Monday, April 04, 2016

Research Meetings

My writing students are working on a research project.  Basically, the writing course is prescribed, and this is a sort of lit review type project.  So we faculty folks tend to do lots of conferencing for these.

We spent last week working on developing ideas about what to research, looking at a variety of sources, talking with a librarian, and so forth.  We read several sample projects from previous students.

And this morning I had my first conference meeting of the week.  The student came in and said she wanted to show me her outline.  So I asked her about what she'd read.  She hadn't actually read even the two things she found in class last week.  But somehow, she was going to make an outline. 

What are they teaching students in high school?  It's like many of them think research is a matter of having an opinion, writing an outline, writing the paper, and then looking for support for your opinion. 

I did try to argue against that as a strategy last week, but obviously, I didn't do a good enough job.

Waiting for the next student, and hoping that one has actually read their research a bit.


  1. That is exactly the process many of my students use: write first; research later. How do they do that? (And the answer is: not well.)

  2. I think the research done by the folks at the citation project ( ) provides more sophisticated answers to this question (I have to admit I haven't read as widely as I might there, and am relying more on recent citations/paraphrases in job talks given over the last few years in my department, which mention things like a very high percentage of quotations being drawn from the abstract and/or first few paragraphs of a source -- not even, as one might expect based on a slightly more sophisticated skimming strategy, from the conclusion). However, like Bev, I think the basic answer is "yes," this is how students are taught to write (or at least how they realize they can quickly satisfy the basic requirements of the formula they are taught in high school).

    I'm pretty sure that at least part of the fault (for these writing problems, and maybe even for the current valuing of argument over evidence in current political and other conversations) lies in kind of "research paper" we teach, which is basically a secondary-source based (or at least theoretically based; that's part of the problem) persuasive essay. Admittedly I'm teaching a level or two up (writing-in-the-disciplines for juniors rather than first year comp), but I much prefer assigning a review of the literature, which requires a more nuanced examination of at least a subset of the secondary literature, and requires students to note what *hasn't* been fairly well established -- gaps in the research -- as well as anything that has, and how all of the above is affected by the methods, sample, etc. that led to the conclusions. That strikes me as a much better foundation for understanding how scholarly research/conversations actually work (and, thus, how they can appropriately be cited when trying to make an argument).

    It's probably a bit too elaborate a form for first year comp, but there are probably also stripped-down versions that require students to focus more on truly understanding a few sources in depth, and less on decorating expressions of their own thinking with the occasional dropped-in quotation.

    And for whatever it's worth (again based on job talks), I have the feeling that we're gradually moving away from that understanding of the "research paper," though I don't think we're at all agreed on what comes next/instead.

  3. I think that students don't really engage their research and use it to refine their thinking (that is, actually engage in critical thinking) because of the emphasis on performing well on an academic essay or research paper. Most argumentative academic essays and research papers at the undergrad level don't demonstrate the difference between critical thinking (as a habit of mind of questioning conclusions and perspectives) and presenting an argument (which in itself is a kind of critical thinking, but not as a habit of mind). How to develop a "good" argumentative essay or research paper when you don't have a command over the discourse or material? Why cherry-pick your evidence, of course. This is partly because of how students are taught to write (high school writing assessments are high-stakes, so being able to write a passable paper is more important than intellectual inquiry) and partly because many college-bound students have risk-averse and are so used to performing for grades that intellectual inquiry stemming from engaging with research is a risk grade-focused students can't afford to take.

    I know at my institution people in non-writing fields (this stuff is old hat in writing studies) including those in literature really don't understand the limits of some of these genres, especially for showing critical thinking as a habit of engaging with ideas critically (rather than seeing critical thinking solely as the ability to construct an argument, which is important). So that gradual moving away is happening more slowly in some places than others.

    1. saucyturtles4:50 AM

      My institution recently moved to teaching college writing pass/no pass, and so far lowering the stakes has reportedly helped students to take these risks. Anecdotally, the writing instructors haven't seen a drop in student effort. All very preliminary, though.

  4. This is why in my (survey) history class I ask my students to respond to pretty specific essay prompts. I don't say, write a critical analysis of X book, because then they think they have to criticize it! My prompts are specific analytical lenses that can help them read and think critically.

    1. Unfortunately, our writing curriculum and assignments are dictated to us. Because the former chair was a savvy politician.