Academic Writing: Term Papers vs. Scholarly Papers

The Jazz Singerj
Al Jolson’s appearance in blackface in The Jazz Singer is usually seen as evidence of the film’s racism.

What is the difference between a term paper and a scholarly paper? In the pejorative sense, this may seem like an academic question. However, it is not trivial one for students who are required to write a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. It is especially difficult when a student’s previous experience has been limited to writing term papers. So let me list some of the ways.

A term paper is…

  • Not expected to represent original research or ideas.
  • A compilation of what others have written or said.
  • Does not usually question conventional wisdom.

A scholarly paper…

 Questions conventional wisdom.

  • Attempts to provide new insight.
  • Can develop original theories regarding your area of study.
  • Can make new application(s) of theories from other fields to your field of expertise.

 In a sense, a good example of a term paper is Wikipedia article on a well-known historical figure like Albert Einstein. Essentially every statement of fact and opinion does not seem to come from the authors, but instead is cited from a previously published source, which is noted in 194 endnotes. Where it differs from a term paper is that it does not include a List of Works Cited (Bibliography), which many instructors require.

A scholarly paper, such as those presented at academic conferences or published in a peer-reviewed journal, should be a lot more adventurous, so to speak. That is, it needs to include the author’s original ideas and insights. An example of something that challenges conventional wisdom is Charles Musser’s “Why Did Negroes Love Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer?: Melodrama, Blackface and Cosmopolitan Theatrical Culture,” published in Film History. He starts off by stating that,

“Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros., 1927), starring Al Jolson, was the first feature length ‘talkie’, and so one of cinema’s milestones. If its importance has been impossible to ignore, the picture has been subjected to frequent, wide-ranging criticism that has tended to fall into three different but ultimately related categories. First, there has been a long-standing criticism of the film due to its excessive appeal to emotions, its sentimentality and its lack of obvious seriousness. … Second, commentators have often condemned the film for the way it depicts the Jewish immigrant community in the United States. …

“Third, and perhaps most forcefully, as Americans have continued to struggle with their fraught history of race relations, the film has come to be demonized as a racist text.”

Musser is clearly announcing he is challenging widespread criticism that The Jazz Singer is too sentimental, that it distorts the Jewish experience in the United States and that it is racist—a challenge reinforced by the title of his article. The rest of the piece is devoted to presenting his arguments to back up his thesis.

While this seems rather simple, my experience is that many students find it hard to break the habit of writing term papers and start thinking outside the box. This is especially so when they realize they also have to create a theoretical framework for their thesis or dissertation, which will be the topic for a future blog post.

— Harvey Deneroff

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