Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Want to Learn Something New? Research! Write a Paper!

"The best way to learn anything new -- to really get it -- is to write a paper about it."
                                                                                      --Dr. Rochelle Gregory

We start with a quote today -- words of wisdom from one of the smartest people I know. I'm sure there are more complex quotes out there that say the same thing (Benjamin Disraeli's, for example), but I've always found Rochelle's comments clear, direct, and to the point. And, I've watched her, for almost seven years, practice what she preaches. Better yet, she's right. The research that goes into any paper, the discussions you'll inevitably have with your peers, the dead-ends you'll reach, and even the rethinking, reframing, and revising you'll be forced to do -- all of these steps in the lengthy process will help you begin to "own" any new or unfamiliar subject/theorist/philosophy/pedagogy. Better yet, if the subject is one with which you already feel comfortable, or (eeek!) it's one you abhor -- well, doing some serious scholarly work, a bit of complex research, and formal academic writing can force you out of that useless place of comfort and/or dislike and can lead you, by your own hand, into new scholarly territory -- territory rich with amazing possibilities.

This week, both my undergraduate and graduate classes are beginning to prepare a topic for their final research paper. In the Advanced Rhetoric class, these students will either 1) do a complex rhetorical analysis of a timely piece of civic discourse (deceptively complex!), or 2) explore an issue of relevance to pedagogies of rhetorical theories. Though this single paper is likely just that, my hope is that these amazing students find a new passion (civic responsibility or something more pedagogical in nature) through which they'll consider their future academic pursuits. In the graduate Theories of Writing course, these students will begin what, for some, may be the start of a longer thesis project. They have been prompted to consider the following:

Use this paper as an opportunity to do work that intersects with your interests and professional goals. Possibilities include: a detailed proposal for a future research project (ie: Thesis in comp theory, etc); a reception history of a key term or author in composition studies; an essay proposing a new theory of composition or integrating previous theories; a critical review of competing theories of an area of composition that situates your own position as teacher/scholar; a literature review that examines in detail a specific topic or problem in composition studies; a conference worthy paper on an issue in the teaching of writing.

My suggestion for any lengthy paper -- especially at the proposal stage -- is to begin with a single research question. In this case, the ENG 501 students might begin with broad questions that explore the intersections between classical rhetorical theories/contributions to writing and the more modern issues of composition theories/theorists. In this class, and in order to lead up to the final research project, each student is presenting a 40-minute lecture (with an interactive activity for the class!) on a major rhetorical figure -- we began with Vico and will work our way down to Burke and Booth -- paired with a modern composition theorist. We've already discussed Linda Flowers, Stanley Fish, Wendy Bishop, Lester Faigley, Ilona Leki, and Nancy Sommers. I was excited to hear at least two wonderful paper possibilities emerge from last night's presentations alone. From an argument that seeks to prove Mary Astell's feminist impact on Jane Austen's more traditional fiction to the canon of style and its importance when teaching ELL students -- ideas ran the gamut. In fact, even in the shorter midterm oral presentations last week, I heard paper possibilities emerge (harnessing the power of web 2.0 for classroom practice, for example). Yes, this is good stuff!

Some of the other questions ENG 501 students might use as a way into a more complex exploration for their research paper include: How has college-level writing instruction been formalized and taught in American, British, and/or Western European universities past and present? What is the relationship between classical rhetoric and modern theories of composition -- as it's manifested in the 21st century classroom? How do concepts of literature affect theories of writing? What shifts in recent pedagogical practice have introduced significant changes in the way we conceptualize and teach college composition? What role does (or should) technology [grammar, reticent writers, process versus product thinking] play in any pedagogical development and successful classroom practices?

Of course, there are any number of questions that would be more specific (some of the intersections students made between their rhetorical "biggies" and the working comp theorists, perhaps?) and more relevant to each student's particular interests (those we discovered last night, for instance -- simply add a "what is..." to the start of these claims, and you're off!), but these broad questions, I hope, will spark other questions for students who have no real direction yet. In the simplest terms, ask yourself this: What don't I know -- and what would I like to know more about? And go from there...

Now, as to format for the proposal... students should follow this format, shown below, for the formal research proposal (borrowed from the terrific folks at George Mason University. Proposals should be 2-3 pages in length, and must include a proposed reading list of SCHOLARLY works. If you are unclear about what constitutes "scholarly," see me immediately.


A proposal for a term paper is a writing plan that lays out the goal, scope and organization of the paper and identifies some of the sources and methods that will be used. It may also be called a research design, letter of intent or a prospectus. It should include the following components:  statement of the goal of the paper and the research question to be answered, a paragraph or two that puts the goal into context and explains why it is important, a brief review of the most salient literature, the data and methods to be used, and a bibliography of 10-20 sources largely based on refereed journal articles.  In addition, a proposal often includes a detailed outline of the main topics to be covered in the final paper using headings and subheadings to show the logical structure of the final paper (this is sometimes called a provisional table of contents). A typical paper proposal should be no more than five pages in length -- including your readings list.

