Poor Instruction Yields Poor Results; Let’s Teach Courses on the “Technologies of Term Paper Writing”
by John Visconti
My twenty odd years as a writing instructor has taught me several things. Most educational institutions, including high schools, universities, graduate programs within colleges, and academies of technical training and higher learning, do not actively teach the art of writing. Instead, students are expected to evolve and mature into capable writers by virtue of experience gleaned within courses. This indirect approach to developing writing skills largely accounts for widespread anxiety among writers, and contributes to poor national performances in writing assessments.
The introduction of required composition courses in a modest percentage of educational institutions has addressed this problem, but progress has been limited. One does not “learn to write” in a single semester any more than one learns a foreign language, or learns to play a musical instrument, in a few brief months. Students must master the art of writing with rigorous and thorough training gleaned over the span of several years. Graduation from a four-year university program should require hundreds of significant writing assignments.
These same issues and dilemmas surround the challenges of constructing research papers. Within the liberal arts and humanity programs, most social science courses require major research papers from students ill-equipped to produce them. Directing novice writers to APA manuals, or providing inexperienced researchers with samples of legitimate bibliographies, is akin to showing a malnourished patient a photograph of a nutritious meal. Students must “learn through doing,” as the early pragmatists insisted; the technology of constructing term papers can neither be intuitively derived nor gleaned through reading.
Excessive reliance on reading, in fact, represents a common problem among inexperienced students faced with the challenges of writing research papers. Many students think they must read every book and article published on their topic before beginning to write. As best I can tell, a common assumption is that the reader will reach a summit of knowledge, or a plateau of wisdom, from which an effective paper will surely flow. But experienced writers appreciate the importance of putting pen to paper relatively early in the process. Writing represents a learning tool.
When we begin to write, we immediately gain a better relationship with the various challenges of constructing a research paper. Sitting down and striking a computer keyboard opens the door to a conversation with ourselves in which we immediately gain a sense of what we know and what we do not adequately understand about our assignment. As we begin to sketch out the vague outlines of a new paper, we get an inkling of which sets of ideas have potential and which sets of ideas represent blind alleys, pitfalls, or choices unworthy of further time and energy. Do I have any evidence to support this particular point or idea? If not, what sort of evidence do I have, and what type of idea can my evidence support? The act of writing yields crucial questions related to the basic construction of a research paper.
Writing, in fact, represents more than the articulation or expression of our ideas. It is during the act of writing that our ideas actually crystallize, take shape, and come into existence. For many generations, psychologists have held that our thoughts do not actually exist in any tangible or readily discernible form until we actually express them. In this sense, language should not be perceived as a neutral system of codes by which we convey pre-existing thoughts and ideas that were conceived in our minds, and speaking represents more than just an act of expression by which we transmit our sentiments to others. Instead, it is during the act of speaking, through the use of language, that our thoughts are actually born, and only through attempted expression can we really produce ideas and discernible meaning.
We have all heard someone ramble on a bit, only to eventually observe, “I guess what I am actually saying is . . . . . this, that, and the other.” Many educational psychologists and philosophers of language suggest that we take this idea quite literally, and realize that we human beings do not really “know what we think,” until we can actually “see what we have said.” Fareed Zakaria has recently written on this subject, and it is worth quoting him extensively:
“In modern philosophy there is a debate as to which comes first — thought or language. Do we think abstractly and then put ideas into words, or do we think in words that then create a scaffolding of thought? I can only speak from my own experience. When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of an essay is an expression of self-knowledge — learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand.”
Zakaria concludes his consideration of these points with an anecdote from the famous newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. Once, when asked his views on a certain topic, Lippmann replied: “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.”
A cursory glance at the anatomy of argument and methods of reasoning most often recognized as valid and legitimate in Western philosophy brings us to the arena of inductive reasoning. Here, logicians move from observations, facts, and premises, toward general conclusions, in incremental fashion, in order to derive legitimate positions or seek truths. Such methods also work efficiently for writers. Put a few ideas on paper, see if you can arrange them in some sort of order —- perhaps a logic, rhythm, or unifying set of principles will occur to you —– and see where your pen takes you. It is much easier, less stressful, and more fun than any other approach to writing, and it is usually more efficient.
Experienced writers generally do not concern themselves with the quality of their prose, syntax, grammar, punctuation, or elements of style, upon their first several attempts at writing a paper. The best papers are not written one perfect sentence at a time. If you obsess over the quality and technical fitness of each sentence, you will never get your ideas on paper. Indeed, a perfectionist’s disposition at the outset of the writing process only serves to obstruct the crucial flow of expression necessary to get the show on the road. A sculpture does not create a beautiful statue by eliminating every aspect of the marble slab that seems imperfect; instead, he gradually builds something out of nothing, by creating, revising, polishing, and refining. The final work of art only vaguely resembles what he originally had in mind, if he had anything particular in mind, just as a writer’s final copy differs significantly from his first draft.
