Improving scholarly discovery and graduate education

If an end-of-the-semester paper isn’t worth being published on the Internet, it isn’t worth writing at all.

by John Hoff

Wouldn’t it be great if final papers written at the end of the semester had some kind of actual impact on the world?

What is the point, I often wonder, of all this effort to put words and ideas on paper? Who will actually read these ideas, produced through such intense effort? What lasting importance, if any, will my paper have? For what great and noble cause am I staining with black ink the once-living flesh of lovely trees, except to earn a grade and prove I learned something?

Here’s a radical thought: if an end-of-the-semester paper isn’t worth being published on the Internet, it isn’t worth writing at all. Internet publication should be the scholarly standard for every single graduate student paper produced at the University, and for certain outstanding undergraduate papers.

At some point, even the routine assignments of first-year students should be tailored to increase the world’s body of scholarly knowledge, and not just provide busywork for the purpose of grading spelling and grammar.

By publishing virtually all student papers on the Internet, as part of a systematic process, our University can pull itself toward the lofty goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities within a decade.

I’ve seen some really good papers written at this University, and a few of them were even mine. There is a pure and cerebral form of excitement that grips a student when they realizes ideas are pouring from their mind that describe the world in new ways, or link concepts with a unique twist, or which document important human experience that would otherwise just fade away, unrecorded.

But then, of course, at some point you realize it’s just a final paper and, really, who is going to read your stuff?

At the moment, I am writing a paper for a class at the Humphrey Institute which will explore the issue of taxing clothing in Minnesota, closely tied to a global trend of ever-cheaper clothing which might provide something of a political justification for taxes to support, for example, economically cost-effective programs for early childhood.

I think it will be a pretty decent paper, but hardly as fun and creative as some of my other work, like a deep and detailed exploration of how various states could collect more child support remittances from overseas or another paper I have planned for this semester about a movement in Tanzania called “Popular Theatre,” and how this movement could be more effective by borrowing tactics from another context.

Mentioning these ideas here in abbreviated form may be the most exposure these papers will ever see, though I might pour my heart and soul into them, as most graduate students do with their papers.

I really have to question the value of writing papers at all if they’re just going to be filed away as artifacts for future theoretical grandchildren, having no impact on the world.

Sure, any student could put their papers on the Internet as part of a blog. But if you did that, you’d have no academic institution standing behind you saying, in effect, “Behold, this is the pretty decent work of our student. Read it and be enlightened, and may these writings become part of collective human wisdom,” or something like that.

And, yes, you could try to get your paper published in an academic journal, or present it at conferences, but that’s just more dead trees. If a paper were written at the University, and it’s a decent paper, why shouldn’t the University routinely publish such papers when the Internet makes it so easy and cost-effective?

The value in publishing all high-quality student papers on the Internet, however, is not that it would be gratifying for the students, or move us closer to a paperless world, but because this would drastically increase the output of scholarly writings by this University, and all that entails in moving this institution toward becoming a top three public research university.

Student papers could get cited in other scholarly writings. Some students might find themselves invited to academic conferences. My word, some student might even get a real job paying real money because of something that student wrote, not just a grade and several lines of handwritten praise from an instructor.

And, just maybe, some of these papers might have a real impact on the world. When Albert Einstein was 26 and working as a patent examiner, he created the “special theory of relativity.” The next Einstein might be sitting near you in class, chewing thoughtfully on a pen.

And, yes, I think the trend should ultimately include even the papers of first-year students. For example, instead of being told, “Interview one of your classmates” students might be told, “Go interview somebody who experienced an important historical event and write down one of their stories. All your papers will be published, so do a good job.”

In this way, even students at the beginning of their academic career would be making a meaningful scholarly contribution instead of just learning, for example, basic interviewing skills.

Putting the best student papers on the Internet would draw out increased academic effort, and in this way all students would be “driven to discover.”

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].