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11.5: Background Information (or Helping Your Reader Find a Context)

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  • It is always important to explain, contextualize, and orientate your readers within any piece of writing. Your research essay is no different in that you need to include background information on your topic in order to create the right context for the project.

    In one sense, you’re giving your reader important background information every time you fully introduce and explain a piece of evidence or an argument you are making. But often times, research essays include some background information about the overall topic near the beginning of the essay. Sometimes, this is done briefly as part of the introduction section of the essay; at other times, this is best accomplished with a more detailed section after the introduction and near the beginning of the essay.

    How much background information you need to provide and how much context you need to establish depends a great deal on how you answer the “Getting Ready” questions at the beginning of this chapter, particularly the questions in which you are asked to consider you purpose and your audience. If one of the purposes of your essay is to convince a primary audience of readers who know little about your topic or your argument, you will have to provide more background information than you would if the main purpose of your essay was to convince a primary audience that knows a lot about your topic. But even if you can assume your audience is as familiar with the topic of your essay as you, it’s still important to provide at least some background on your specific approach to the issue in your essay.

    It’s almost always better to give your readers “too much” background information than “too little.” In my experience, students too often assume too much about what their readers (the teacher included!) knows about their research essay. There are several reasons why this is the case; perhaps it is because students so involved in their research forget that their readers haven’t been doing the same kind of research. The result is that sometimes students “cut corners” in terms of helping their audience through their essay. I think that the best way to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings is for you to always remember that your readers don’t know as much about your specific essay as you do, and part of your job as a writer is to guide your reader through the text.

    In Casey Copeman’s research essay at the end of this chapter, the context and background information for the subject matter after the introduction; for example:

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    The problems surrounding corruption in university athletics have been around ever since sports have been considered important in American culture. People have emphasized the importance of sports and the significance of winning for a long time. According to Jerome Cramer in a special report published in Phi Delta Kappan, "Sports are a powerful experience, and America somehow took this belief of the ennobling nature of sports and transformed it into a quasi-religion" (Cramer K1).

    Casey’s subject matter, college athletics, was one that she assumed most of her primary audience of fellow college students and classmates were familiar with. Nonetheless, she does provide some basic information about the importance of sports team in society and in universities in particular.

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