Date of Award

Fall 1995

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas Newkirk


Ever since its introduction as an assignment in composition textbooks in the 1920s, the freshman research paper has confounded students and discouraged their instructors. Yet the research paper remains a largely static fixture in most first-year writing courses. What accounts for assignment's persistence, despite the long history of complaint? What are the aims of the freshman research paper, and how well do students understand its purpose? Why do they struggle with the genre? How might it be reconceived?

Using extensive interviews with students and a close examination of student papers, I argue here that the conventional freshman research paper is no longer a defensible assignment because it fails to build on the writing that came before it in the composition class, it grows out of now discredited theories about knowledge, and it misleads students about the nature of academic inquiry. The research paper is essentially a genre captive to its history.

Drawing on an archival collection of composition textbooks, I trace the relatively static treatment of the research paper assignment in rhetorics and handbooks since 1900. Despite the disillusionment it engenders, the traditional research paper has persisted because nineteenth century assumptions about the aims and methods of academic research have rarely been critically examined. These mostly positivist assumptions include the need for researchers to be "objective," do "original" investigations, and see language as merely a vehicle for transmitting--rather than constructing--some preexisting truth. The freshman research paper has also long been considered the untouchable centerpiece of composition's service obligation to other disciplines.

By encouraging the researched essay, composition and literary studies can make its own claims on the research assignment, and still make it a useful introduction to academic inquiry. Inspired by Montaigne and supported by feminist theory, the research essay overturns postivist assumptions about research and writing, and engages students in an often personal engagement with knowledge-making. It is an approach that is much more likely to challenge them to confront their roles as knowers than traditional research paper pedagogies, while highlighting the habits of mind that are central to academic inquiry in any discipline.