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Legal Research & Writing, Audience, and Cross-disciplinarity

In Communication, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on September 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Richard L. Larson interrogates the concept of the research paper. He submits that this term (“research paper”) lacks settled meaning because it “has no conceptual or substantive identity” (218). He calls the term “generic” and “cross-disciplinary” and claims that it “has virtually no value as an identification of a kind of substance in a paper” (218).

Despite its ever-shifting meaning, the term “research paper” persists both inside and outside English Departments, both among faculty and among students, at both university and secondary school levels. The problem for Larson is that by perpetuating the use of this slippery signifier, writing instructors mislead students about what constitutes research and thereby enable bad student research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218), so students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on this narrow conception of research as library visitation, cursory note-taking, and so on, without recognition of alternate forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, etc. (218).

Furthermore, using the term “research paper” to describe a particular type of activity implies not only that other, suitable practices are not in fact “research,” but also that students may dispense with elements of logic and intertextuality and citation because instructors didn’t refer to those things as elements of research papers.

Research papers, properly understood, teach skills that apply to all papers. In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that “research paper” is a vacant signifier, Larson suggests that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (their presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to the problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in and to the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate way. Some knowledge lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction.

I once argued that instead of lawyers, professors of English and rhetoric should teach legal research & writing (LRW) courses.  Lawyers, I claimed, lacked the requisite training in writing and teaching necessary to improve students’ writing skills.

Isn’t the point of LRW courses to improve the overall writing quality among practicing lawyers? Weren’t LRW courses created in response to complaints that “good legal writing” was not actually good writing? Weren’t LRW courses intended to change the ways practicing lawyers write, not to teach and perpetuate the ways that practicing lawyers write? If the original mission of LRW courses was to teach “good” writing—not to teach how to practice law—then wouldn’t the legal community benefit from instruction by professional writing teachers?

Larson seems to say that professional writing teachers are helpful but that their helpfulness does not extend to discipline-specific practices and conventions. He claims that English professors “have no business claiming to teach ‘research’ when research in different academic disciplines works from distinctive assumptions and follows distinctive patterns of inquiry” (220). He adds that “[m]ost of us are trained in one discipline only and should be modest enough to admit it” (220).

Disciplinarity is an important consideration for writing instructors. In the fields of biology and chemistry, for instance, researchers and professors insist on writing in the passive voice. Imagine how conflicted a chemistry student could become when he’s trained to write one way (passive voice) in his major area and another way (active voice) in introductory writing courses that putatively prepare him for his major area.

Larson seems to imply that disciplinary limitations can create disjuncture between what students learn in one academic culture versus what they learn in other academic cultures.

Perhaps the most important aspect of writing is, as I suggested in my post last week, an awareness of audience. Knowing how to write differently for different audiences may be the crux of “good” writing.

Audience determines or should determine the shape and substance of good writing.  No writing should be judged good or bad by divorcing it from its communicative context.

I stand by my position that English and rhetoric professors should teach LRW in law school. Lawyers who have never taught before tend to fall back on what they know—legal practice—and thus privilege the teaching of practice over the teaching of writing. For the lawyer-teacher, citing the right cases is more important than clearly and deftly explaining what those cases mean.

Yet the point of LRW courses is not to teach the practice of law (that’s the point of summer associate positions, internships, and other forms of apprenticeship), but to teach writing, a major focus of which is audience recognition. Only after a student has become aware of various audiences—and of how to communicate well with various audiences—can he or she learn to write about legal practice.

Lawyers read and write as much if not more than novelists, but rarely do they write in ways that people consider “good.” Legal education needs professional writing instructors. Over time, when more lawyers have undergone instruction by professional writers, professional lawyers might themselves become professional writers.

Works Cited

Larson, Richard L. “The ‘Research Paper’ in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing.” From The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook. 4th ed. Edward Corbett, Nancy Meyers & Gary Tate, editors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


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