At some point, our department decided that all our first year writing courses should include a research assignment of some kind. Our goals are to begin teaching students how to work out research questions, how to find their ways around the library (physically and virtually), how to begin to evaluate sources, and how to use sources in an argument. It's a lot, but in reality it's just a beginning, and other classes are going to have to teach research skills specific to those classes in order for students to really master the overall skills.
I ask my students to research a real world question they have. They can choose any real question they have, so long as they don't already "know" the answer and they can "do" it (if they don't read Sanskrit, they can't work on a question relating to ancient Sanskrit). My students have to meet with me about their research (my big activity this week for the class), and give a presentation on their question and answer. A lot of times, the answer comes basically in the form of telling us what the experts think is the answer. That's fine. Sometimes it comes in the student finding an answer for themselves; that's even better.
Most semesters, at least one student writes about choosing a major, choosing a place to live after graduation, or choosing a location for studying abroad. One student wrote about the question of which car his mother should buy; the project culminated with his mother taking three test drives and giving him feedback for the essay. These are great questions, usually pretty do-able. They have to think about their criteria, weight their criteria, and then see how things match up.
The most disappointing essay like that I ever got came from a student who asked whether she should move to a different school to study a really specific subject not taught here. Her essay answered yes and gave a well-reasoned argument for making the move. But my disappointment came when after the semester ended, she stayed in town working at a local eatery. I asked her about moving, but she said she just hadn't, and sounded overwhelmed with family requirements and demands. I wish she'd at least tried, but maybe she will someday.
I also usually get good research papers from questions about family health stuff. They ask what they can do to avoid becoming alcoholics, whether it's learned or genetic. They ask how what causes certain birth defects, and whether their children are likely to inherit such defects genetically. And they ask what different diseases are (diabetes is a common choice, so are some cancers), and how they might avoid getting them. There are big stories behind these questions, and sometimes students are (to my mind) startlingly open about their concerns.
I've learned two things about the health-questioning students from this assignment. First, a lot of my students have dealt with devastating family issues the likes of which I've never faced. I can't imagine growing up with some of the difficulties some of my students have had. Second, my students are curious and often uninformed about the problems they've faced in their families. Maybe they were told but didn't understand, or told as little kids, and then things didn't get discussed much as they got older, or maybe their families weren't interested in discussing the issues, but they're really interested in learning about whatever problem.
I met with all my students this week in conferences about their papers, and not one of them missed or was even late for their appointments. Can I just say, "HURRAY" to that?