Creating Writing Objectives
The traditional research paper or term paper can be one of the most valuable assignments we give students, especially in upper-division and graduate courses where students are learning to pose research problems in their majors. However, despite our admonitions that students should do their own thinking and analysis in term papers, many students regard a research paper as an encyclopedic “all about” report rather than as a thesis-governed response to a significant and interesting problem or question. We all know students’ tendency to manufacture a term paper by patching together passages closely paraphrased (or even copied) from their sources. There is something mechanistic about the way many of our students produce research papers, something disturbingly unlike the motivated inquiry and analysis that we value.
And yet many students pursue research with gusto. The question before us as professors is how we can transform students from uninspired pseudo-plagiarists into engaged researchers. First of all, the wording of an assignment can make an enormous difference if the instructor switches from topic-centered assignments to problem- or thesis-centered assignments. Making this shift in focus encourages students to do research to solve a problem: engagement with a question thus gives purpose and direction to their work.
Good research writing is intellectually demanding and cognitively complex. Students often turn to plagiarism because they have no other coping mechanisms. Unless students have been educated with an inquiry-based pedagogy either before college or in previous courses, they have had little experience in posing questions. Unfamiliar with thesis-governed writing, they do not see their own essays as responses to interesting questions, nor do they see question asking as one of their roles. Faculty, therefore, must not only motivate students to become question askers but also guide them toward asking discipline-appropriate questions that are interesting, significant, and pursuable at their level of study.
Another major challenge for many students is the use of sources. Students, for the most part, are not sophisticated users of college libraries beyond knowing how to find books. Often they are unaware of other resources, including the various online resources. Even if they have a general idea about how to use the library, they are apt to know little about the specialized resources used by a particular discipline such as music. Students need to understand the reasons that a researcher uses a library: first of all, to find information, data, and evidence bearing on a problem, the raw material of primary sources that becomes either support for the writer’s argument or the object of analytical scrutiny. But researchers also use libraries for a second reason: to position themselves in the conversation of secondary sources surrounding the topic previous and contemporary scholars with whom the writer agrees or disagrees. Equally difficult for students is figuring out what to do with the sources when to quote, when to paraphrase, when to summarize an entire argument, when simply to reference. Moreover, students need to work these quotations and paraphrases into the texture of their own prose, carrying on an argument in their own voices. The beginner, lacking a voice and an argumentative purpose, seems primarily interested in manipulating sources. We therefore need to teach students the thinking and writing strategies that lead to sophisticated use of sources. This is no small chore.
Other skills that inexperienced student writers need to develop include:
There are no easy ways to address the problems discussed here. As previously mentioned, research writing is cognitively complex; it requires a sophisticated view of the role of research in creating knowledge and of the conversation of competing views surrounding most research questions. Possible solutions include:
Although there are some generic skills of research that apply to all disciplines, the real nitty-gritty of research writing as a process of inquiry, analysis, and argumentation needs to be taught within each discipline. When instructors appreciate the complexity of academic research writing, particularly its strangeness to students unfamiliar with academic discourse and unaccustomed to associating writing with their own curiosity and wonder, they can better understand (but not condone) students’ tendency toward plagiarism in research writing. As a final suggestion, it is useful to create a file of model research papers written for your courses in the past. Attach to each one an explanation of why you admire the paper, pointing out features you particularly like. If possible, include the prospectus and all the drafts of one of the papers. You can put this file on library reserve.