Why I assign term papers

In an essay for InsideHigherEd, Deborah Cohan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, makes the case for why she does not assign term papers to her students. Cohan contends that the term or research paper does not allow students to sufficiently develop their own voice or connect ideas. I found myself agreeing with her stated goals for writing assignments, but coming to dramatically different conclusions. In fact, in my own classes, I only assign research papers in an attempt to meet the goals Cohan seeks. In today’s post, I want to discuss why I assign term papers, my take on Cohan’s essay, and why I believe her goals of writing are right although her conclusions on research papers are wrong.

Photo credit: Suzy Hazelwood

From the beginning of her essay, I agree with Cohan that clear and effective written communication is a critical skill for students to develop.

She continues that she does not assign research papers or care much about citation styles. Furthermore, she believes these are interconnected as once she eliminated research papers that citation styles mattered less.

This is my first objection to her argument. I absolutely agree that focusing on the minutia of APA or MLA is largely a waste of time for the vast majority of students. I also agree that students need to make appropriate attribution, but I don’t care about where the comma goes or what the running head should look like.

My objection is that why is this belief about attribution incompatible with the research paper format? In my view, it isn’t. Research papers and my feedback need not to focus on these elements. My students will tell you that I almost never make any comments about APA (the style guide we use in education). This simply isn’t a factor for me nor does it hinder my use of research papers.

Instead of focusing on citation style guides, Cohan says, “What seems more crucial is if students can actually articulate their ideas. I want to see students make meaningful connections between seemingly disparate materials like themes and concepts from class lectures, discussions, readings, films and guest speakers. Students need to read more and talk about ideas and then write shorter stuff more often.”

I was completely on board until the last sentence. Why does writing shorter stuff help students articulate ideas or make meaningful connections? I argue the opposite is actually true. One of the benefits of long-form writing is that it gives you time and space to actually develop the ideas and connections. In short 3-5 page papers, students are not forced to go as deeply as they must over 15-20 pages or more.

To further her argument, Cohan suggests that faculty can give more detailed and helpful in shorter assignments than longer ones. While it is certainly easier to give feedback on shorter assignments, I don’t accept the notion that professors can’t give helpful feedback on research papers.

In fact, in my own classes I provide substantial feedback to students, but I do it in different ways that the traditional approaches Cohan discusses in her essay.

For example, I provide feedback on early drafts on the research paper. My students frequently do a paper proposal, first draft, and then a final version of their research papers. This allows me multiple chances to provide feedback and it allows the chance for students to respond to my feedback in future iterations.

By providing feedback at multiple stages of writing the research paper, it is possible to provide efficient and helpful feedback for students. Ultimately, not doing research papers because of feedback simply does not make sense to me.

The bottom line is that I largely agree with the writing goals espoused by Cohan, but I simply do not understand why she can’t see the way to achieve these goals through the research paper. While you certainly could achieve these ends through other short and long form writing assignments, Cohan’s attacks do not stand up to further scrutiny.

So if you’re now asking why I assign term papers, I believe that a long form writing assignment forces students to develop an argument, compile evidence, and push their writing skills to their limits. Students are much more accustomed to short writing assignments and this tends to not tax their capabilities.

Moreover, writing research papers using multiple drafts encourages students to continually refine their thinking and their writing. My own students have continually responded over the years that research papers have challenged them in ways that lasted long after the semester.

My confusion with Deborah Cohan’s article is that research papers are in some ways uniquely situated to meet the writing goals she proposes. Without a stronger argument and evidence, I find her essay falls flat. Maybe she can try a research paper to see if it could push her argument further?

It works for my students.

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