Proposal Writing is a Valuable Skill
Proposal writing is not busy work! It is one of the most important styles of written communication that you will develop in your university career. If you can write a paper proposal then you have the basic skills required to write a grant proposal.  Persuasive grant proposals are rewarded with financial support to accomplish the worthy goals you have set. If you can write a paper proposal you can write a book prospectus and sign a contract with a major publisher who will pay you royalties to reproduce and distribute the words you write. If you can write a paper proposal, you can write the prospectus for an initial public offering to raise millions of dollars to finance the start-up of your own company. If you can write a paper proposal, you can write a thesis proposal, one of the most daunting hurdles for most graduate students -- and why we go through this process now -- early in your academic career.

Remember: Proposal writing is not easy because you have not done all of the work yet. It is a balancing act, because you have to do a certain amount of work to figure out what it is that you are going to research. Once you think you know enough, you write a proposal seeking approval for what you propose to do. In this proposal you must persuade your reader (me!) that you have the basic understanding, research competence, background knowledge, and technical skills to complete the proposed project successfully.

[follow this format exactly; instructions in brackets, after each section, are designed to guide you and offer details about what should be included in these significant areas of the proposal] 

To: Professor Donna M. Souder

From: [complete name and email address]

Subject/Title of my paper:  [The subject is the broad topic, but if you have a tenative title, include it here]

My Proposed Area of Research in the Grad Program, and Why Writing About this Topic Will (or could) be Beneficial to Me: [If you are not vested in your topic, chances are your incentive to write about the subject will be weak. If you are interested in the topic, you will probably write a better paper.]

My Thesis: [The thesis is generally a sentence or two, which comes after the introductory material and states the main point/s in your paper.  It is NOT a question.]

Approach to the Subject of My Paper: [Try to envision a logical way in which to present your material. In what order will you present your material to best address the issues? Will you have to define any terms? If so, which ones? Will you have to clarify terms and concepts? Do you think that inserting anecdotal evidence, for example, or high profile interviews with living, working theorists will help your reader understand your paper? Will you show opposing viewpoints? Will you discuss the plusses and minuses of different philosophies that inform pedagogies/theories in similar ways? Will you be comparing and contrasting? Will you be categorizing some information? Perhaps you will be using a number of these approaches in your paper. Let me know where you think you are headed.]

Intended audience: [Your readers should not be specialists in your field. Assume that your readers have, in general, your level of education, but are not necessarily interested or research the same subject. You will have to define terms and explain concepts. But beyond these obvious ground rules, discuss what people or group of people might benefit from reading your paper. Is your work directed toward composition/rhetorical theorists, high school teachers, middle school teachers, or college instructors?]

Graphs or charts: [Graphs and charts will not impress me unless they truly help the reader better understand some aspect of your paper. Be sure to document charts and graphs from other sources. Charts and/or graphs should not stand alone. They should compliment textual descriptions. Refer to the chart or graph in the text where you discuss the information. Charts, graphs or other appendices do not count toward the 10-15 pages of required text in the final paper.]

Kinds of Sources I Will Use and Why They Will Benefit My Paper: [ Do you have a balanced variety of sources?  What strengths will they lend to the paper?  How will they help clarify points you want to make? Use a combination of sources. Do not use all Internet sources (1-2, MAX!). Some of your sources must be from a professional journal in your field, such as a nursing journal, a computer science or engineering journal, such as IEEE Spectrum. Some high end general audience publications such as Scientific American, or PC Computing can be used. Internet sources can be used, but ONLY if they are from credible sites.]

Tentative List of References: [Here, in narrative form, you'll discuss the sorts of sources and the ways in which the most significant sources (might) inform your proposed paper's claim.Ultimately, you should have at least twenty (20) separate sources listed in the proper MLA format. This information should be on a separate page called Proposed Readings List. Abide by all of the MLA format guidelines for the reference page. The sources should be varied - not all Internet sources, for example - and be appropriate for a college level research paper. People magazine, Readers Digest, and others of that ilk are not satisfactory. Show me that you know how to find and can analyze data from sources within your discipline. Your final reference page in the Research Paper should have a minimum of  7 to 10 sources, each of which must be used as a source in your paper. It is possible for some of your sources to change as you become more deeply involved in writing your paper. Advise me of changes in references. Failure to seek approval for changes will result in a failing grade on the final paper.]

Final Impact of My Research: [You may approach this one of two ways. First, you may provide details about 2-3 scholarly conferences at which you might present your work (include dates, focus, location, cost, why they'd accept your work, etc.). Second, you may choose to discuss the ways in which you might adapt this paper to become a lengthier work -- say a thesis or a book-length exploration.]

Hope this helps... in the name of the ethos, the pathos, and the holy logos... DR. SOUDER