Research, Eric Burns, and David Horowitz

It’s our fault, we college teachers: we haven’t kept up with technological changes; we keep giving students assignments assuming students will learn through the process of completing the assignment–forgetting that the process has changed. And yet we are still surprised when writers like Eric Burns, David Horowitz, and Ann Coulter produce books with lots of footnotes but that aren’t really research at all.


To be fair, Burn’s book, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2006) is a lot better than anything that I have read of either Coulter or Horowitz–and not only in terms of research–but Burns does make the classic mistake of turning to research material to bolster his contention, not to test it or to learn from that material. In a discussion of a 1731 Benjamin Franklin article called “Apology for Printers,” for example, Burns manipulates Franklin’s words so that they seem to refer to journalists instead of to job printers producing handbills for others. He does this by simply eliding Franklin’s points that make that clear. This isn’t an important manipulation in itself, but it does provide a nice example of how “…” can be used to completely change the meaning of the quoted text.


What Burns has done reminds me of what many of my students have been taught to do: Come up with a point and then go and find three things that can be manipulated into looking like support. They turn it in–and believe they have done something called “research.” It is bad enough that this has been happening since college study began. But, before the Internet, students had to at least spend some time in the library looking through books and journals to find the material. That experience, we hoped, would teach them something about libraries, even if their papers rarely showed “good” research.


Today, students don’t necessarily even learn that much: All they need to do is a quick Google search. Though the result may be the same, the students learn even less about “research” than they did before. Because they learn so little about it, they are then unprepared to spot the little tricks like the one Burns plays (either intentionally or not–it doesn’t matter). And they are then open to the greater cons of people like Horowitz and Coulter, whose “research” impresses no one who has ever done real research, but that can seem like research to those who have only used “cut-and-paste” themselves.


In his most recent book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Regnery, 2006), David Horowitz even goes so far as to claim a research methodology, “prosopography,” trying to dazzle readers with the idea that there’s rigorous scholarship going on–when what’s really being presented is simple a cut-and-paste list of people Horowitz doesn’t like.


What’s the solution? How do teachers teach “real” research, so that our students can identify it and the pretenders later in life?


First of all, we have to stop demanding “sources.” What we mean by that and what students hear are different things. We expect students to have studied the sources they use in their papers, to have read them for authorial intention and then analyzed them. All too often, the students hear us asking simply for a list, a presentation–never considering the study the sources are supposed to represent.


Perhaps, instead of asking students to go to the library (or the Internet) and come back with “results,” we should start providing the texts ourselves, more frequently and directly, for their papers, asking the students to study them more deeply and write proposals for their research papers from them. Then, once they have a little in-depth knowledge, they can go to the Internet or the library.  Sure, that sounds like what we already expect students to do–using our classroom activities and our primary texts as background for their papers–but students, too often, aren’t making the connection.  Perhaps we have to make it more explicit. 


I don’t know what the best method will be, only that we teachers have (as a whole–there are plenty of exceptions) become sloppy in what we demand from our students. And the result is that our students have become sloppy in their demands on the writers they read after they graduate.


[This diary is sparked by a longer piece of mine that appears in ePluribus Media Journal.]

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