On Designing a Research-Based Writing Course

Photo by M.G.N. - Marcel
Photo by M.G.N. – Marcel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), http://bit.ly/2HjwbVp
Author’s Note: This is the first part in a three-part series on designing a research-based writing course that culminates in a research paper assignment.
In a recent post for this blog, I began to reflect on my experience of teaching “Writing the Research Paper,” a general education humanities course open to students who have taken at least one composition course in LaGuardia Community College’s English department. As I noted in that post, teaching this particular course was a new experience for me in a semester of many firsts.
One of the reasons why I decided to try my hand at teaching a course in the English department is that this particular course focused on the activity of research—a critical part of my scholarly toolkit and my work in the Humanities Alliance. Moreover, the course had very few requirements and as a result, I had some latitude in designing the syllabus.
When I agreed to teach the course, I learned that the department essentially had the following requirements for the course:

  • That students must write either two papers of 1,000 words each, or one paper of 1,800 words
  • They must complete at least one draft, and have the opportunity to revise assignments
  • They must use MLA format for parenthetical citation and a Works Cited list
  • The class must attend a library orientation session with a college librarian to learn how to find relevant and credible sources for a research paper

While it would seem that there are few requirements, this sets up strong parameters for the course. The academic “research paper” is the culminating assignment, and everything is drawn backwards from this fairly standard assignment.

Our course theme

I decided to teach this research-based, writing-intensive course using the theme of “New York City’s Immigrant Communities and Movements.” This theme informed some of our readings, a field trip to the Museum of the City of New York, a curated visit to the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, and many students’ research topics. The readings combined or alternated between excerpts from scholarly and popular writing on immigration’s local and national histories, immigrant communities, and movements for immigrant rights and justice; and more practical writing about research and composition. In addition to readings for the class, students were regularly asked to bring in or blog about events, links or media related to our theme. I posted about events happening on- and off-campus if they were remotely related to our theme, and encouraged them to attend by providing extra credit for a quick recap on our course blog.

How I structured the course

I designed the course syllabus backwards from the final research paper assignment. Each week was structured around brief readings, research-based activities, a variety of “low stakes” writing exercises in class, and staged writing assignments that guided students to place their lives and experiences in broader socio-cultural, historical, and political contexts. I encouraged my students to bring their whole selves into the classroom. I find that when students bring their own experiences and interests into research, they develop curiosity and build the internal motivation that leads them to grow as learners and successful scholars.
What this meant in practice was that while I guided students to engage with immigrant communities and movements in New York through readings, mini-lectures, and activities, and I encouraged them to write on a topic related to the course theme, they were not required to do so. They were welcome to bring their own interests to the course and could pursue any topic or make changes, as long as they consulted with me ahead of their next assignment.

Here’s a quick outline of our assignment breakdown:

Step 1: Posting about two potential research topics to the course blog (300 words)
Step 2: Paper sketch or storyboard (300 words)
Step 3: Archival document response (500 words)
Step 4: Annotated bibliography (400-600 words)
Step 5: Draft #1 (900-1200 words)
Step 6: Draft #2 (1800 words)
Step 7: Final Draft & Reflection

Each assignment—from blogging with WordPress about a potential research topic, to creating a storyboard, to drafting and peer review—built scaffolding toward the student’s final research paper. In this way, my teaching of this course aimed to center and engage students’ ideas as they built their critical thinking, writing, and communication skills; it also emphasized the process of researching and writing—whatever the genre, discipline, or audience—over the final “product” of a research paper. (This is by no means a new idea in composition, but one that felt new to many of the students in my class.)

Photo of a TV tower scaffolding
Photo by hzv_westfalen_de (CC0), http://bit.ly/2FsZAMf
My main goal for the course was, in fact, this latter point: To have students come to understand research and writing (or research-based writing) as processes. I decided to require at least two drafts of the final paper, and reminded students regularly that “all writing is re-writing.” By focusing on the process of doing research and writing through inquiry-based active learning over the product of a final research paper, I hoped that students would develop skills that would be important to their lives in and outside the classroom. I would argue that when we teach academic writing, we are not only teaching the “how to” of scholarly research and writing; in the process, students learn the habits that structure these practices: time management, problem solving, project design and management, and more. Another important goal of this course was to create opportunities for metacognition, or “the thinking about thinking” that allows students to reflect critically on—and make meaningful—their learning experiences, processes, and habits to guide their future learning.
This processual and reflective approach deeply informed my course, from syllabus and assignment design to lesson planning. In keeping with the values of student-centered pedagogy, I also made explicit the above goals to students as we reviewed and answered questions about the syllabus, and encouraged them to see me as their guide to navigating a process that would be led by them.
My next post will be a follow-up to this one. In Part 2, I will consider what worked well, what didn’t work as well, and what I would do differently if I were to teach this course again. In doing so, I plan to reflect on the possibilities and limits entailed in our culminating assignment: the research paper.

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