Coming to Terms with
the Freshman Term Paper
James C. McDonald
There is a long tradition of complaint about the required research paper in the freshman composition course that dates back almost as far as the assignment itself, as Robert W. Frederick 1929 survey of educators indicates. Articles questioning the value of the freshman research paper, such as Paul F. Fletcher "Should Term Papers Be Abolished?" John W. Stevenson "The Illusion of Research," Thomas E. Taylor "Let's Get Rid of Research Papers," and Richard Larson's "The 'Research Paper' in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing," go back as far as Roy C. Woods "The Term Paper: Its Values and Dangers" in 1933. A few choice words of condemnation or ridicule are almost expected in any article or book that discusses the freshman research paper. Describing students that he observed working on research papers in the library, Michael Kleine laments, "Not only were they not writing, but they were not reading: I detected no searching, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, selecting, rejecting, etc. No time for such reading in the heated bursts of copying that interrupted the conversations" (151). The research paper "trivializes the process of knowledge acquisition," Sharon Crowley writes, "Any subject whatsoever can be read up on and mastered for the occasion" ( Methodical163-64). To Ken Macrorie, student research papers are "inane productions" (xi), "bad jokes" (161), "the most unoriginal writings the world has ever seen" (54), and "an exercise in badly done bibliography, often an introduction to the art of plagiarism, and a triumph of meaninglessness--for both writer and reader" (xi).
Yet the research paper remains the 400-pound gorilla of the first-year