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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 process of writing a research paper can help us learn about a complex topic and come up with our own informed perspective. It’s a way to find clarity when the world is complicated. We immerse ourselves in others' ideas and then come to our own conclusion.
We might consider that in writing a research paper we are fully joining the academic conversation. 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. Summary, assessment, and response essays and compare-and-contrast 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 find multiple perspectives on the same topic and decide how much of each to include.
Many students, after some initial anxiety, ultimately find the research paper to be empowering and meaningful. Here are a few reasons to celebrate this kind of assignment:
- We become relative experts on one micro subject.
- We build our own argument and choose our focus.
- We are free to choose a variety of sources; we don't have to use what a teacher selects.
- We don’t have to cover everything. We have flexibility about which ideas to include and how to narrow our topic.
- We can choose a personally meaningful topic that connects to an area of interest, experience, or career plans.
- We get to teach the teacher and our classmates something they may enjoy learning.
We build on existing skills for responding to sources
Thus far we have focused on skills for close reading and summary of one text (Chapters 2 and Chapter 3), assessment of that text (Chapter 4), and then original responses to the text (Chapter 5). All these skills will be useful as we work with multiple texts in the research paper, but we won’t need to be as thorough with each source. We’ll focus more on summarizing, assessing, and responding to main ideas rather than examining all the twists and turns of each argument.
Which new skills do we need? Since we are going to be finding our own sources, we need to know where to look. We need to know which sources are credible. Since there are many kinds of sources, from academic studies to newspaper articles, to interviews, videos, and social media posts, we need to see which kinds of sources can be useful for which purposes. The rest of this chapter will give guidance on choosing sources.
In essays that focus on summary, assessment, and response, the structure is to a large extent determined by the text we are responding to. With the research paper, we have a lot more freedom, so we may need new organizational strategies. 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 argument's purpose.