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In Defense of Teaching (and Grading) the Long Research Paper

December 19, 2013


There’s a Slate article titled “The End of the College Essay” circulating in various Facebook and Twitter circles critical of assigning long essays to undergraduates. The gist of the complaint mirrors the complaints I’ve heard over the years from students and colleagues (and others outside the academy) about assigning long research papers. Last summer, I attended a conference in Toronto on the future of liberal education in which a number of participants criticized the long-form research paper by noting that, unless students go into Ph.D programs, most will never write a long paper again in their lives. I heard from quite a few people who argued that faculty should give students assignments that reflect the new communication technologies and skills associated with those technologies — and, failure to do so, will only exacerbate the increasing irrelevance of the liberal arts.

I really disagree with all of this. I am a strong believer in the benefits of a lengthy research paper and I regularly assign them for my advanced seminars in international human rights, American foreign policy, and international security.

First, the semester-long research paper is an excellent assignment to help students move closer to achieving one of the core goals of a liberal education:  critical thinking. Critical thinking gets a lot of attention in all of those liberal arts college admissions brochures, but, it is not self-executing.  You can’t achieve it simply by attending a liberal arts college with nice brochures and a high faculty to student ratio.

Critical thinking is developed through an extensive process of inquiry, deliberation, and sustained intellectual engagement on a topic. It starts with acquiring and mastering a comprehensive set of information and facts.  In order to acquire both the depth of information about a topic and the breadth of its context, students actually need to do some sustained research. But acquiring this descriptive understanding is only the start. Students must then learn to process that information through different and contested bodies of theory and modes of thought in order to make sense of it. This requires engagement with theoretical, methodological, and empirical debates within various disciplines to challenge assumptions, to be able to critically evaluate data and sources, to understand and employ evidence, and to develop and defend their own arguments.

A long research paper is a great instrument to get students engaged in this focused and sustained intellectual exercise.

But, let me be clear. This benefit only comes when the research paper is taught — not merely assigned. I agree that long research paper assignments can be pointless if the guidance to students is that they do some research on some topic related to the course and turn in a long paper at the end of the semester.

I assign the paper as part of the course as an exercise to help students develop critical reasoning and thinking skills as well as to help improve their writing. As a result, the research paper assignment must be integrated into the overall course learning objectives, the course content, and the course schedule. Earlier in my career I assumed that by the time my students walked into an advanced undergraduate seminar they should already know how to think critically and write a long research paper. Hence, I used to assign the research paper, hold a few office hours, and then grade the final submission at the end of the semester. This rarely worked. It was frustrating for me and for my students — especially when I had piles of graded papers that were never collected.

Over time I realized that I had to spend a little less time on the content in the syllabus and more energy on teaching the research paper. (To be honest most of my advanced seminars were modeled on introductory graduate IR seminars and I spent a lot of time racing through all the disciplinary highlights with the misguided assumption that my goal was to prepare my students to succeed Ph.D. programs). Now, I assign my readings with more focus on broader, multiple objectives — to expose students to the disciplinary materials and also to identify, construct, and defend an argument. We start with the development of simple argument — writing exercises (in the form of lit reviews) in which students learn how to critique an argument by identifying how an author’s premise, logic, and evidence are constructed and, ultimately flawed or limited. From there we move to the development of more complex argument in the research paper assignment where students quickly realize that complex arguments cannot be developed (or expressed) in 140 characters or a Facebook post or a powerpoint presentation. To become real thinkers, students have to learn to string together a range of facts in an extended series of paragraphs to develop coherent and logical conclusions.

A related benefit of the long-research paper is the pedagogical element of sustained and direct engagement with a student’s work throughout a semester. In this regard, grading and evaluating student work is an integral part of teaching and can’t be deferred to the end of the semester. I’ve built extensive feedback on the research and writing project into the structure of the semester. My students have weekly writing assignments.  I check their research proposals. I encourage on-going peer review and support. I review periodic draft updates. I also require that the final paper be submitted a month before the end of the term. At that time, students turn in their papers to me and to two of their classmates for formal peer review. A week later they get three sets of comments – one set from me and two from their classmates. At that point, each author decides how to integrate the comments from multiple readers. They then revise and resubmit their final paper at the end of the course.  (I also give the peer reviewers a detailed rubric on peer reviews and grade the peer reviews they hand to their classmates). This means that when I sit down to grade the final papers at the end of the semester, I’ve already seen and evaluated the progression of the project for several weeks (hence I have more time to write this post now than I did four weeks ago). Another positive byproduct of this process is that it makes plagiarism much less likely when students have to demonstrate weekly updates on their work and their sources and when they understand that they will be circulating their papers to their classmates as well as to me.

It is through marking up drafts that I’m able to monitor the student’s intellectual development and motivation. I am also able to correct and instruct on the strengths and weaknesses of student work — the argument, the logic, the evidence. It is far easier to teach a student how to develop the critical thinking skills by walking through the progression of her paper than by marking up a final submission.

Now, granted all of this is very labor intensive and I can do this because I teach and work in a liberal arts college where my research expectations and support are somewhat different from my colleagues working at universities and other institutions. And, to be sure, some students struggle with all of this — I’ve read my share of bad papers and heard my share of excuses for why a student can’t meet with me or make a deadline. But it does get easier over time — and this is yet another benefit of teaching the research papers — it has made me a better instructor and a hell-of-a-lot more informed about history and the world around us. In fifteen years, I’ve read probably more than 500 research papers on a wide range of topics related to human rights, international security, and American foreign policy. Each semester I learn an enormous amount from the students’ work. The benefit of this cumulative knowledge is that advising on sources, theory, and debates becomes a lot easier over time. And as an experienced teacher, I’ve also found that it has become easier to advise students on how to develop an argument, use evidence, and construct a focused sentence and a paragraph. I’ve even learned more than a few strategies to motivate and encourage students who struggle with it all.

So, yes, this is the time of year when the energy wanes and students are anxious about finishing all of their work on time. And, its easy as a professor to be frustrated with the piles of papers needing final grading. But teaching the long research paper is a pedagogical process that helps students attain a depth of information, some theoretical and methodological exposure, and some familiarity with basic debates and argument that are necessary to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills. Not every student is going to write an A or A- paper, and I still chuckle at some of the opening lines in student papers. And, indeed, many students will never again write a long research paper after they leave college. But they all will almost certainly be making complex arguments and relying on critical reasoning skills throughout their lives — or at least I hope the will. That’s why I still assign, and teach, and grade long research papers.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.