by Brandon Rhodes • Home

The idea of a term paper

Date: 25 October 2008
Tags:web notes

Displaying their usual talent for excerpt, the folks at Arts & Letters Daily directed my attention to a recent article in The Smart Set with this intriguing summary of its contents:

Term paper mill. Need $100 by Friday to keep the lights on? No sweat, if you’re a writer. Plenty of kids need ten pages on Hamlet by Thursday... more»

The article, entitled “Term Paper Artist”, alternates between hilarity and poignancy as its author shares his adventures writing hundreds of term papers for hire. But near the end, his tone suddenly becomes serious as he turns to the question of why so many students are unable to write term papers of their own. He thinks that the reason is important enough to stand alone in his article as a one-sentence paragraph. Here is his preceding paragraph, and then the zinger:

It's not that I never felt a little skeevy writing papers. Mostly it was a game, and a way to subsidize my more interesting writing. Also, I've developed a few ideas of my own over the years. I don't have the academic credentials of composition experts, but I doubt many experts spent most of a decade writing between one and five term papers a day on virtually every subject. I know something they don't know; I know why students don't understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It's because students have never read term papers.

That is his diagnosis: students never see what term papers are supposed to look like, and so they have no idea how to produce them.

As he continued on, ridiculing the idea that students can produce something of which they are never once shown a good example, I realized that his argument was exactly the same as the one I made in my recent post Reading Code: A Computer Science Curriculum: that the production of any kind of literature, whether an essay in college or an elaborate routine in a computer program, is an essentially imitative act. Without being shown excellent examples from the genre they are expected to produce, students are left in the dark about what, exactly, they are trying to generate — and, more often than not, will fail. They are never even given the opportunity to demonstrate whether they do, in fact, lack the capacity to create, because they are never shown the goal towards which they are supposed to be striving.

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