn that footnotes add bulk—not just garden-variety reference notes, but rich informative notes of biography, of bibliography, of historical events, of customs, of etymologies, of critical disputes, and of background studies. Muscle develops in the middle, and students learn that the paper gets longer as it gets stronger.

Still, what's the point?

Most humanities majors don't go on to graduate school in the humanities, so why should they be required to write 20-page research papers? But the requirement doesn't assume that students are in training to become literary or historical scholars. Rather, its premise is that university students, whether Archies, Veronicas, or Jugheads, are not fully educated unless they've been in the game of real scholarship.

Another reason is that a creditable research paper can lead to some good practical results. Having written term papers on, say, pastoral poets in three different courses, a student could have three chapters of a thesis on pastoral poetry virtually completed. Or the paper might be submitted and published in an undergraduate journal of scholarship or read at a conference. Or it might be a magic carpet to a professional school or job.

A creditable research paper, especially if it's been published, presented, or developed into a senior thesis, has a long shelf life on a résumé. It signals that a student can sail away from the coast of conventional criticism into fresh waters to colonize uncharted islands. It shows stamina in running a scholarly marathon, not just the dash of the 500-word theme. It telegraphs the values of time management, industry, resilience, organization, exactness, honesty, and wisdom as well as knowledge. It shows an ability to write in a prose style different from texting, which proves only that one's prehensile. And it shows justice in developing a judgment and courage in arguing it.

Whatever the discipline, those are virtues valued in every job and career. The paper, ultimately, shows students that after years of borrowing from online sources and libraries, they can finally put something into them for others to borrow. They will then have become authors—and authorities.

H. George Hahn is chairman of the English department at Towson University. His most recent book is "The Ocean Bards: British Poetry and the War at Sea, 1793-1815."