Saturday, December 20th, 2003
I would generalize that if most people heard that life existed on Jupiter, they wouldnt think much of it, unless thy also heard that that life had crowded onto ships and was on its way to enslave planet Earth. This is why science fiction writers make aliens nasty rather than innocuous. It keeps us interested. Do you buy this?
In my literature courses I expect people to write a research paper (thus to be able to write one). In British Literature, we work with multiple forms of assessment: classroom discussion, short answer and essay riffs on take home exams, and a research paper on some topic not really detailed in lecture or discussion, such as Nennius or the export of ale and its influence on the London economy in the Middle Ages.
But what does it mean that I expect people to know how to write (hence to execute) a research paper? Is this a responsible statement? Does it reflect changing methods, conventions, and expectations? Professor Sally Terrell and I have talked about this subject for years and we’re having frequent and serious discussions about it now as we continue to evolve as teachers in an evolving department at an evolving school. And now Susan and Jason have also become a part of the conversations.
What do I mean when I say research, and how do people interpret that term? In my own mind, I hear research and think the laboratory. Research and Development. AT&T. I see people focused on pages illuminated orange by library lamps. I hear the nuts and bolts being tightened on atom smashers. I think citations, quotation form, thesis statements, and ornery teachers who can sniff a comma splice from under a ton of blue cheese. I hear groans. Research depends on what we are asked to do and what we happen to be doing and where we happen to be. In this age we need to know things. I may want to know how to enroll in school. I call the school and ask. This is a kind of research: I have a question that needs answering.
To define research we need simplification. Let’s say I want to learn about skateboarding. I just have this compulsion to know about it (or maybe I have a compulsion to know about algebra or light or a potential job). Let’s say I’m lucky: as this compulsion is surfacing I happen to be in a composition course where I’ve been asked to write an essay about something that interests me. This is what I call lucky strike.
Were products of the Enlightenment. We ask questions that cant be satisfied by the priest or rabbi. The priest may have an opinion about Steven Winebergs conception of the first three minutes of time, but to argue with the math would take more than theology or faith. There are things that it may be important to know before one becomes an economist. Maybe some logic and ethics would be nice. The same goes for the literary critic, the teacher, or the computer programmer. Computer programming, I assume, is more than just programming. In America, the programmer is also a citizen.
Would this programmer care if the Jupiterians were on their way?