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


  1. I've been quoted on your blog!! How wonderful... Other words of wisdom?!? Hmmm... "Stay awake in class." "Do your homework." "Brush your teeth."

    And, yes, writing a paper is the best way to learn about a topic. You can't help but immerse yourself in the research... Another good way to learn--teach someone else. Submit those papers to conferences, people.

  2. I've also found that if you don't know something, force yourself to TEACH it to high school students. That forces you to KNOW KNOW KNOW your material!

  3. I'm modeling that exact philosophy in my 304 class, Dave. You and Rochelle are absolutely correct!

  4. Dr. Souder, I had a comment and question about one of our readings in Computers in the Comp Classroom and wanted to get your thoughts on it. I was intrigued by Lisa Gerrard's essay on Feminism in the Composition Classroom, but I found a few of her ideas to be somewhat dated; the "computer culture as an exclusive boys' club" for example was a foreign concept to me. I think because computer use has made such a shift from the logical/mathematical (video games, programming) to the interpersonal (social networking), I see it now as being equally the realm of women and men. Generally speaking, women tend to place a high value on relationships, and when Internet sites became popular that were devoted exclusively to creating and building community, it opened up whole worlds in which women dominated. A student's first encounter with computers today is probably as likely to be Facebook as it is to be World of Warcraft. Do you think that technological equality has been achieved (or is close at hand)? Is it possible that some of Gerrard's points may soon have to be considered from the opposite angle: will the world of computers become so feminine that boys feel marginalized?

  5. Writing a research paper not only helps you to learn about a given topic, it also helps you to learn about yourself. In the pre-writing stages and even early drafting, you discover your own opinion on the matter. Sometimes, the more you learn about your topic, the more you learn that your opinion on the matter has changed. This gives you the opportunity to make your paper more interesting and colorful.

  6. I find more enjoyment in the research than I do in the actual writing of the paper. It's so much more fun to learn things I want to learn and be able to speak competently on the topic.

  7. I love to do research and learn about things. It makes writing a paper a whole lot better. I agree with Sara though, that researching is more enjoyable than writing a paper. Organization and memory help out and I learned that the hard way in Comp 1 when I went to use citations and couldnt remember which paper I got information from :( !!! As my grandmother would say Im not helpless just hopeless lol

  8. Research is the cornerstone to any good/great/amazing argument. What I like that you did here was allow the reader to conceptualize the reality of research in an argument, and present it in this sort of classical mode. I agree with Sara though, in that researching helps not only in invention, but the entire process.

    Being knowledgeable on the topic makes it amazingly easier to adapt that knowledge towards any argument, for or against it. I often take for granted the amount of knowledge that I have access to now, with the internet, libraries, etc. that I just assume that because it was easy to find, that it was common knowledge.

  9. I have often heard that the best way to really "own" a topic/subject is to teach it to someone else. In reality, writing a paper about a topic that requires extensive research is another form of "teaching" that topic to both yourself and your reader. An academic paper written on a complex topic requires the writer to explain a very intricate subject in simplified terms. Once a person can do this, I believe that they have mastered, or in your terms "owned," that particular subject.

    This semester in particular has taught me to embrace topics (for papers) that "force you out of that useless place of comfort." It is undeniably true that to both stand out in a class and reap the greatest benefits from a class, it is best to pick a paper topic that is "the road less traveled."
    Also, even though the Research Proposal Format is intended primarily for your graduate students I feel that all of your Rhetoric students will benefit from seeing this. Not only will most of us encounter this in future classes , but it is a good outline to consider having filled out (for our formal paper) when we go to conferences with you this week.

