An apology for research

Monday, October 6th, 2003

I dont know if research papers matter but I do know that research does. Research is about discovery. Its that simple. Theres currently a lot of flap going on about college writing and reading and the nature of composition and literary studies in college and university curricula, but these subjects have always been part of the problem of the Liberal Arts from the Trivium to what we know as the Liberal Arts. What forms a good education will always be a question. Nevertheless, students fell asleep, cheated, and connived their way through class in the medieval university, too. But, for me, all of that is irrelevant to the individual and collective journey through life. I assume that college students take courses to learn things; thats my assumption (this is why paper mills are unethical, because they remove the project of discovery from the individual; if I purchase a paper on Virginia Woolf from collegesucks.com, then Im not discovering anything of worth. Yet, some may say, who needs to read Woolf? This question is irrelevant, because a student may indeed want to learn about Woolf just as they want to learn about atoms or economics. If a person wants to live their life without reading or studying Woolf, he or she wont die as a result).

If a person takes English Literature, I assume that he or she has come to learn about English Literature, same goes for a course on fiction. In reality, no one needs to take the course to survive. No one needs to take Calculus. People need water and food; they dont need Chaucer. College has become the place to go after high school as a matter of convention, but, in the long run, no one needs college.

Two ideas of synthesis are at issue as concerns my quickly rendered subject: research to add to the sum of human knowledge (which could happen anywhere) and research to add to an individuals store; they arent necessarily the same, but they can be. It may be true that the chemist loves her job; it may also be true that the chemist hates his job yet trudges through anyway, wishing he were writing poetry instead. If a student wants to know about the Protestant Reformation, then they have to read about it, find and consider the sources, weigh the data and the arguments. It isnt a requirement that students read journal articles on the Reformation, although the student has to know what it is theyre learning: are they reading the primaries or the secondaries? In a college course, the next step is to inform an audience about the results, perhaps on paper napkins, if thats all thats at hand: Id prefer a written report or a Power Point presentation because print on porous paper is hard to read. Outside of college, the student can keep the discoveries to him or herself. It may be true that a carpenter just has a hankering to learn about Luther: the result will be that the carpenter learns about Luther, but he wont have to deliver the results to an academic audience, but most likely shell want to tell somebody. I repeat: no one needs to go to college.

People may claim this irrelevant although true statement: Im not interested in Chaucer, therefore, why should I have to read and write about the Tales. My ready and best answer is this: you dont have to read or write about Chaucer. Another: why do I have to take composition and learn the academic forms and do what my teacher tells me to. My answer is the same: you dont have to. Heres another answer: Michael Dell wanted to make and sell computers: what did he have to learn to be successful at it? Of course, we could ask him or do a little research.

I claim that the person who wants nothing to do with Chaucer or Calculus should find another way of reaching their goal, whatever that goal may be. But, if a persons goal happens to put them in Chaucers, Barthelmes, or Dorothy Allisons path, then they should try and figure out why reading these authors will benefit them (or any other reasonable question). If not, then the next author should be Plato; the next read, the Crito. What Barthelme teaches, if he must teach anything, is that theres more than one way to dress a rabbit.

Ultimately, most fundamental research questions derive from this question: what is Pluto? And, does grass grow during the New England winter?


9 responses to “An apology for research”

  1. Susan says:

    My, my. What did we do or not do to upset you? What you are saying is completely true, however, and as an older student, I can verify that even as a business owner, the only Algebra I ever used was ratio in 35 years. But it is the experience of learning that builds the mind–not just the information put into it. Our mind will sift through what comes into it–whether sought or forced in–and retain that which is of interest or is necessary to our life or choice of profession. The rest is selectively lost.

    I am not ecstatic about interactive fiction as yet, but I’m willing to keep at it. I noticed a mention somewheres along the line in the Contemporary Fiction info of “Eliza” and played a bit with this last year in Psychology. I became frustrated when we went one on one in head games and “it” finally told me I had an attitude problem and should search my soul to find out where the hostility came from. Evidently, it was programmed to locate those players who were intent on being sarcastic and giving it a hard time. But it was most definitely an experience that must have intrigued me and warranted further research because I still have it”bookmarked.” susan

  2. steve says:

    I think you’re right, but sarcasm is a great test. So, are you interested in discovery?

