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The most wonderful time of the year

posted: 12.7.12 by archived

This semester more than most I’m welcoming that ubiquitous yet problematic assignment, the FYC research paper. This semester’s focus on curiosity, creativity, and persistence (CCP for short) has at times felt like a straitjacket, with the research paper a promise of freedom as students search for topics that match their own interests.

Before I describe this semester’s permutation of the research assignment, though, I want to stop to mention a few observations on student response to CCP (with more surveying to be done on a low-stakes final “exam):

  • For personal essays based on one of CC or P, approximately 60% of students chose to write essays about persistence; in an imperfect echo of the irony of Romney’s 47%, I’m expecting completion rates in the course of about that same percentage.
  • Of the ten memoirs on curiosity, topics were split between curiosity about students’ own lives and curiosity about assorted paranormal phenomena, with traditional intellectual curiosity making little to no appearance.

It’s intellectual curiosity that I hope will animate students’ research, and I’ve tried a variety of approaches through the years with my research assignments to try to encourage such curiosity. After my initial generic controversial-issue research papers (with the predictable result of the usual clichéd topics of abortion, the death penalty et al.) I tried a few semesters of assigned topics: bottled water, the Disney-designed town of Celebration, and computer spam.    For a number of semesters I tried a  nonargumentative research paper based on the format of Harper’s Annotation section. Then I tried requiring students to write an argument against a conventional view. I’ve also tried a series of theme-based courses (see Nancy Sommers’s thoughts on the research paper) with my themes over several years shifting from food to technology to education. (I reflected here on the challenges of choosing a theme of broad enough appeal; a colleague of mine is planning next semester a class centered on reading and writing about wolves, and I’ll be curious to see how students respond to that.)

My approach for this semester ‘s research assignment is multimodal, in part inspired by my teaching this semester in our new computer lab but also in an effort to improve student engagement with research topics. I spent some time trying to figure out how I wanted to define the collection of pieces that would comprise the research project. My latest evolutionary stage, a work in progress as always, requires the following three pieces:

  • A traditional argument with an arguable thesis statement (generally position statement on a controversial question, an analysis of cause or effect, or a proposed solution to some problem).
  • A visual exploration, which should work together with the argument but not duplicate it: it may zoom in or out (if argument is local, visual piece may be global or vice versa); it may present some historical or scientific background material that informs the argument; it may be a public service ad or other visual artifact that connects to the general issue. It may be a photo essay or a video or a presentation of some sort to a specific audience, with a variety of software possible.
  • A piece of primary research, which may be an interview with a person or people connected to the issue, a report and analysis of survey results, or an ethnographic account of a related subculture.

In an assignment with so many possibilities, I’ve been spending a lot of time in class talking individually with students to help them develop workable topics and approaches, asking over and over Do you know someone you could interview? Do you have any related experience? Where could you go to observe? How would you illustrate this visually?

I’m hoping that primary research component helps to shift to topics with which students have more personal engagement.  In connection with this, I had an interesting debate this week with a fellow tutor in Writing Center who hypothesized that the formality of research paper in students’ eyes makes a personal topic seem counterintuitive.   It seems to me, though, that the topics freshman writers can be most successful with are often the everyday ones (like my greeting card suggestion), and that these everyday topics need not be trivial but rather open out into deeper significance, with a bit of thought.

I can already see how the visual component has helped with student engagement. Though I’m not a Powerpoint fan, I’ve been struck by the alacrity with which even reluctant writers managed to complete Powerpoint presentations (in fact, I’ve been wondering about its usefulness as a prewriting strategy).

As I wait for the final projects to start filling my email in-box, I’m looking forward to one student’s exploration of how technology has transformed communication via an  analysis of her own social interactions during the course of a week; another student’s comparison of  hybrid to standard cars via photographs of  a friend’s car vs. his own; and several other students who, to accompany their arguments, plan to submit designs for classrooms of the future and prisons that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.

If you’ve tried a multimodal approach to research, I’d love to hear more about the experience. In particular, how narrowly do you define the component pieces? To what extent, if at all, has this approach affected either student engagement in the research process or the quality of the resulting product.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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