The ‘Realistic’ Research Paper

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

May 14, 2017

As a writing instructor, my greatest challenge is not underprepared students, online essay mills, or cellphones. It’s the inherent artificiality of the classroom.

My first-year composition courses represent — for most of my students — the last concentrated writing instruction they will ever receive. So I try to equip them, as much as possible, for all the writing challenges they will ever face. I don’t just mean for their college years, but also — and more important — for the next 40 or more years of their professional lives.

That’s a tall order. In essence, I’m trying to prepare them for "real-world" writing in an environment — the college classroom — that is not "real world" at all.

The problem becomes evident in class as soon as we start talking about audience. In my students’ eyes, I am the primary audience for their essays, the only reader who really matters because I assign the grade. So naturally, they tend to write for me, which is completely unrealistic.

That rhetorical situation — a student writing an essay for a teacher — does not exist outside the classroom. An employee writing a report for a boss may be similar, in some respects, but there is at least one key difference: The boss might praise the report, criticize it, or not comment at all, but one thing he or she probably will not do is write all over it in red ink and put a C- at the top. That changes everything.

When students write for instructors, their primary goal is grammatical correctness. Communicating a set of ideas, one human being to another, becomes secondary (if that). And yet, the only legitimate purpose of writing, especially in a professional setting, is to communicate ideas.

Obviously, correctness contributes to clear communication, in the same way that following traffic rules helps a driver arrive safely at a destination. But the purpose of driving is not to obey the rules — it’s to get somewhere. The same is true of writing.

The question, then, becomes: How do we create a realistic rhetorical situation for our students in this necessarily artificial environment?

I wrote a few months ago about one strategy I’ve found somewhat effective: dividing students into small groups to "workshop" or "peer edit" each other’s rough drafts. My hope is that, over time, students in peer-editing groups will begin to write for each other and not for me. The subject of this month’s column is another strategy I use — particularly with research-paper assignments — that I believe is even more effective in helping students learn to identify and write for a specific audience. It involves problem-solving and role-playing.

Research-paper assignments in first-year comp courses tend to be on the lame side. Back when I was in college, my writing instructor assigned each student to write a research paper on a U.S. state. I got Montana. More recently, a former colleague of mine used to assign each student a year, like 1974 or 1982. Assignments like that raise an obvious question: What’s the point?

Sure, by doing research on Montana — demographics, agriculture and manufacturing, the state bird (western meadowlark, in case you were wondering) — a student can learn to find sources, identify key pieces of information, integrate that information into an essay, and document everything correctly. Those are all important college-level skills, things students need to be able to do to succeed academically.

But does the assignment have to be so dry? Can’t students learn the basic research and composition skills while writing about something that might have some relevance to them — that might, more to the point, resemble something a person would actually write about in their working life? (An aside: Some composition instructors try to get around the dullness factor by having their students write research papers about a work of literature. It’s a more substantive approach but I don’t use it because few of my students become literary scholars.)

It’s difficult to create a single assignment that encompasses all of the different types of writing done in various professions. A research paper that takes a problem-solving approach gets around that dilemma nicely — since nearly everyone has to be proficient at problem-solving in their careers. I also ask students to identify both a realistic audience for their research paper and an appropriate role for themselves as writer, which usually requires a degree of role-playing. Let me explain how it works.

Problem-solving. The first thing I ask students to do when I introduce the research-paper assignment is think about a general field or subject area they would like to write about. It can be fairly broad at this point, and it can relate to their intended major or to some particular hobby or interest. The key is that it should be something personally important to them.

The next step is to identify a specific problem within the broad subject area. If that seems daunting, I remind students that they’ve already narrowed things considerably — going from all the possible problems in the world to problems in the field of, say, nursing. Or finance. Or athletics.

I propose three ways for them to identify a specific problem to write about:

  • Simply give it a bit more thought. The answer might be right there at the front of their brain.
  • Do some light research. Read through publications or websites devoted to the topic to see what kinds of things people are talking about. That might give them potential sources, in addition to an idea.
  • Talk to someone in the field. For example, I had a student several years ago who planned to become a physician and wanted to write her paper about something in the medical field, but she didn’t know what. I asked her if she knew any doctors well enough to interview them. She had a brother-in-law who had just completed his residency and opened a practice in town. I said, "Perfect. Go talk to him." She ended up writing a paper about the challenges of opening a private practice and discovering there’s a lot more to it than just treating patients.

The main thing I’m trying to get students to do, at this stage, is choose a topic that’s genuinely meaningful to them — preferably one where they have some "skin in the game."

I don’t want them choosing a front-page-headline topic just because they think it will be easy to write about. As experienced writers know, that’s usually an illusion. I’d rather not get yet another (frankly insipid) paper about climate change. I’d much prefer to read a thoughtful treatment of the parking problems on our campus, or the salary disparity between the NBA and the WNBA, or the out-of-control deer population in our state. And yes, I’ve had excellent papers on all of those topics.

Role-playing. Once students have defined a specific problem, the next step is for them to construct a realistic rhetorical situation, rather than the artificial student-writes-essay-for-teacher one. This is where we get into role-playing.

First, they must identify an audience. The operative questions are:

  • Who would care about this problem enough to do something about it?
  • Who actually could do something about it? That is, who could enact the solutions the student is planning to recommend?

In most cases, the answers to those questions will lead to a very specific audience. A student writing about combating bullying in elementary school, for example, needs to aim the essay at people who can actually do something about it, like teachers or administrators.

Hand in hand with audience goes the concept of the writer’s role — essentially: Who are you as the writer of this paper?

In real life, most people don’t write long(ish), thoroughly researched, problem-solving essays. When they do write a report or white paper, it’s because it’s part of their job. So, for example, who would produce a document about how teachers should combat bullying in their classrooms? Maybe a counselor, a school administrator, or someone who works for a professional teachers’ organization. Those are all realistic roles.

For the purposes of this assignment, the student must identify a realistic audience, adopt a realistic role, do enough research to play the role convincingly, and then write to that audience as if he or she were actually in that role.

Understand that none of that role-playing appears in the research paper itself. I’m trying to foster a frame of mind, a way of thinking. Just as I consciously think about my mom when I email her, I want students to consciously think about the audience they’ve identified. I do, however, require them to put all this information in a formal proposal — a separate assignment in which they define the specific problem they intend to tackle in their research paper, note some possible solutions, and spell out the rhetorical situation they’ve constructed, including the intended audience and their role as writer.

Many students find the assignment odd, at first, and some have trouble grasping exactly what I’m trying to get them to do, but most eventually come to understand. The result has been papers that are much more focused and meaningful — to them and to me — than they would have been otherwise.

And even if they don’t quite get the idea now, they will in five or six years, when they’re writing this sort of thing for their supper.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College. He is the author of four books, including Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges and Welcome to My Classroom. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.