  10. I agree with Dr. Gregory's quote. Most of the topics I've picked for papers were things I was already interested in, so I never expected to learn much. I just figured I would be writing down my thoughts. But after researching, I found I did learn a great deal. In addition, I felt I could actually stand up in an argument about that topic if I needed to, because I'd already constructed a formal one on paper. I wouldn't have to really gather my thoughts, because I'd already done it--and I had good research to back it up. I can't say I always love writing the papers, but it sure is a cool feeling when I get done and have so much more knowledge :)

  11. This blog reminds me of what we were talking about in class on Tuesday. You made a point that everyone has an opinion, but not all of them are informed opinions. I find that I come into a paper topic with an opinion, but it is not always an adequately informed opinion. Once I start my research, I learn a lot of information that shapes my opinion. In some cases, it reinforces my opinion and gives me information that I can use to support my opinion. In other cases, the research that I discover allows me to reevaluate my opinion. Sometimes, I find that I had a misconception of the topic and was misinformed on the facts. These situations humbly remind me to do my research before becoming too attached to my opinion much less before sharing it with others and trying to persuade them to take my view of the topic.

    In my Methods class for Psychology, I just finished collecting data on the effects of distractions on one ’s ability to drive safely. This topic has been an interest of mine from the time I got pulled over for not using a hands-free device. I thought it was a bit ridiculous to get a warning, luckily that ’s all I got, for not using a hands-free device. I reasoned that I only drive with one hand on the wheel at a time anyway, so there is no difference in having that one hand hold a phone. Although the results of my experiment are still being analyzed and no conclusion has been reached yet, I am hopeful for the results to show that there really is no difference in one ’s ability to drive having a conversation while holding the phone or having a conversation using a hands-free device. Other research that I have looked at shows that there is no significant difference because the act of engaging in a conversation is a cognitive process and using a hands-free device is simply correcting the physical distraction and not the mental distraction of holding a conversation. Perhaps this project is something that I will continue researching, and just maybe I can work with a professor to get my study published. He’s already talked to me about this possibility which caused some wheels to start turning in mine and my lab partner ’s heads (exciting!).

    Anyway, I feel that I have gotten a little off-topic. After all, the name of this class is Advanced Composition and Rhetoric. However, I do think I use the One-Eyed-We-You to convince others to not hold conversations, especially ones that get their adrenaline pumping, while driving. Dr. Souder, I am sorry that I keep bringing up this absurd looking bird, but I do love it!

    I think that I still have some more brainstorming to do to figure out what my paper will really discuss. I have already sent you a frantic email asking for some guidance. Also, are we required to submit a proposal? This blog is the first that I have heard of submitting a proposal. I am sorry if you did tell us about it, and I just completely missed it. Nonetheless, the instruction on writing the proposal will be very helpful to me in organizing my thoughts in a way that can be presented to and understood by others.

  12. Research is a very good way to learn about new subjects, but is often difficult. I usually find myself frustrated because there is so much research that I do not know where to start. Like you said, finding a specific question to answer can help that. Then once I find my grove, I just go. (Warning, the next sentence contains a word that has been expelled from academia.) Usually when I have no idea where to start, I use Wikipedia. I do not use it to get all my information from, or to quote it. Generally, Wikipedia is a great place to get baseline information. Not to mention, at the bottom of the page, there are all the links that have been used throughout the article. Those links are usually great sources to go to. After that, I usually have a better idea what I am looking for and have an easier time than blindly looking.

  13. I'd like to start off by saying that I really like Hillary's point about using Wikipedia's sources section to find academic sources on the subject. I've always been terrified of even looking at Wikipedia, lest the all-knowning spirits of Dr's Frank and Souder find out, but I think it's an excellant idea to help you get focused.

    And now on to my actual response. I agree that Dr. Gregory's statement is completely true. I am in the process of writing an 8-10 page research paper on Jane Austen's "Emma" and I have to admit, I know more about that dumb book than anyone could ever possibly want to know, especially after already doing a ten minute presentation on the book. The biggest problem I've faced with this paper is that I can't narrow down my research; there's just so much on Austen and "Emma" that I have a hard time focusing.

    On the other hand, the research paper I'm writing for 304 is proving to be a great big ole goose egg as far as research goes. The time we had in class to research was very helpful, but I still only found a few articles about how social networking sites and anything academic in general tie together. My plan is to milk the two really good sources I have for all they're worth and supplement the rest by inference, but I'm not sure how well that's going work for me.

    PS: I really liked the Proposal outline, it reminds me of a very in-depth brainstorming outline, which I totally appreciate. My one question, though, is: we don't actually have to do a proposal, do we?