Libraries and Learning

Papers, Please

May 23, 2019

The semester is coming to a close and the reference desk is eerily quiet. I know students still are working on projects – I hear them complaining about it – but I guess the strategy at this late date is to alternate venting with hunkering down to generate pages.

The angst I overhear is about pages. “I need ten and I only have three. How am I supposed to fill ten?” Or “it’s twenty pages. Twenty pages!” It’s not what the pages are about: “I need to write about Heidegger and I don’t have a clue what he’s saying.” Or “I need to include a literature review in my ethnography, but I’ve looked and looked and nobody has written articles that posed exactly the same research question as I did, so what am I supposed to do?” No, it’s not the ideas they’re trying to write about. It’s almost always about the pages.

A parallel concern is about the number of sources. This spring I worked with a student at the reference desk as she sought information for an assignment. We discussed the ideas in the articles and books we were turning up as we sorted through the possibilities, and she was obviously excited about the topic, but the conversation came to an abrupt halt. “I have five now. That’s all I need.” Done. Bye.

If you try to frame a task as something other than finding a specific number of sources to cite or pages to fill, students will ask for those numbers, and I can’t blame them. They don’t want to be tripped up by some unstated expectation that may seem obvious but isn’t when they’re still learning the ropes. But the reality is that very little of the writing students do, no matter how carefully revision activities are built into the course, is ever finished, as polished as it possibly could be. Semester are too short, the learning curve too steep, the number of papers due in various courses too many.

As much as I am a skeptic of the “research paper” as a genre, I admit it can be a valuable experience for many students, and even when they aren’t really finished – the topic proved too sprawling to be contained effectively in a single paper, the argument is beginning to show its shape but has yet to be carved out of the block of exploratory text – they can give students a sense of their own voice, their own capacity for making meaning. They may gain a sense of agency when it works. But too often, it’s just an endurance test.

In any case, I expect to keep hearing complaints – but they will be from instructors as the papers students are grousing about today come in for a landing.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.