  3. Susan says:

    Of course! Discovery can be a part of one’s daily routine if one is observant–even in a classroom! To think that at my age, and being a lover of the written word, I just read “The Epic of Gilgamesh” last year–one of the earliest written forms of a story. The version I read had large gaps that forced the reader to fill in, not out of the author’s purpose, but because those stone fragments were truly missing, lost in time (now possibly forever with the bombing in Iraq). You mentioned the story in class one day, and I felt “Gee, I read that!” with a sense of satisfaction. This is what learning is about, retrieving some bit of information given to you that you never think about after the semester, but that you can relate to something that comes up perhaps years later. Gone are the days where authority is not questioned, and in some ways this is good, but students must consider that the curriculum is decided by someone a little bit smarter than them. So okay, if interactive fiction is out there, of course we must be open to it, decide if we like it or hate it, but only after experimentation with it. (See comment below under “playing with literature and games.”

  4. steve says:

    But shouldn’t students create their own curriculum, beyond college? Isn’t this the way one storms the world?

  5. Susan says:

    Uh, no…
    Maybe it’s the way I was raised and taught until I developed my own set of standards based on those teachings and experience with them, but for some reason, I still respect authority figures. No, we can’t always trust them, but what the fuck do students know about something they haven’t learned yet? An obligation laid out to a student of British Lit to study Chaucer is not only teaching him about Chaucer’s work, but more importantly, teaching him about the undertakings of reading deeper, researching, asking questions, etc. THIS is what is going to be valuable later in life when he may be asked to perform his job, or raise a family. I honestly believe that SOMEbody puts SOME thought into tailoring the curriculum to the course of study. Things happen one step at a time–a teacher’s purpose is to reveal what is known to date; a student takes that information and discards it at semester’s end, or uses it as a gateway to go further. If curriculum’s were left up to children, we would never go beyond lollipops.

  6. Susan says:

    I apologize for the vulgarity by the way–this is not the place for it. It was a time that I wrote directly into this spot instead of cut & paste, and done early, early in the morning. Susan

  7. neha says:

    True,Susan,that birthday cake and ice cream would be as far as some would go.But then,this is why we have college(I see here that I’m agreeing with you).However,what about the after life?At what point does an individual become responsible for his or her own life,or the choices made?How long do we go on blaming parents,teachers,the system,the shrink,the rabid dog down the street?Do individuals continually need to be spoon-fed for their own advancement?There is a limit to the silver platter with a golden spoon treatment.
    Teachers,general educators,and ad campaign managers…and on the other hand we have a couch potato saying that life sucks.

  8. Susan says:

    How very true, but I’m surprised to hear this from one so young–although I think your mind is older that the rest of you. You have a clear idea of what’s going on, and where things could be heading. I have a personal campaign against coming up with new psychiatric diagnosises and thus giving them an official stamp of approval. I believe what you describe comes under the highly desirable label of “Entitlement” or some such thing. (I do apologize for making light of his matter to those who indeed are legitimately afflicted, but what I am referring to is a blanket diagnosis that covers many who only may need a good talking-to to straighten out.) Life beyond any educational institution is different in that one is no longer living in a closed community, but life beyond, and that almost certainly includes a job or career, is painfully close to the school environment. There is a supervisor, department head, etc., etc. all the way up to the CEO and the stockholders. These people pretty much expect to give orders and have them followed. Until you can step on each one’s head to get to the top, you will have to follow those orders or find another place to work and follow theirs. At least you’ll get paid for it–in school you pay them to give you orders, and it’s considered rude to step on the teacher’s head. To those who think that school is unfair or useless to the student, I would say, learn now to deal with it. Then use ALL of the experience to change the world!

  9. neha says:

    Hear hear…and this why a Marketing Management major decides to hang on to the degree with dear life while pursuing the world of Literature{that would be me}.It’s a struggle,but I’m not spending the rest of my life blaming circumstance…my grapes are not sour…Yet.