Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why the “Research Paper” Isn’t Working, Barbara Fister

In her brief article, Fister makes a case for “abandoning the traditional research paper,” based primarily on her experience as a college librarian.  The major problem Fister has with the research paper, as it exists today, is its over-emphasis on citing sources which, she claims, stifles the opportunity for students to infuse original thinking into their “research.”  It’s hard to argue with Fister’s reasoning.  Her sentiments can best be summed up with one paragraph from her essay as follows:

“The first year “research paper” has always sent a mixed message. You’re supposed to be original, but must quote someone else to back up every point you make - while in constant fear that you’ll be accused of stealing from them.The obscure rules of citing sources only exacerbates the confusion and focuses attention on mechanics.”

Fister’s solutions to this dilemma include changing the research paper into a brochure or Wikipedia article, engaging students in research based on personal interest, close reading scholarly material as a class and waiting until junior or senior year before expecting students to create a meaningful research report.   While I fully understand her point-of-view and respect her opinion, I’d like to play devil’s advocate and argue the flip side of  this coin.

In fifth grade, two of my four units of writing are research-based units.  The first is the “informational-research report” and the second is the “research-based argument essay.”  I would imagine that the students Fister has encountered were not exposed to this type of writing in 5th and 6th grade.  In fact, I’m not sure how many elementary/middle school students across the country are exposed to such writing instruction.  Considering the recent move to the Common Core standards, I find these unit invaluable to the students. We focus on paraphrasing and create a bibliography as a class during the first paper and students are expected to prepare their own list of sources for paper number two.  They are taught a variety of ways to include direct quotes and “give credit” to their sources.  All of this work with sources will better enable college freshmen to tackle the research paper the way it was intended.  My view then, is not delaying the research paper but, rather, starting it earlier.  Much earlier.  

Perhaps the most convincing part of my experience with teaching these units comes from the lessons themselves.   (I did not make these up, I only teach and modify the curriculum my district has provided.)  The Writer’s Workshop curriculum aims to get students doing the “thinking” that Fister spoke about in her article.   This is an enormous challenge for me.   I am not certain all of my students actually “get” the message, but some do- and do it well.  The others..well, at least they understand that there is more to writing a paper than just finding facts and spitting them back to the teacher with some quotes.  I think college students would benefit from some of these concrete lessons.  I know I would have.

The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need To Resist)
by: Mark Wiley

I was excited to read this article because over the past 9 years I have used many different formulas in my writing instruction.   In fact, the Jane Schaffer method Wiley uses as an example looks eerily similar to the “boxes and bullets” structure I use to teach the literary essay.  

Here’s a beauty I used to teach paragraph structure in third grade…

The first three pages or so of Wiley’s article highlight the positive aspects of Schaffer’s method, while maintaining a subtle yet looming “but...”  I could hardly wait to hear what his negative list would include (other than the obvious students-will-not-be-able-to-write-without-it argument).  I briefly doubted whether or not the arguments would ever come- after hearing things like “the students improved dramatically” and “teachers loved the ease..”

And then they came.

Formulaic writing…..
  • sends the wrong message
  • limits students from developing a repertoire of strategies
  • limits students from learning how to make choices about genre, content, structure, organization, etc.
  • limits students from thinking about their audience
  • stifles ongoing exploration
  • limits students from discovering new insights through the writing process
  • forces premature closure on complicate interpretative issues
  • limits students from exploring their ideas, reactions and interpretations

OK, so Wiley let this particular curriculum “have it.”  However, I tend to think formulaic writing gets a bad rap.  Wiley states, “To be fair, there is nothing in Schaffers curriculum guide to preclude teachers from encouraging exploration.  Yet the teachers who would be attracted to the guide are typically those who don’t know how to encourage such exploration.”  This statement was presumptuous, at the very least.  Possibly offensive.  Teachers are under pressure to increase test scores and it sounds like this strategy will do just that.   Wiley goes on to say, “ By solely using the formulaic approach to writing, the real winners will be the students who always win anyway.”  Here, it sounds as though this approach can’t hurt those students who will eventually move on from the structure.  However, in the paragraph prior, he admits that struggling writers need “a simple format to follow so that they can achieve some immediate success in their academic writing.”  He does not offer any alternate concrete solutions to reaching these “struggling writers.”  Teacher are left with a difficult decision- one that is much more complicated than can be discussed here.  I (like Wiley, perhaps??) advocate for the use of both formulaic writing and THINKING.   Furthermore, in light of our recent discussions surrounding standardized testing and assessments, I’m not entirely confident that a student who veered from the formulaic approach would perform as well as a student who adhered to the formula.  

I don’t think formulaic writing is so much of an all-or-nothing question as Wiley thinks.  I think having it as an option or- at the very least- an exemplar essay is necessary.  Kind of like one of those- you have to know the “rules” to “break the rules” conundrum we explored in our grammar discussions.
Save Formulaic Writing
One last pondering…

Here, writing is looked at as more of an art rather than a science, no?  Something messy and chaotic….  not like the neatness of a science- imagine:  solve this math problem without a formula....Last week I did one of those “wine and design” classes.  I was told exactly what to do step-by-step….each piece we created that night came out amazingly different and expressive.  It made me wonder….were any of us really painting that night??? Is formulaic writing really writing at all??...

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