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What is a Research Paper, and How Does It Implicate Disciplinarity?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Richard L. Larson interrogates the “research paper” signifier. He claims that this signifier 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 empty or fluid meaning, the term “research paper” persists inside and outside English Departments, among faculty and 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 as to what constitutes research and thereby enable bad research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218); therefore, students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on a narrow conception of research as library visitation, note-taking, or whatever, without recognizing other forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, and the like (218). 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 citation if their instructors didn’t call the assignment a “research paper.” Really, though, research papers teach skills that apply to all papers, regardless of whether instructors designate a paper as “research.” In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that the term research paper is a vacant signifier—vacant of identity if not of meaning (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—Larson argues that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (by which he means writing instructors’ presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to a problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume that they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate setting. Some knowledge, in other words, lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction. I’m ambivalent on this score.

I once argued in an article that instead of lawyers, professors of English and rhetoric should teach legal research & writing (LRW) courses. (I recently revisited the article and reddened with embarrassment because it was poorly written.) Lawyers, I claimed, lacked the requisite training necessary to improve students’ writing skills. I should have known that this article would anger lawyers who taught LRW. I also should have expected the urgent and furious response that one LRW professor published in the same issue of the same magazine. This professor accused me of saying that lawyers were categorically bad writers. Which begs the question: why would a soon-to-be-lawyer writing about writing declare that all lawyers were bad writers, thereby implicating himself in that community and undermining his article?

When this professor didn’t resort to empty attacks against me—including assuming access to my supposed feelings about law professors (feelings he could only infer from my article because I never expressed any such “feelings”)—he actually made some fine points. One of these points was that lawyers are in a better position to understand good writing in the context of legal practice. This, I grant, is true. But wasn’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 lawyer-writing, not to teach and perpetuate lawyer-writing? If the original mission of LRW courses was to teach “good” writing—not to teach how to practice law, as is the case today—then wouldn’t the legal community benefit from instruction by professional writing teachers? (Troy Camplin makes this point in the comment section here.)

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).

Larson might agree with the LRW professor who responded to my article. I have little doubt that disciplinarity is an important consideration for writing instructors. In the grammar conventions of biology and chemistry, for instance, verbs appear in passive voice. Imagine how conflicted a chemistry student could become if he’s trained to write one way in his major area and another way in introductory writing courses that putatively prepare him for his major area.

Larson seems to imply, at any rate, that disciplinary limitations can create disjuncture between what students learn in one academic culture versus what they learn in other academic cultures, and he’s probably right, even though one could argue he’s making a mountain out of a molehill.

Perhaps, then, the most important aspect of writing is, as I have suggested before, an awareness of audience. Knowing how to write differently for different audiences may be the crux of “good” writing. That’s why I was frustrated when the LRW professor, perhaps angry at my suggestion that English professors could do his job better than lawyers, trumpeted that English and rhetoric professors were no better at writing than lawyers and could even be, and often are, worse writers than lawyers. The professor qualified this statement by referencing “dense language” and “jargon.” Perhaps he, like others who are untrained in literary theory and criticism, disliked the complicated and complicating discourses of “Theory,” which, according to critics and naysayers, is laden with bad writing. But is this writing “bad” or intended for a certain audience? I would say the latter. Literary theory and criticism has an audience of literary theorists and critics, not lawyers or even legal writing instructors.

Audience determines or ought to determine the shape and substance of good writing. No writing should be judged by divorcing it from its communicative context. I remain ambivalent about whether and how disciplinary restraints should affect the goals of writing instructors. But I stand by my position that English and rhetoric professors ought to teach LRW in law school. Lawyers who have never taught before tend to fall back on what they know—legal practice—and they 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 or how those cases signify. 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, which depends upon audience recognition. Only after a student has become aware of various audiences can he 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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