Opinion-Policy Nexus

My colleague, Derek Hall, responds to my blog post about the death of research papers at the undergraduate level.

As usual, he's written an excellent, and well-reasoned response to my blog post.  When I interviewed at Laurier in 2008, I didn't know him at all except he was the "shrimp" guy (he wrote a number of academic papers on shrimp farming in East Asia). As a colleague, I've come to appreciate not only his productivity and research interests (which sometimes and surprisingly dove-tail with mine, although he approaches these topics from a political economy perspective), I've also come to appreciate his interests in zombies and board games, oddly enough!

Enjoy!

Guest Blog Post by Dr. Derek Hall. 

So I’m the guy who went through all of our department’s syllabi a couple of years ago to see what kinds of assignments we’re giving our students. (I was our undergraduate officer then – I hope that excuses this weird behaviour.) Chris asked me whether I’d like to respond to his suggestion that the “death of the term paper may not be such a bad thing.” I’ve enjoyed thinking more about this topic and will try to put a few arguments together.

I should say first that going through all those syllabi left me impressed by the range of assignments we ask our students to do. We have definitely left behind the days in which the default grading scheme for an Arts class was midterm-paper-final-participation, and I think that’s fantastic. I try to mix things up in different ways in my own classes, including through frequent use of my favourite assignment – sets of analytical reading response questions (the burpees of social science). I also agree with Chris that moving towards more assignments that prepare students for the kinds of writing they’re likely to have to do in the workplace is a good thing, and it’s something we’re doing already.

I should also note that the main goal of my survey of syllabi was to see whether we were still asking our students to do relatively long pieces of writing of, say, more than 4000 words. Longer assignments don’t need to be term papers; students can build some of the same skills doing policy reports, say, or critical literature reviews. But I do think that the research essay specifically is something we should hold on to – that is, I think that a student coming out of an Honours BA in Political Science should have had to write at least a couple of research essays of over 5000 words. That’s so for a bunch of reasons, but I’ll mostly focus here on ones that relate to what I think it means to prepare students for the workforce.

It’s easy to assume that shorter forms of writing like policy briefs and opinion pieces are simpler and less involved than longer forms like research essays, and that asking students to take on the more baroque form is unnecessary if what they need to learn is how to deal with the simpler ones. I’m not sure that’s right. A good op-ed or policy brief is going to be the distillation of an enormous amount of focused and organized research. The grad students I teach in Laurier’s International Public Policy MA write policy briefs, and one of the things I try to convey to them is that pretty much every sentence they write needs to have a paragraph or more of thinking and analysis behind it. Put differently, a 3000-word policy brief written by someone who only has 3000 words to say on the topic is not going to be very good. Writing a strong brief presupposes that you can absorb, integrate, and structure enormous amounts of information, and that you can grapple in a convincing way with both empirical and argumentative nuance and complexity. It seems to me that the best way to learn to do those things is to do them – that is, to write the kinds of longer pieces in which you go through those exercises.

I would also argue that putting together a research paper, rather than being a more involved exercise than writing a policy brief, is actually a sub-component of writing one. A policy brief needs to have at its heart some kind of causal model of how things work in the relevant policy area – of what the effects of past interventions in the area have been, and what future interventions are likely to do. This model will need, again, to be comprehensive and nuanced enough to convince people who know the literature that you know what you’re talking about. Here too, then, writing a research paper involves learning to do this stuff – identifying precise questions, reading widely, assembling evidence and structuring information, making an analytical argument, dealing with counter-arguments and alternative explanations – by actually doing it, and doing it on a canvas that is broad enough that you can’t avoid coming to terms with nuance and complexity. Again, if your policy brief doesn’t have all of that behind it, it will show.

Put more generally: Even if we assume that our job as professors is to prepare students for the workforce, it doesn’t follow that we do that by asking them to write exactly the kinds of things that they might be asked to write on the job. It’s a standard feature of learning to do complex things that you spend a lot of time on training exercises that aren’t themselves the thing that you want to learn to do. Great 10k runners don’t become great 10k runners by running 10k as fast as they can every day; they mix up all kinds of speeds and distances (including ones much longer than 10k), along with form drills, stretches, and cross-training.

Writing policy briefs may work the same way – that is, it’s possible that you don’t develop the “real world” skill of writing a policy brief by writing policy briefs over and over again. I see my analytical reading response question assignment as a very short example of this kind of skills-building, and as fitting in with Chris’ emphasis on the very real benefits of more and shorter writing assignments. The assignment asks students to work on critical thinking in a focused, intense way, and I think that it helps students to develop these broadly relevant skills despite the fact that our graduates will never have to write reading response questions in the workplace. Term papers work the same way – they’re just longer than policy briefs rather than shorter.

It’s possible, then, that the fact that students are unlikely to be asked to write research papers in the workplace is an argument for, not against, our asking them to write them in university. If the experience of grappling with a really big, analytically focused, empirical assignment builds critical work-related skills that employers are unlikely to give you a chance to develop, then surely we need to give our students that chance while they’re still in school.