(2011), considering how strongly I feel about the importance of research papers, but I found myself nodding in understanding with much of what author Barbara Fister had to say on the topic. A lot of the research paper process can translate as pointless and confusing rules, and much of this pointless confusion begins and ends with citations. At the start of her article, Fister links to a blog post that she wrote in 2009, called
, in which she mourns the stupidity of the updated MLA and APA guidelines. One part of this article that particularly stood out to me was the following paragraph:
And what exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references? You learn that research is a pain in the butt. You learn that it’s really, really important to follow pointless rules with utter scrupulousness. You learn that, at the end of the day, you’ll get points off because you didn’t follow the pointless rules – unless, of course, you’re making a bundle off book sales, in which case “nonsignificant” is a valid defense.
Really though, if we're being honest, where is the lie? We've all had that that one professor
. The type you're terrified of because s/he is the type to take away credit due to an incorrectly applied citation, or quotation style. We've all written research papers, done the research, and worried all the while that that one professor
might focus too much on style over content. And most of us, as Fister points out, have thrown together the Works Cited page the night before the paper was due, with painstaking attention paid to every word for fear of being penalized for an incorrect citation style. If you stop to think about it, this does sound pretty ludicrous.
Going back to the assigned article, Fister makes another compelling point in saying:
The first year 'research paper' has always sent a mixed message. You’re supposed to be original, but must quote someone else to back up every point you make - while in constant fear that you’ll be accused of stealing from them.The obscure rules of citing sources only exacerbates the confusion and focuses attention on mechanics.
Fister suggests that students writing outside of the research paper structure have plenty to say because they aren't limited and find more personal satisfaction outside of the traditional conventions. She proposes that students learn enough to know the importance of finding sources and valid information, but suggests that the traditional research paper isn't the right way to go about presenting this information. She suggests, "If you want students to learn about a topic and be able to synthesize information effectively, fine – but don’t call it research. Turn it into a presentation, an informational brochure, or a Wikipedia article." She then notes an interesting counter to the traditional research paper, an idea presented by Nick Carbone, that students "first learn to write using sources the way people outside academia do—drawing them into the text as journalists and essayists do. The fussiness of citation rules can be left until students are writing something truly academic, in their junior or senior year."
Now, for my opinion. I think this is an interesting theory, and I think it could work for some students, particularly those who aren't going to care that much about style in the first place. Ultimately however, I feel the same way about this as I do about the importance of learning grammar in the classroom-- it's important. As an English major, I've had that one professor
and by God, I'm grateful for her because, despite the hell she put me through, I learned how to format a paper. She taught me awareness, and she taught me that there are certain ways to do things. I don't think style should be judged over content, but it is important, and there is something to be said for tradition. The students who are going to care about strict attention to style will learn how to work with it, and those who need just survive the class will experience the true way of formatting a traditional paper.
Admittedly, this is a tricky situation because, like much of what we have discussed thus far, there isn't one correct answer. For all the complaints against citations and the rigid rules surrounding them, there is something to be said for the discipline of learning these methods. It is entirely possible to turn the rules into guidelines, and write an incredible paper with and despite them. However, writing is not a one-size-fits-all process, and different approaches work for different people. I personally think there is real merit to be found in the citation styles, because I do find purpose in setting parameters.
Next up, we have a slightly older article, from 2000, The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (And Why We Need to Resist)
by Mark Wiley. This article immediately seems to tie in well to the first selection, after all, what's more formulaic that citation styles?
Wiley immediately states his opinion that "formulaic writing is the actual villain in this classroom drama....it is the pedagogical blindness that formulaic writing leads to that disturbs me and that seems to be the real culprit" (61). He goes on to introduce Schaffer's approach to writing, a highly formulaic approach which feels quite familiar to me, as resembling the formula I leaned as a young student.
Wiley fairly highlights the strengths of Schaffer's approach as unifying students by having all focus on the same concepts-- repetitively and consistently, creating a unified front through all classrooms. This approach focuses on the importance of fact over opinion-- a key separation that will be crucial for students to understand throughout their academic lives. Schaffer's approach teaches that claims must be made and substantiated in very specific and clear-cut ways. At bare minimum, this formulaic method gives all students a rudimentary understanding of how to write an essay.
On the flip side, some find Schaffer's approach to be too bare-bones and stifling. Wiley cites one teacher as saying that students need to learn "writing fluency.....not simply learn how to fill out a form" (63). This is a fair criticism, the bare-bones approach can appear to be very much a skeleton with not much room left for growth. The essay is also supposed to be a flexible form, and Schaffer's method certainly doesn't appear to be flexible, despite, interestingly enough, Schaffer's own proclamation that "writing is an act of discovery" (qtd. in Wiley 64).
Once again, I'm conflicted in reacting to this article. Personally, I learned to write an essay using formulaic methods, and it never stopped me. Every essay I wrote throughout elementary and middle school was in the five paragraph structure: introduction, three topic sentences, conclusion. This structure was set in stone, but it didn't keep me from growing to love writing, and this might just be a situation in which those who are going to love writing will love it regardless, and those who don't, won't. One of the problematic things that Wiley mentions is that some students might learn this structure and cling to it forever, to which I respond, it's a good thing I didn't learn addition and subtraction and refuse to move on from that point in my mathematics education.
That being said, I get it. Structure is boring, dull, and rigid, and might not work for everyone. Wiley moves toward a more conceptual understanding of Schaffer's approach later in his article, as he cites James Collins, who has suggested that Schaffer's approach not be applied mechanically, but understood as a method that can be adapted to fit particular situations. Ultimately, I think this is the best way of looking at this dilemma. Similarly to what I said above, I think that structure and formula is important in learning, and once you know the method, you can work with it. Students, especially children, need parameters, and formulaic writing instruction may be one such parameter. That all being said, I'd be interested to hearing a counter approach to the formulaic method because there's always room for new ideas that will teach and serve the students in the best ways possible.