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Reflections on the "Research Paper" Assignment

"Reflections" by Theophilos Papadopoulos
“Reflections” by Theophilos Papadopoulos, http://bit.ly/2F3MqJk CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Author’s note: This post is the third in a three-part series. You can read the first two parts of the series here and here.


Now that I’ve discussed how I designed and taught the research paper course, it’s time to reflect on what I would change. As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the one thing that I would change above all else is the final research paper assignment.
Why?
As I noted in my first post, this paper is one of the English department’s few requirements for the course. Students must write either two research papers of 1,000 words each, or one research paper of 1,800 words, using MLA citation format, and they must complete and submit at least one draft prior to the final paper. The instructor must also give the student an opportunity to revise assignments.
I had originally planned to assign two shorter papers: 1) An assignment that would combine educational autobiography with interviewing a peer and some additional library research, allowing students to write an essay in a more personal voice, and 2) An academic research paper. However, I was concerned that students would feel too much pressure with two separate research papers; the kind of research and thinking that must go into two short papers would likely be more than that spent on one. As a result, I decided to design the course around short exploratory writing assignments and drafts that built scaffolding towards one final research paper of 1,800 words.
In the course of the semester I found that even with scaffolding and an emphasis on process baked into the course design, many students approached this kind of writing with uncertainty and some anxiety. Even as I tried to assure them regularly that anxiety is a normal part of the research process, and that learning how to deal with this anxiety—and feelings about their work in general—is something that all researchers and writers have to do, some students did not (or perhaps were unable to) complete the assignments that were designed to help them with the research paper. This made it much harder for them to complete the final assignment.
While I encouraged students to select a topic related to the course theme (of New York City’s Immigrant Communities and Movements), they had the freedom to pursue their own interests. I found that many students were interested in choosing their own research topics, which included everything from the potential economic impact of mass deportations of undocumented immigrants from the United States and the impact of gentrification on Black and Latinx communities in Harlem and Williamsburg, to single womanhood in American feminism, and the benefits of medical marijuana for  veterans. Several students responded positively to being able to choose their own research topic. Several students had more than one idea for a topic they wanted to explore, and after receiving feedback from me (the professor) and their peers, they were able to narrow their topic down into a research question. Other students were more hesitant; these students had difficulty with selecting a topic, and often struggled to develop a research question. Even when I provided examples or activities to focus topics, prompt reflections, and design questions, these activities were not always helpful.
The end result? A few students made significant progress in their academic research and writing. Their papers presented their interests, commitments and insights, and they often used wonderful images or turns of phrase. However, it was clear that most students found it difficult to write up their research in an academic format. Their papers showed that they learned something about the conventions of academic writing–for example, integrating academic citations, or using transition words. Avoiding repetition, connecting their ideas, and supporting their claims with evidence was a much harder task. Some students also struggled to complete their drafts and the final assignment.

Reflections

After teaching this class, I find myself wondering whether “the research paper” as a requirement for a liberal arts degree is the most useful assignment for students. The college research paper is a made-up genre, as some scholars have discussed. It’s a discipline-specific genre too. As scholars, we write research articles or essays and reviews in conversation with our peers. The element of conversation is something that I tried to integrate into the course by encouraging students to see writing as a means of entering the conversation (following the authors of They Say, I Say) and through peer reviewing each others’ drafts. In spite of this framing, the research paper assignment didn’t work very well– the format was too foreign.
This brings me back to the abovementioned anxiety that many students feel in response to a “research paper”: Maybe students feel overwhelmed by anxiety when they don’t have a grasp of the language necessary to produce the kinds of documents expected by professors, who themselves feel constrained by what’s expected by departments, college assessment models and institutional “norming” practices, etc.
This begs the question: How can we encourage students to see the broad value of research, while assigning a writing practice that has little-to-no relevance beyond the college classroom?
Composition courses like the Research Paper presume to teach students a genre of writing that will be “useful” to them throughout their college careers. The assumption is that they will have to write a research paper in other courses, particularly if they plan to transfer to a four-year college. This is an important concern, since most students enter associate degree programs with plans to pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree.
However, it is one thing to learn how to do research and to communicate that work (and why it’s important) in the codes of one’s discipline. It’s another to write to meet general conventions that appear to transcend those conventions. (But often don’t—which is why this course had to use the MLA format for citation, a format that is used in English and literary studies, but not in my own field of anthropology.)
What if we consider the following question instead: How can we encourage students to see the broad value of research, by creating assignments for research-based writing that occurs and is relevant outside the classroom?

What would I do differently?

Knowing what I know now, I would make the final paper more specific and relevant. Given that most students in the course were relatively new to academic research and writing, I believe they would have fared better with a more structured (or less open-ended) assignment.
I might restructure the course to offer two possibilities for students. I would still offer the opportunity to everyone to develop their own research topic and question. This option would be best for students who have more experience with college-level writing and who have developed the intrinsic motivation to pursue their interests in academic research.
For students who would prefer to work with a more structured assignment, I would create a scaffolded research “project” to which they could apply the same techniques and skills—of evaluating and developing arguments, sourcing, citing, etc—as they would in a conventional “research paper.” Students who start out with the open assignment could switch to the structured assignment for any reason—for example, if they feel too overwhelmed, or end up in an emergency situation and do not have the time to continue with the open assignment.
In both types of assignments (open-ended and structured), I would allow students to present their research in a variety of formats—which they would have to develop through a brief pitch and a longer proposal. This could take the shape of a problem-solving essay, a technical report, or an editorial.

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