Friday, November 17, 2006

Secrets of The Writing Class Research Assignment (Part 1)

Thanks for all the encouraging and kind comments about the research paper assignment. I really needed some encouragement this week, and in that virtual way, your comments helped tons.

Since a couple folks asked, I'm happy to share the assignment. Please feel free to use what seems useful to you. I also thought I'd talk a bit more about the assignment, especially what I've learned that makes it work well for me.

I hand out this assignment in two parts, the first part coming quite early in the mid-semester. At that point we begin brainstorming questions for the research paper while we're also working on another shorter paper. That way, they should have a good question going, ample time to start research and time to request interlibrary loans by the time we're really working on the research essay as a class.

Here's what I hand out at first, followed by the some secrets of the assignment:

Develop skills in asking useful research questions
in “wallowing in complexity”
in using the library effectively
in putting together a strong thesis statement
in compiling information and relating it to readers
using information fairly and accurately in an essay
arguing a point and answering a question

The assignment: Ask a real world question about an important issue in your life or in your field(s) of study; research that question and write a strong, thesis-driven essay which argues for a specific answer to your question. Your question needs to be real, practical, well-developed, thought-out, do-able (by you and in the time alloted). Your essay should use primary and secondary sources, and should explain the question and argue for a specific answer. That answer MAY be about the current state of knowledge, of course.

Why? This essay is modeled on real research, especially research as I experience it in doing real academic research and writing. I’m going to draw examples from my research, because that’s fairly formal, generally. Though usually longer than any of your papers should be, my research essays seek answers to a question in a specific field.

The most important step in starting this essay is developing a strong question. One of your considerations should be “do-ability.” By “do-ability,” I mean that you must consider whether you can find an answer to your question. For example, if your question is about ancient Sanskrit writing, and you don’t read ancient Sanskrit, you are as yet unqualified to work on this question and so will have HUGE problems. You should choose another question. Similarly, say you have a question about conditions in Kobe, Japan since the 1985 earthquake that requires you to travel to Kobe; you probably don’t have the resources or time to travel to Kobe. Again, you should choose another question.

A sample question:
What kind of imagery do scientists use in scientific papers and in popular writing about science to discuss human fertilization? Do gender stereotypes influence this imagery? Has this imagery changed in the recent past (and if so, is the change related to increasing numbers of women in the field and the feminist movement)?

Note that my question has several sub-questions. It’s also a question I could do, since I was a science major as an undergraduate and am comfortable with scientific writing, and since I have well-developed skills in analyzing.

We will start this essay now in order to get a good start on asking real questions; then we will turn to [the other essay]. So while you’re working on your research question, you can also start thinking about [that].

For now, begin brainstorming about possible questions. Having a really good question is the BEST way to write a great essay. I’ll give you a more specific handout with assignment details before long.
[end of handout]

Secret 1) The key for good essays from this assignment is to get students thinking of really good questions. Lousy questions lead to lousy papers. Good questions give students a better chance to write really good papers.

It's my job to help them come up with good questions. More on this in the next post.

Those who teach writing know that teaching process skills, helping students break things down into smaller parts, practicing brainstorming exercises all help students write better papers. This assignment comes at the end of a semester in which we've been working on these skills, and hopefully builds on these skills. But just having practiced the skills a few times doesn't work; I have to reinforce them throughout. I work in several opportunities for different sorts of feedback from myself, from peers, and from a large group.

Secret 2) The questions have to be "real" for the students. That is, the students can't "know" the answer (or have a really strong opinion).

So if a student of mine says she wants to write about how feminism is wonderful, I steer her clear, even though I agree. Instead, I try to get her to think of questions: what are current movements in feminism? What are the questions facing feminists in local politics? At the school? What programs does our school have to teach or support feminism? What's the value of Women's Studies classes? Any of those questions will allow her to explore and learn about something she cares about. None will let her just repeat what she "knows."

The "real" question thing means that I can steer students away from writing about why abortion is bad if they've already decided it is. And the student who comes to me saying that they know a lot about X because they did a paper on it in high school I also try to steer to a different topic. (Why do they even come to me about that? If they really want to just do it, why do they talk to me about it?)

The "real" to them thing means that their research may lead them to learn about knowledge built up by others. That's fine, so long as they're learning how to find information, put things together, and can explain why they think what they do at the end.

Secret 3) Everyone procrastinates. So that's not really much of a secret, but most of us do. So I structure the assignment so that my students have some smaller assignments due along the path. Completing these smaller assignments means they're getting started, and each of the assignments helps them with the overall process. I also arrange for a library learning session early on in the process because my students don't generally have good skills at using library resources.

Many students will need a lot of guidance and reassurance about the project. I resist giving page limits, or time limits for the presentations, but I give broad parameters. This assignment often lends itself well to one of two overall organizational structures. We talk about these structures in class. We also talk about breaking the essay down into parts, especially separately labeled sub-sections.

Secret 4) I don't know everything. (SURPRISE!) That means that I can't always help my students with their learning, but I have strong research skills, I know people, and I'm not afraid to sound stupid by asking questions. I encourage students to meet with me, but also to interview other professors, professionals, family members, and so forth. And I strongly encourage people to get to know the reference librarians at the NWU library because reference librarians rock. They know how to find pretty much everything, and they're superbly willing to help.

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