I don’t know what the state curriculum requires now, but when I taught, the Language Arts curriculum required students to write a term paper or research paper in the 10th and 11th grades. It was difficult enough then, but it must be impossible now with the blessing and the curse of the Internet.
Teaching how to write a research paper is a multi-part process that takes considerable classroom time. The first step is choosing a topic. It has to be small enough to cover in a 10- to 15-page paper. The Civil War is not an appropriate topic. One small facet or battle would be. The topic cannot be so small that there is not enough information available to complete the required length.
Then there is the concept that you have to prove something in the paper. It is not an encyclopedia entry that tells everything about a subject. The paper must have a provable thesis. Not just a battle in the Civil War, but the certain battle was lost because of, changed the outcome of the war because or highlighted the differences between the two armies.
We also did not allow students to write on emotional topics such as abortion or capital punishment. It takes a while for that to sink in. Ideally, students choose their own topics and then the teacher helps narrow the topic down so something that is suitable. That doesn’t happen often.
Then you have to teach the process. You have to explain how to take notes, what materials might be appropriate and how to find them. That included a lesson in using the library and whatever system the library used to shelve books. At that time it was the Dewey Decimal System.
Next came the lecture on what constituted plagiarism. Things copied word for word from a book must be documented. General ideas that are well known and are rewritten by the student need not be. Specific information, how much water goes over the Hoover Dam in an hour, even if in the student’s words must be documented. Along with the information on plagiarism came the stern warnings about what happened if the student cheated and copied someone else’s paper.
Armed with that information, the student, at that time, needed to go to the library, find suitable books or materials about the topic, read, and take notes on cards. Why cards? The theory is that once the research is done, the student makes an outline determining the order of the information to be included in the paper. The note cards can then be put in the appropriate order.
That probably is about two weeks of teaching and library time.
Back in the classroom, the teacher and student now talk about organization. I’m not a big fan of using a formal outline with appropriate Roman numerals, but without organization, any paper is doomed to failure. There must be introductory material followed by, for better or worse, a three-point thesis. Then must follow, in the order of the thesis, the information marshaled by the student to prove each point, that must be followed by a conclusion — basically, a paragraph or two that summarizes what the paper has said. A sort of literary “I told you so.”
But before the student started writing, there was even more information to impart. You can’t use first or second person in a formal paper. All rules of grammar and syntax must be followed. Then comes how to document and a review of what to document. That meant how to correctly footnote. How to footnote is something I have watched evolve from numbered footnotes at the bottom of the page to end notes. The Modern Language Association is the ultimate authority on the form of footnoting and bibliography, which is now called works cited.
Then the student writes and hopefully revises and rewrites, a process made far easier with a computer. All of this can take over two months and a considerable part of a student’s grade depends on this one project.
Then comes the dreaded grading for the teacher. If you have two classes, you have about 50 papers to grade. It will take one hour to grade three to four papers if you evaluate grammar, format and content. You do the math.
Then you have those papers that concern you. I once went to the library to find a book because I had a problem with a footnote. Not only was the book not in the library, not one of the books listed in works cited was listed in Books in Print. The student had made up every quote, every book and the whole term paper. That seems like more work than doing it correctly.
We also used to have what we called dueling term papers in the teacher’s lounge. If you had some suspicions about a term paper and another teacher had someone writing one on the same topic, the two teachers would read them together. You would be surprised how many of the papers we read in unison were exactly the same.
That was difficult and a lot of work. I would not like to have to teach today and also have to figure in if something could have been copied off the Internet.
Paula Travis is a Newton County resident and retired schoolteacher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.