As I re-read some of my students' research papers this past summer, I found myself asking: How could a lifelong professional journalist (me) have failed to instill, if not a love, at least a like of inquiry in the writing classroom? How could I have not passed on to the students my passion for research?
I compiled a short list of where I'd come up, well, short.
The first mistake? Bringing into the classroom my inherent biases against the instruction of formal papers.
Background: My three years of teaching ninth-graders in English a few years earlier (my first venture into teaching after a lifetime of writing) had convinced me that if there were one way to take the passion out of writing, it was to ask a student to compile notecards so that she could string bits of history together, then bind them together according to a formula -- the end result of which is more or less guaranteed to sap the writer's voice completely out of the picture.
Isn't "writing," I thought, much more than the formulaic crafting of words? Isn't writing, in a very real way, just another word for "expressing"? And developing a "voice"? Doesn't "writing" take a myriad of forms? Isn't "writing" something that can be done freely as well as with structure?
When I reflected a little further on the previous class, I identified a second failed strategy: Knowing how much many students disliked "the research paper," I'd spent a whole lot of time telling that class not to stress about it -- a motivational ploy that, in many ways, backfired.
The more I said, in the first month, "Yes, this thing is due at the end of the term, and counts for a considerable part of the grade, but don't get worried," the more the subtext the students heard was, "This thing he's trying to play down must be heavy. Otherwise he wouldn't be talking about it so much." To a student just out of high school, "research paper" is a synonym for "term paper," and if something takes a whole term, it must be important -- and therefore something to avoid getting to as long as possible.
I'd also installed early deadlines for choosing a paper topic -- "The sooner you have your topic, the more time you'll have to research and write the paper" -- which, of course, produced a low-simmering panic at the very start.
A third area where I'd come up wanting? I'd assumed that the average college freshmen would be able to easily identify a subject that would interest her, making the research-paper writing process fun for one and all. In early-term one-on-one interviews, I'd discovered that some students had written research papers the previous spring in high school -- but didn't even remember the topics, because they had not been of their own choosing. So, I figured that, freed up to pursue a study of something that interested them, they'd jump to work.
But soon I discovered that, with the rare exception of the student who had been happily visited by a passion for something early in life, they'd never had to identify a field of particular interest. And why should they have? Isn't one of most wonderful features of adolescence that a whole world of possibilities awaits? That you won't have to "specialize" for a long, long time? Isn't asking a student to focus on one thing, and pour months of work into it, in a social-media environment where they learn new things every day, sort of counterintuitive?
And so, as the new school year began, I followed a new blueprint. In the first week, as we went over the syllabus, I stressed that one of the best parts of our class was a research paper, a project where they'd explore something they liked or cared about. They'd surround the subject and become an expert. The paper would be an organic part of the process of their experiences over the course of the term.
The following week I suggested that if anyone came up with a topic, if they wanted to share it with us to help others along in their own search, this would be welcomed. Two students happily announced their topics. Two weeks later, one month into the semester, each student had a topic. By now I sensed that not only was this class far ahead of the game compared to last year's group, but I was, too. The early, initial research-paper-writing process seemed in a good place.
But I didn't know for certain until, a one day few weeks ago. As usual, I entered our classroom a half-hour early, to write the day's agenda on the board, before going back to my office to fine-tune my preparations for the class.
Not as usual, Avery was already at work at her usual spot at the conference table.
"Avery," I said. "What are you doing here?"
"I was working over in the library," she said, "but I thought, `Why not just come here to work?'"
When I asked her what she was working on, she said, "I've started my research paper."
I almost said, "Really?" But I didn't. Avery's topic had hooked her. She was already deeply into the researching and writing. And as I reflect on that small but significant piece of data -- a single student diving into a project due in, for most 18-year-olds, an unfathomable distance away -- I allowed myself a thought:
That when it produces tangible results, no matter how seemingly small and qualitative the data, researching our past practice in order to improve it is not only satisfying...but essential.