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“The” Research Paper

posted: 11.22.11 by Steve Bernhardt

During an informal discussion in our department the other day, a group of writing teachers were talking about the genres we assign in first-year writing. Of course, the genre of “the research paper” loomed large, and I wondered out loud if the definite article signaled some special generic status—some sort of reification or calcification. I think it does.

There are other ways to talk about this assignment, including simply “a research paper,” or better yet, “a researched paper,” or “papers that use research findings to make their arguments.” These rephrasings move us toward the indefinite or newly known, and they move us from nouns and noun substantives toward more reliance on descriptive or verbal phrases. That last rephrasing really tips the scale, as it invites reflection on what “research findings” are, where we find them, and how we use them. But any of these alternative locutions would free up some of the presuppositions behind the genre, offering a bit of breathing room for determining exactly what is expected.

And students do arrive with their own expectations. A surprising number of my first-year students had written “the research paper” in high school, typically in their senior English class but sometimes, too, in history or social studies. They know the genre is mainly about compiling a lot of source material and then somehow organizing it into a long paper bracketed between a title page and a list of references. They are pretty sure it is double-spaced. They also know it is not “the five-paragraph essay,” a much less intimidating and more practiced genre.

Scholars in composition studies have critiqued the research paper genre and suggested productive alternatives, centered on personally meaningful and motivated searches, on entering into a dialogue with sources, or on exploratory ventures into new realms of knowledge. All attempt to soften the genre, to make it something more pliable or elastic, which I take to be a good thing. Writers need to know they are creating something, as opposed to replicating something.

My own approach to dethroning the research paper is to suggest early in the term that most of the writing we do for classes, mine included, is researched. Writers deliberately seek to inform themselves before launching into exposition or argument. So we start by responding to a single short text or placing two texts in dialogue. We move toward more exploratory writing, where several sources, textual or human, are in play. We then move to the much more difficult task of bringing multiple sources into play with the goal of gaining some real sense of the complexity behind most important questions.

In the process, students get a glimpse of scholarly discourse and some inkling of what it might mean to know a literature. They gain a limited sense of what a discipline is, how expert communities work, how theories get supported, and what research—the verb, not the noun—means.

Categories: Research, Working with Sources, Writing Process
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2 Responses to ““The” Research Paper”

  1. Brad Zakarin, Northwestern University Says:

    I like “papers that use research findings to make their arguments” because it signals to students that they are consuming and processing research, not producing it. This lowers the stakes considerably because they only need to take what is presented in their sources and make an argument that is largely observational:
    -How does interviewing 20 people lead to different conclusions than surveying 500?
    -How does starting or ending a historical narrative at one date look different from beginning or concluding with another date?
    -How does focusing on one theme in a literary corpus yield different interpretations than concentrating on another theme?

    I come at this as someone who works on “real” undergraduate research; that is, I advise students as they develop proposals for funding from my university and external organizations to do research in all fields ranging from engineering to English. I also have spent many years leading seminars for senior thesis writers in history. The freshman research paper (or whatever you want to call it) is typically discipline-free, which reinforces many students’ misconceptions about appropriate academic research questions and methods. Faculty and advisers working with upper-level students must beat back these misconceptions before they can begin to teach students what they need to know to approach a topic within a discipline (e.g., anthropology) or an interdisciplinary field (e.g., gender studies).

    I consistently point out that FYC, freshman seminars, and the like are viewed as beasts of burden within colleges and universities. Everyone (from administrators to departmental faculty to students) expect a 12-week course or two 10-week courses to teach freshmen all they need to know about composition, information literacy, research, and responsible source use. This is utterly unreasonable. A step in the right direction would be to do away with the idea that students will write “a research paper” or “the research paper” or “research papers” in these introductory courses.

  2. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    I believe that the most important factor in teaching “the research paper” is the fact that good research must always be an exploration for knowledge and information that the scholar/writer must have in order to make an effective argument and/or create new knowledge, information that the scholar/writer does not yet have. Indeed, when “the research paper” is taught as an information retrieval exercise whose purpose is solely to “support” an already arrived at conclusion, or, worse yet, whose purpose is solely to demonstrate that the knowledge retrieving exercise has simply been performed, there is trouble in River City. Research should be like an open-ended Stochastic process, branching off into unforeseen directions. It is in those unforeseen branches that the “AH HA!” moments occur. Then comes the process of critical synthesis, the formation of an argument, thesis, interpretation, and/or new proposition. And that process, of course, continues even as you write, which is why, as I tell my students, one must never be satisfied with a first draft. The first draft is exploratory too.