I teach research-based Composition II courses every semester. My students learn information literacy, look up academic, peer-reviewed journals, create and correctly structure works cited pages, annotate bibliographies, learn rhetorical writing strategies, read diverse authors, watch diverse films, and discover the purpose of audience. Their pinnacle assignment: Construct the research essay—that oft-dreaded chunk of work students would just as well leave until the last moment.
And therein lies the potentially plagiaristic problem—waiting until the last minute. When students wait until the last minute, they discover that looking up research articles isn’t as simple or fast-paced as they thought. At this point, panic mode presents itself. This usually corners them with several options: Not do it, recycle an old essay, plagiarize bits and pieces, or purchase an essay online.
This often happens to struggling students, and suddenly you receive an almost impeccably written essay with a more sophisticated sounding, graduate student vocabulary. Or they’ve been practicing MLA works cited, and you get an essay written in Chicago Style. By refining my curriculum, I came up with a fool-proof way to not only help students learn to write a research paper but to write their own research paper. How? It’s not that hard.
We begin constructing the research paper at the start of the semester, and we construct it in stages throughout the semester. This begins with giving them the first week to think of a topic they’ll really enjoy—one about which they want to learn, one that is personal to them, a topic that becomes an experiential, meaningful process for them. Once they get that narrowed, I assign three works cited assignments each about a week apart and each one with five citations/academic sources. The beauty of this is they look up citations on their topic, not just random sources. So, by the time their third works cited assignment is completed, they have at least 15 peer-reviewed journals from which to pull six to eight sources required for their research paper. At this point, they’ve just invested a solid 50% into their research paper and are on their way to becoming nascent researchers.
Because we know students often don’t want to creep their way through dense scholarly articles, I assure them that scholarly articles are dense reading for everyone. I don’t want them to think they’re not up to the task because they must reread, look up unfamiliar words, and must often recontextualize the material to better understand it. This leads to assigning two annotated summary bibliography assignments, with three journals each from their works cited. At this point, we are at least a good month into the semester, while filling other class period space with select and diverse readings, films, discussions, and other resources to enhance and supplement the course and make unconventional literary connections with their topics. Thus, the research paper becomes an organic part of a cohesive semester course.
The annotated bibliography moves them deeply into their articles. I keep it at three sources per annotated bibliography. I’ve found students get overwhelmed having to annotate six sources, so I simply broke it in half. Thus, these and the works cited homework become great, low-stakes assignments. Once they’ve completed the annotated bibliographies, it’s time to build the paper paragraph-by-paragraph. This takes away the monstrous aspect from the abstract thought of a long, unmanageable research essay. And we do this in the classroom, typically two paragraphs per week. Students work independently, as well as peer review each other’s paragraphs. This provides a nice way for them to earn participation points, too. I also grade these first handfuls of paragraphs along the way, which count as more low-stakes assignments. At this point, each student is getting in a lot of writing and revising, which is critical to the writing process. I’m also involved in their paper every step of the way. It is a nice and slow, carefully metered out process while helping build their skills and mitigating stress. It also helps me gauge those who are struggling, and get in the extra help when and where they need to be successful.
Once they have constructed half of the paper, they put it in finished form and turn it in. I then grade that first half. This gives me the opportunity to provide feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. In the meantime, they begin roughing out the paragraphs for the second part of the paper, but I don’t grade this second half by itself. What happens is by the time they’re finished roughing out the second half, I give them the opportunity to revise the graded first half. This encourages them to look at the second half with more critique after my feedback on the first half. They often realize common editing mistakes in their own writing, such as leaving out a direct quote or forgetting an exposition sentence or logical discussion resulting in an undeveloped paragraph.
Student feedback over the past two years has strongly indicated they like this process. It makes for a manageable research writing process, where the process is broken into parts, it is not long and tedious because we multitask with other reading, viewing, and discussion activities, and they never feel rushed. Because of this writing process, my students have grown more confident in their writing skills and understand that the same process can be successfully applied across their curriculum for any rhetorical/persuasive essay.
Carmen Noel Eichman-Door is currently an adjunct English instructor and first-year writing specialist at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA. Eichman-Door is also the author of When the Ugly Comes, a historical novel about diversity, inclusion, and social justice.