Confronting the Research Paper
By Peter Langland-Hassan and Jennifer Griffith, Oct 2006
As anyone who has assigned research papers at MEC knows, the research paper presents a serious challenge to many MEC students. Last month, Writing Across the Curriculum held the first of what will be a series of workshops aimed at allowing faculty to share strategies for improving student performance on research papers.
The workshops are designed to address several issues, such as appreciating students’ specific difficulties with term papers; finding problems within a topic through which students can more easily generate thesis statements, rather than simply picking a subject area or general topic; assisting students in reading texts and managing sources (when and how to quote and paraphrase); and designing assignments that structure the process in stages.
Participants debated the value of personal writing
At a workshop in September 2006, English Professor Robin Ford emphasized the importance of getting students to adopt an “investigative” approach to the paper. It is crucial, says Professor Ford, that students not view their task as the mere paraphrasing of outside texts, but rather as the active authorship of a new narrative. She encourages this attitude by breaking the paper into several steps (this process is called “scaffolding”):
First, students are asked to select, as a subject for the paper, a location of some personal significance (examples include the hospital where one was born, or a childhood neighborhood). This allows students to write both from a position of authority and of personal interest.
Students are then required to formulate questions regarding this location, and to visit the location with an eye towards answering these questions.
While at the location, students take detailed notes, which will provide the initial “scaffolding” for their paper.
Once the student has the basic outlines of a paper in place, they present their ideas to the class. Class discussion typically generates further questions that the student will then investigate through other channels (such as library sources).
The student’s final paper will be the result of integrating these various sources of information into a cohesive narrative that discusses interesting aspects of the chosen location. The goal of the process, according to Professor Ford, is to give students first-hand experience with writing a research paper with the proper investigative attitude. A bonus of this approach is that it significantly decreases the likelihood of plagiarism.
The presentation provoked a lively discussion with several points of debate. Some argued that the objective of the research paper is to prepare one for academic writing, not simply for writing on topics students are already passionate about. Some feared exposing students mainly to personal writing left them unprepared for the discipline-specific writing tasks that would confront them in their courses to come. On the other hand, not exposing students to personal writing may prevent them from every adopting the “investigative” skills so crucial to the writing of quality research papers.
Another presentation by Professor Nadim Essey focused on teaching research paper mechanics:
Students are given two choices for research paper: a film or a short story. Focusing on an image or character, the student writes about a transformation that the character underwent, or a problem presented in the text and how it was resolved. This is the first draft of the paper.
For the second draft, the student draws a comparison of her analysis to another related analysis, for instance, if the writing is on images and representation, using John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to support or contrast her argument.
The third draft fleshes out the piece using four other sources, gathered by consulting abstracts and reference books in the library. The student should incorporate how these other writers substantiate or disagree with her argument thus far.
In the final drafts (2), the student employs MLA style. If there are any errors at all Essey returns the paper to be amended and resubmitted. Then the student switches to AP style and submits the paper again.
WAC is currently gathering topics or future workshops that have emerged from these sessions. Plans are already underway for workshops that bring together writing tutors and teachers, and discuss ways of increasing and taking attendance.
Students must see themselves as investigators, not paraphrasers.