Reasons to be excited about the research paper
Why are research papers assigned so often in college? Why is the research paper the focus of most writing courses?
It’s really not because instructors are sadists. Quite the contrary! The research paper is the ultimate tool for academia, the ultimate tool for slow thinking.
The research paper writing process is a tried and true way to figure out what we think. It’s a way to make progress in our understanding when the world is complicated. We immerse ourselves in information and listen to different voices on a topic and then come to some conclusion, moving the conversation forward.
Writing a research paper is also the moment when we fully join the academic conversation on our own terms. As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein put it in They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, the research paper is “the highest expression of the conversational approach to writing...it is a chance to practice a set of skills that you can use the rest of your life: going out into the community, finding a space for yourself, and making a contribution of your own” (219).
Earlier chapters of this book have focused on responding to other people’s arguments. Summaries and response essays require us to write about the things someone else considers important. As we start the research paper, we can enjoy a bit more freedom. We can focus on what seems most important to us. We can find multiple perspectives on the same topic and decide how much of each perspective to include and what to say about each. If we wrote a compare and contrast essay (See Section 3.7 (link)) then we have had a chance to look at two texts side by side, but even that is limited. We are probably also itching to just make our own argument, focusing on what we want to focus on, and presenting our own vision based on all we know.
Many students, after some initial anxiety, ultimately find the research paper to be empowering and meaningful. Here are some of the aspects of the research paper to appreciate:
- We become relative experts on one micro subject.
- We build our own argument and choose our focus.
- We are free to use a variety of sources as needed.
- We don’t have to cover everything. We have flexibility about which ideas from each source to include and how to narrow our topic so it isn’t overwhelming.
- We pick our own sources; we don’t have to use what a teacher selected.
- We can choose a topic that is personally meaningful because it connects to an area of interest, personal experience, or career plans.
- We get to teach the teacher and our classmates something they may well enjoy learning.
A chance to build on existing skills for responding to sources
Thus far we have focused on building skills for close reading and summary of one text (Chapters 2 and Chapter 3) then deciding how strong that argument is (Chapter 4) and then adding to the conversation in specific response to that text (Chapter 5). All these skills will be useful in the research paper. We are ready now to use the same skills to talk about multiple texts. We will use them a little differently, though. For one thing, we won’t be as thorough with each source. We’ll focus more on summarizing, assessing and responding to main ideas rather than all the twists and turns of each argument.
Which new skills do we need? Thus far, we have focused on responding to texts put forward by our instructors. Now we are going to be finding them. We need to know where to look. We need to know which sources are credible. And we need to know how to choose sources that we can connect into a description of a conversation on a specific topic. The rest of this chapter will give guidance on these challenges.
In the summary, assessment and response essays the structure was to a large extent determined by the text we were responding to. Now we have a lot more freedom, so we will need new strategies to help us structure our writing. How do we come up with a central idea for our paper that builds on a bunch of different sources? Conversely, how do we mention multiple sources in different paragraphs and use them to support a central idea? Chapter 7 sections on definition, evaluation, causal, and proposal arguments will offer ideas for organization based on the type of main idea we are promoting.