The most efficient, productive, effortless term-paper writer I ever knew, wrote her introductions last. She would write the body and conclusion of her paper, read it a dozen times, think about what she had actually written, then write a suitable introduction. I stood in awe of her strategy and method.
“You mean you just pretend that the paper you wrote is what you had in mind all the time,” I naively asked.
“I neither pretend nor deny anything,” she replied, without looking up from the book she was reading. “I simply write an introduction which describes and explains what the reader is about to experience, sets the table for my argument, and sets the tone for the pages to come. In order to do so effectively, I have to know what the paper says.”
“But the reader doesn’t know that you have tailored the introduction to fit the paper, rather than written an introduction followed by a paper which persuasively argues the points described at the outset, and executes the plan explained in the opening sentences,” I countered, with a satisfied smile of confidence.
“John, what are you talking about? Have you ever read an introduction which claims that the arguments which follow are authentic, sincere, and legitimate, because the writer believed them from the outset of her work and always intended to convey them in the fashion which follows?”
My satisfied smile disappeared.
“Where did you learn to write research papers?” she asked.
“Nowhere,” I said.
Our educational institutions do not teach us how to write research papers. They teach us how to spell, the rules of grammar and punctuation, how to devise paragraphs, refer to external sources, cite referenced citations, and compile bibliographies, but they do not each us the actual technology of term-paper writing. High schools, universities, and institutions of higher learning, simply assume that a person becomes a good writer by writing, and if a student works long and hard enough, he or she will pick up enough along the way, and somehow evolve or mature into a seasoned writer.
If we approached teaching a student to play a musical instrument, learn a foreign language, play a particular sport, or drive a car in this indirect, inefficient, hands-off manner, our inadequacies would be self-evident. But the art of writing is so old, and so fundamentally essential in a culture and society where virtually everyone is literate, that we take many things about it for granted. Consequently, our collective relationship with the art of writing is characterized by unconscious assumptions, unexamined ideas, and a serious lack of critical reflection on the part of novice writers and writing instructors. Which set of educational philosophers and pedagogical theorists concern themselves with those aspects of writing most closely related to the construction of research papers? Why is there no such thing as a course entitled “Introduction to Term Paper Writing”?
Ask an undergraduate student a few questions about the anatomy of the argument they hope to develop in their upcoming research paper and you are asking for trouble. Inquire about the context in which the student shall present his argument, the type of evidence to be used, the theoretical model (if one already exists) to be deployed, or the type of argumentation necessary, given the nature of the topic under consideration, to persuasively demonstrate an important point, and you invite confusion. These questions are basic to the construction of a solid research paper, yet they are often perceived as unnecessarily complex, too technical, or too complicated.
Many years ago, I showed an undergraduate student an evaluative rubric used for assessing a term paper he had recently written. According to the rubric’s criteria, the student had been expected to develop an introduction which provided a sufficient background on the topic of the paper and previewed the major points of the pages which followed. In addition, the student had been expected to incrementally develop a central theme or general thesis, over the course of seven or eight pages, which consisted of reasoned and substantive argument, supported by tangible evidence, relevant testimony, and comparable discussion among other writers on this subject. Finally, the student had been expected to forge a logical conclusion which flowed from the body of the paper, and reviewed all the major points of the essay. The student’s paper had failed to satisfy most of these conditions.
Sensing a decline in the quality of communication between myself and the student, I attempted to sum up many of the paper’s shortcomings in one general idea. I said something about the thesis of the essay being present in every paragraph of the paper. “You do not develop an argument or gradually build toward your theme incrementally,” I suggested. “You state your thesis in your first paragraph, and you express it over and over again in every subsequent paragraph, but you never actually develop a persuasive or convincing argument to prove your point.” We looked at each other. “As it stands now,” I remarked, “your thesis is little more than an unsubstantiated assertion.”
The student soon left my office. I knew the meeting had been ineffective. The next time we spoke, the student politely admitted that he had learned very little during our conversation. But I had learned a great deal.
I had learned, or perhaps realized, that we educators were not adequately teaching the methods and skills we expected our students to master. No one, including myself, had ever taught this student how to write a critical research paper. Instead, I had explained the shortcomings of what the student had written in a conceptual language I had no right to use. The evaluative criteria and tools of assessment which rationalized and justified the student’s grade represented a sweeping indictment of my teaching.
No one had ever taught me how to write critical research papers. I had learned through trial and error. My teachers had made me aware of the gaping holes in my poorly written papers over and over again, until I gradually came to realize, quite indirectly, what I needed to do in the future. Did part of me actually think that my student ought to suffer the same indignities? Or were my failings as a teacher a reflection of the poor instruction I had received? Did I know how to teach the skills and methods necessary to writing critical term papers?
It is the task of this generation of educators to demystify the technology of writing research papers. Until we do, we have no right to criticize our students for their lack of critical thinking, insufficient research, and poor writing skills. We know how to critique term papers. Now, let us redirect the trajectory of such criticism toward our own methods.
 Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York, New York: Basic Books, p.23.
Zakaria, F. (2015). In Defense of Liberal Education. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 73-74.
 Ibid. p. 73.