Volume III - 1995-1996
De-Mythicizing the Research Paper
by Barbara Guenther
Dr. Barbara Guenther
is head of the Language Skills Program at the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago and an active presenter, writer and consultant in writing and the
teaching of writing. She is working on a book to help writing teachers not
trained in ESL deal with the increasing number of second-language speakers
entering their classrooms.
I tried every euphemism I could think of --"a paper going beyond your own experience and opinions," "a paper combining your ideas with those of others" --anything but the dreaded phrase "research paper." But it didn't work. Years ago, dividing my third-graders into three reading groups, I had tried various names. I hadn't fooled anyone then either. Every child in the room knew that the Redbirds were the slow readers, just as, later, everyone in my college- level ESL class in writing knew that my cumbersome names for the next writing project meant research paper.
Native speakers of English taking their first college writing course feel some uneasiness about writing research papers. ESL students have even more reason to feel apprehensive about this assignment. International students are unlikely to have attended secondary schools that assigned research papers. Many permanent residents educated in U.S. high schools have also been particularly frustrated by the additional demands of language made by such a project-- summarizing, paraphrasing, and integrating the ideas of others with their own thoughts instead of relying heavily on lengthy quotations.
In addition, both groups bring with them myths about the research paper, misconceptions that constrain them unnecessarily and add to the burden of an already difficult task. Because so many of my advanced ESL students used to drop the course as soon as the research paper was assigned (clearly in desperation, since they knew that they would have to repeat the course the following semester), I have come to realize the crucial importance of de-mythicizing the research paper. As a result, my students now write research papers which are enlivened by the use of non-traditional sources and experimental forms
Myth 1: Research takes place only in libraries.
One myth that limits most student writers is a belief that research takes place only in libraries. Certainly our students need to learn how to use library sources, and, because many of them have never written a research paper before, we need to continue to design activities that will enable them to make full use of traditional academic sources. These activities need not consume a great amount of instructional time, however, especially because computers have made libraries so accessible to students. We need to spend time making students aware that a writer has a wealth of other sources as well: public records, surveys, polls, videos, and interviews, to name a few.
The power of going beyond the library was demonstrated most movingly to me by Aleksandr, a Ukranian student mourning the death, just a few months earlier, of his 14-year-old brother. Knowing of his need to write through his grief--a need reflected in every paper he had written during the first half of the semester--I suggested that he visit the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, which was holding its annual exhibition of altars constructed for the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Knowing also of his dissatisfaction with the way death and grieving were dealt with in his own culture, I encouraged him to interview some of the Mexican students in our class, to discover their culture's very different attitude toward death.
The result was a paper that every teacher longs for, one in which the concept of writing as an act of discovery is manifest on every page. Aleksandr integrated personal expression, his experience at the museum, his interviews with two students, and library research. Never did he allow his paper to degenerate into a mere report. For instance, at the end of a largely factual and well documented paragraph describing the types of flowers often used to decorate Mexican graves, his unique angle -- not only as a student in a writing class but also as an experienced photographer taking several advanced courses in that subject -- emerges:
...Zespasuchitl are cultivated throughout the country, and are harvested for Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead]. Calla lilies and roses are used if they are available (Toor, p. 86). The strong vertical lines of the flowers pull one's eye up through the altar, and then higher toward the heavens.
Near the end of his paper, Aleksandr expresses his admiration of the beliefs which form the underpinning of this Mexican festival: "It seems extremely healthy to see life and death as two journeys belonging to one adventure, and with the family ties kept throughout all of it." His final paragraph consists of a moving description of the altar he constructed in his room to honor his dead brother, including photographs he had taken earlier, and this final sentence: "I watch and remember, and, I am watched and remembered." Had Aleksandr limited himself to his initial perception of what a research paper should be--a library exercise in gathering information-- the loss would have been not only his but mine and that of all his other readers.
Aleksandr was certainly not the only student in my ESL class whose research paper was enriched by sources not found in the library. Writing about the contemporary painter Ansel Kiefer, Natalia remembered the contrast between her initial negative reaction to his work years ago and her later fascination with it. She wanted to talk to people with either a minimal or an unguided exposure to modern art. Sometimes a poll of fellow students is useful; in Natalia's case, however, the aesthetic taste of her peers, all students at an art school, was as sophisticated as her own. She recalled that I had said several times, "Find people to interview; if they're too busy to talk, they'll tell you, but usually they are flattered." Natalia was from Bolivia, and unlike many of her peers from Asia, she was not shy about interviewing strangers. Notebook in hand, she walked into the museum cafeteria, introduced herself to a likely looking group of women having lunch, and asked if she could interview them. ("You're right," she later told me; "they were flattered.") She found exactly what she needed: a group of people interested in art but not actually studying it, and people viewing Kiefer's work for the first time.
