A Different Kind of Research Paper

The researched argument paper is a standard assignment in many rhetoric and composition classrooms. I taught the genre for years and have frequently discussed the assignment with fellow instructors.

Several common problems arise with the assignment:
  • Students don't create anything new, often just rehashing well known talking points they have already heard. 
  • Students often produce oversimplified black/white, pro/con versions of topics.
  • Students don't always realize that to make an argument means that you have to say something that others could potentially disagree with. Slavery is bad is a given, not an argument. 
There are certainly better ways to teach it. Many colleagues have success using Booth, Colomb, and Gregory's The Craft of Research; by using models like the Toulmin system to encourage students to provide evidence and justify assumptions; or by making the paper personal to students' interests. I've seen and tried out innovations such as a "Defense" paper, in which students have to defend something near and dear to their heart.

But each time I taught the assignment, my heart just wasn't in it. I needed to find a way to change the nature and framing of the assignment so that students would learn to use research in the way academics do: to create new knowledge, not to rehash popular opinions.

Because my pedagogy and research focus extensively on rhetorical analysis, I considered how I might incorporate the insights of textual analysis into the researched argument paper.

My New Research Paper

In the research assignment I now give students, they argue about the language with which people discuss a topic rather than arguing just about the topic itself. Students trace a single thread through many texts, identifying a pattern in how people commonly discuss a topic. They critique that pattern to suggest that it has certain effects on the way we see the topic, and in the best of papers, how we see a group of people.

For example, one student wanted to write about the NFL. Instead of arguing that the sport is too violent or calling for greater safety measures, he argued that NFL sports coverage commonly compares football to war, encouraging the public to accept the injury, violence, and death associated with the sport on and off the field.

Other students have written on topics such as:
  • Factory imagery in Education legislation 
  • Mommy-bloggers use offensive imagery to discuss epidurals and women who get them (women are "drug users," not real women, etc.)
  • News Coverage of athletes that suggest African American have more “natural” ability
  • Metaphors for Autism such as a puzzle piece
  • The closet metaphor in Gay Rights Politics

Most good topics contain three components that make them specific and arguable.

1. The language exists in a wide range of texts. In your research, you’ll need to find many examples. At this stage, that means a lot of reading.

It is unlikely that you will initially find a lot by googling a broad topic like “football metaphors.” Once you locate your topic pattern, though, then you can generate a list of related words and synonyms to find relevant sources.

The student working on the NFL topic could search for NFL football and any of the following terms: front line, soldiers, defense, bomb, violence.

2. The language has a specific historical context, and for most of you probably a contemporary one. Your topic should be important in a certain moment.

This means that you won’t just investigate a long standing metaphor cliché, such as romance = heat, but that you’ll find how it’s used in a contemporary context like the way a certain celebrity couple gets talked about.

If I were writing on the metaphor of the “fiscal cliff,” I would discuss the political history of the term, but the majority of the paper would be devoted to the political showdowns of 2012-2013.

3. The language has a cultural studies or political dimension. The best topics will have a broader significance to questions of human identity—issues such as race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, etc. 

For example, how are athletes depicted as human beings? What do these language patterns imply about them?


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With this new assignment, the vast majority of my students write interesting new arguments, but there are always drawbacks to any assignment, and this one is no exception. The three greatest obstacles some students might confront when writing the essay are 1) underestimating the time it takes to craft a topic, 2) writing a more juvenile compare and contrast paper, and 3) creating repetitive analysis.

Finding a Topic Takes Time. Many of my students write on topics that have not been covered before or have not been addressed in the analytical way they will be writing about them. In this process of constructing a topic, there is simply no substitute for reading widely.

To help student make the best use of their time I suggest that they make their time doubly useful:

How to Find a Topic
Texts you read/view for pleasure
Texts you have to read/view for another course
fashion magazines
Grey’s Anatomy
Civil War battle descriptions
The New York Times investment section

I also schedule 4 different nights of homework in which students read 3 texts each night on their particular field and take notes on the rhetorical features they notice. Usually by around 10 texts, students can identify one significant feature that they see repeated throughout them.

Because tracing these threads can be time-consuming I check in with students during two different 50 minute class periods dedicated to topic building. In the first, I ask students just to bring a list of 3 fields that they might want to read in--say NFL reporting, civil war history, and New York Times articles on ISIS. I work with them during that class on honing the field of reading to be as specific as possible, which makes it more likely that they will see similar language in the discussion. On the second in class day we address any language patterns they have noted.

The Assignment is Not a Simple Compare and Contrast. Many students write their papers by analyzing a metaphor pattern such as the football is war topic. Because they see two elements being compared, a handful of students each semester compose their first draft in a compare and contrast style. The tone is descriptive--"Let me explain how football is like war"--and the student goes on to list similarities: both are violent, both have been seen traditionally as male activities, both must protect something--the country or the endzone, etc.

I ask students at this stage to shift the message, Make it clear, I say, that you have identified a metaphor pattern and that you are analyzing it's effects, not that you are creating an analogy or writing a compare and contrast paper in which you will simply compare the two things. The difference is somewhat subtle, but this paper identifies a common metaphor and explains why it is important to our cultural view of the topic--a much deeper and more complex task.

A key place that students can look in their essays to see if they have fallen into this problem is their topic sentences.

Topic Sentences
Simple Compare and Contrast
Analysis of a Common Cultural Comparison
Both war and football are violent activities.
Common metaphors of war draw attention to the violence of football and make fans expect this type of dangerous interaction on and even off the field.

The Paper Should be Coherent but Not Too Repetitive. Because many students write on a very specific pattern, they often find themselves repeating their analysis. For example, one student analyzing the way that social media use is compared to a drug addiction grouped together several metaphorical effects of dependency that texts used like "I was itching for it." and "I was blinded to everything else." She kept saying that these descriptions showed how negative people's dependence was.

Here I asked her to think about the levels of organization in her paper. Her topic sentence, of course, should unite all of these terms to show that they all are negative and show physical dependence. But after integrating each quote, she needed to more specifically demonstrate how that precise term showed negative dependence. 

Itching and blindness are not very similar. Itching suggests an instant and intense distraction, but one that can be fixed by scratching. Blinded uses a disability term to suggest that social media changes the way we interact with the world and limits certain senses. Though they have similar effects at the level of the topic sentence, at the level of specific analysis, they should have different discussions. 

Thanks for reading. Please comment with any insights you have had on writing research papers.

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