"Foreword: To Teachers of the I-Search Paper: A University View"

by Robert G. Kraft


If you ask them, social scientists will eagerly list for you the many changes in the institutions of western culture, some of them profound, that have happened in the latter half of the twentieth century. And they will generally agree that the institution that has changed least is higher education. Not to its credit.

But there have been changes in higher education, and some are substantial. Ken Wachsberger's Transforming Lives: A Socially Responsible Guide to the Magic of Writing and Researching touches on certain of these changes that have been largely invisible, or, if visible, been rarely commented on. In the forties, fifties, and sixties, when I went to school, no one ever said in my hearing about any class, "This class changed my life."

Ken's book about learning to write in high school and college is a kind of marker. It marks a fulfillment of what many of us in higher education have worked for in recent decades: a genuine transformation in what goes on in college classrooms. That transformation is hardly complete, but the force and momentum of it guarantee that these necessary changes in teaching and learning will continue and become the pedagogical orthodoxy of the next century.

So what is that transformation? It is the closing of the gap between genuine learning and the meaningless busyness that so often goes on in schools. It is removing the focus of education from teaching to learning, from process to outcome. It's shifting the question from "What do teachers teach?" to "What do students learn?" The abandonment of the old research paper for underclassmen is a powerful signal of that transformation, that closing of the gap. It's taken us a long time to get here.

Since the 1930s, undergraduates have been writing "research" papers, sometimes called "term" papers, in their college classes. (No word is more abused in the academy than the word "research.") These papers were to be a student's independent written inquiry into any given subject matter. They were to be the students' seeking out, synthesizing, and evaluating the information of their various academic subjects. You can easily imagine all those political science students doing their labor of love, "The Symmetry and Usefulness of the Electoral College."

When the masses flooded into colleges after World War II, the academic ritual of the term paper seemed somewhat less than vital to degree-hustling and job-getting collegians. Who could care less about the airy and precious subjects of such papers?

As a result, an industry sprang up to provide students with such papers, a tidy commercial answer to the perceived irrelevance of the whole business. Many college teachers recognized that this academic staple had gone rotten, at least for the crowds of new undergraduates, and that learning was also failing. Those hordes of underclassmen are not engaged in the academic niceties of the old academy. We professors may regret that, but it's a fact. We have to come up with new and more vital ways of directing our students' learning.

While it may be self-evident that no learning happens unless a learner is genuinely engaged in the learning, we are slow to surrender the old practices that have lost vitality. Perhaps the "research paper" continues because college teachers just don't know what else to do. Ken Wachsberger presents to teachers at any level of high school and college a real possibility of what else to do. As a college teacher, it was an answer to me. It could be for you.

Robert Kraft is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan. He was the creator and first director of EMU's Faculty Center for Instructional Excellence and founding publisher and executive editor of Issues & Inquiry in College Learning and Teaching. He was a student of Ken Macrorie.

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