Friday, November 19, 2010

Duuuuude. It’s, like, my research paper topic.

Every year, the time for freshmen to pick their research essay topic arrives, and every year, the freshmen come up with the same, tired ideas for topics. Gun control. Abortion. Euthanasia. Violence/prayer/sex education in schools. Lowering the drinking age. The death penalty. On-campus parking. Foreign professors with thick accents. Global warming. Cloning humans. Stem cells. Affirmative action. Gay marriage. Gay adoption. My least favorite, though, is the ever-popular topic of legalizing da herb. Why? Because of the strong inverse correlation between students’ interest in this topic and the likelihood of their writing a good paper about it.

A while back, in my grad student days at Grandiose Mental State U., I was teaching a second-semester FYC class, and along came the time for students to pick research paper topics. I delivered my usual "pick these topics and suffer my wrath" speech, which included a specific prohibition against the topic of legalizing ganja. When class ended, most students filed out. A few crowded around the desk to ask about potential topics. Yes, yes, no, narrow it down... The usual. Then, the last student, the back-row-sitter with the C-minus-minus, finally approached and spoke.

"Heyyyy...Professor Mindbender... I know it's on the list of topics you talked about, I write about legalizing marijuana? I mean, like, you can make paper out of it and stuff."

Of course, while he’s saying this, I’m looking at the guy’s bloodshot eyes and trying not to choke on the nearly-visible waves of stank emanating from his jacket.

Y’know…I’d really like it if somebody who’s not a junior-league Tommy Chong wannabe wrote a paper about legalizing pot, but it just never happens. Can’t one of the recreational heads, the ones who toke up after class, write an interesting, decently researched, logically organized argument about legalizing marijuana? Is that so wrong?


  1. Can’t one of the recreational heads, the ones who toke up after class, write an interesting, decently researched, logically organized argument about legalizing marijuana?

    The recreational users have no stake in winning that argument. They actually have other, more important things they are interested in.

    My most recent "legalize pot!" paper-writer missed class (and thus a deadline) to bail a friend out of jail. How many of you would draw the same conclusion from that as I did? He also invented his own citation style and tried to complain about being marked down for not using a real one! He was an English major. At least I couldn't find any evidence of plagiarism, just really stupid and sloppy citations.

  2. I sympathize with having to read the same boring papers on boring topics over and over again, but I don't know how a room full of 18 year-olds is likely to do any better. Most of their limited experience hardly fits them for writing more interesting topics, and so they take their cues from issues in the news or stuff that appears relevant to their own lives (although trivial in the extreme to anyone else, like campus parking). Getting through the boring and trivial shit to having interesting opinions on less mundane matters is part of the evolution of the student. You've just caught them at an early stage of their academic life.

    This is not to say that you shouldn't have your own standards about acceptable paper topics—indeed the challenge is good for your students—but just don't let it get you down if their first inclination is to write about something you've seen a dozen times before.

  3. My solution is simple for boring papers: make them do counterfactual arguements. So you get papers like "Could the Soviet Union have survived to the year 2000?", "The European Union: a Masonic Conspiracy?", and "The War in Afghanistan is Truly Worth It." There is a possiblility however that you can get the "fooling around" papers where they play mind-games with you ("Women: Only Good for Making Sandwiches and Babies?", "President Obama: Working with the EU Masonic Conspiracy?", "The Merits of Writing a Pro-Hemp Legalization Paper.") That written, these subjects don't have to be the same old clapped-out junk your predecessors were getting in the 1970s and 1980s, if you demand that they move out of the grooves worn into the floor.

  4. Strelnikov: ("Women: Only Good for Making Sandwiches and Babies?", "President Obama: Working with the EU Masonic Conspiracy?", "The Merits of Writing a Pro-Hemp Legalization Paper.")

    Have you been digging around in my research folder again?

  5. @Strelnikov: Have you actually tried this? I find that 18-year-olds don't understand irony, not that many other people do. In my own experience, the most likely outcome of giving them counterfactual arguments will be that they believe them: for example, they will think you really do mean to say that the Masons run the EU, or worse, that the USSR was still around in 2000.

    (Every time I ran my Energy and the Environment class, I'd get a freshman who would collar me and grimly demand, "the Truth." My reaction for every one was the same: this is a complex issue, made even more so by economics and politics. If a simple solution really did exist, I'd tell you what it was. They never liked this answer, but I was able to get them to accept it, but not without repeating it, several times in the more determined cases. There is nothing so ridiculous that at least one freshperson won’t believe it. The same goes for Ph.D.s.)

  6. I live in a "legalized" medical marijuana state. This has improved the level of these papers significantly.

    Notably, one girl argued for legislation that would allow for pot to be prescribed for a pain condition her mom has, and another guy wrote about it and he actually is a caregiver grower for his aunt who has cancer.

    In short, the answer to bad pot papers is legalizing pot. ;)

  7. @Froedrick Frankenstien from Fresno
    I have never assigned such papers, but I did write a counterfactual on the survival of the USSR. My paper ideas were not to be assigned by the instructor, but thought up by the student. As for the CCCP, I remember after 1991 how people would still say "Soviet Union" then correct themselves while never using the term "Confederation of Independent States"; the people at my last Insane Xtian High School thought that every republic of the USSR was somehow "Russia" and were suprised that places like the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic wanted to become their own nation-state because they didn't know what a Ukrainian was. The breakup of Yugoslavia blew their minds. And that's why I'm opposed to religious charter schools.

  8. I did once require my students to write two half papers -- one on their tired, predictable topics, and the other AGAINST those topics. It was a really valuable experience for me, but it also took a lot of work on my end. The great majority flipped out at finding contradictory evidence and didn't know how to proceed without emailing me freakouts.

    The end result were a stack of super-interesting papers. Possibly my greatest grading experience because each project was so engaging. You can see their little brains functioning. But I don't think I can do that level of hand-holding ever again.

  9. Here's a belated thought: if your students insist on doing papers related to drug policy, insist that they all be limited to discussions of whether drug testing should be a routine part of competitive chess playing. I can guarantee that will stop almost all drug policy papers. *evil grin*

    (It sounds ridiculous, but the FIDE president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is deeply enamored of the thought of getting chess recognized as an Olympic sport, so he's instituted a regime of urine testing for grandmasters in order to conform to IOC policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, there are no drugs, dangerous or otherwise, known to enhance cognitive ability.)

  10. It'll only be an Olympic sport when the players move the pieces telekinetically....Ilyumzhinov is an interesting guy, and his quest does have a point; there are few games at the Olympics with an intellectual component.


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