Even for native speakers, integrating ideas from several sources is the most cognitively demanding of the many tasks involved in writing a research paper. For students writing in a second (or third) language, it is even more difficult. Nevertheless, Natalia successfully integrated her own ideas -- the dramatically contrasting reactions she had to Kiefer's art at two different points in her life -- with the strongly negative views of the museum patrons she had interviewed. She provided additional complexity and sophistication by also integrating a library source: a theorist's discussion of the aesthetic differences between a first and second viewing of a work of art:
That is the difference between artists and critics, and the people just going to museums to be entertained. The artists look twice, but not so for the general public. They think if a painting is not "lovely to look at," then is not good art. I can say that Kiefer's work is ugly and at the same time is art. To see it as art, the viewer must take a second look. Then will be evident its strength. As one critic writes, "The first viewing draws one away from meaning; the second puts one back in touch, if not with meaning, then with the energy which precedes knowledge." (West, p. 72).
The research papers of both Aleksandr and Natalia bear powerful testimony to the fact that writers working in a second language can go far beyond anyone's expectations, including their own. As they become free of constraining myths about the research paper, they begin to experience the truth of the etymology of the word author , from the verb signifying one who creates.
Creation excludes no source, of course. Students are not likely to overlook the fact that college and university libraries are usually the best places in town for finding printed information about a topic. At the same time, they need to be reminded not to overlook other sources close at hand: college classrooms, halls, and offices. My students have interviewed instructors on virtually every subject: from rainforests to Chicago's architecture, from the Big Bang to the Great Depression. They have interviewed administrators about admissions policies, managers of the college bookstore and cafeteria about working with student employees, and the college nurse about AIDS education. Going further afield, students have designed polls and questionnaires for a variety of respondents: peers, family, and neighborhood merchants. Their field research has carried them not only to college offices and local grocery stores, but, in one case, for a paper on palmistry, to Madame Zeena on Clark Street for an actual reading.
Myth 2: There is only one correct form for a research paper.
A second myth that can prevent students from doing their best work is the belief that research papers must assume only one form. It is true that research papers for anthropology, literature, and biology classes are expected to look a great deal like the scholarly writing in those fields. At the same time, ESL students, with limited experience in this type of writing, must be helped to find their own voice and to let the content help lead them toward form. Later, writing research papers in a content-area course rather than a process course, they will not find it difficult to adjust to the expectations of a particular discipline.
Many of the writers in my advanced ESL composition classes choose not to experiment with form. Like any other choice, that decision serves a student well when it is a true decision. There is a subtle but powerful difference between writing in a traditional form because one feels there are no options, and, on the other hand, choosing to reject experimenting with form for any of a number of legitimate reasons, such as the topic itself, time constraints, and the limits of one's tolerance for change.
Research can be formed into a monologue.
Jin, a student from Korea, had a healthy tolerance for change. Having been impressed by the newly opened Asian galleries at the Art Institute, she chose to create a monologue, entitled Traveling Far Eastern Asia in Fifty Minutes, for a guide to the galleries rather than use the form that would be expected when she took required art history courses the following year. Her playfulness with form, of course, did not preclude her using a number of references, citing them throughout her paper, and listing them in standard form at the end of the paper. Nor did it lower the cognitive level of the paper. As the passages below demonstrate, she not only pointed out the contrasts one would expect in a paper dealing with the art of three different countries; she also contrasted differences within Chinese art.
After drawing readers into the paper ("Walk to Gallery 105, which is at the very heart of the Asian installation "), Jin discusses some important works of Chinese art:
Fix your eyes on the Buddhist sculpture who sits as if about to step off his throne into this world, and try to taste the smack of Chinese art. Gardner says Buddhist sculpture in China by the end of the seventh century had lost much of its own character. It had "borrowed from the sensuous carvings of India during the late sixth century A.D. (p. 440). But when Buddhist sculptures were carved in the eighth century, Chinese artists could apply their own "artistic language. They wanted to reflect the Chinese ideal of imperial Buddha. This included a much calmer face, sometimes compassionate, sometimes austere eyes,"very large ears with long and thick earlobes, and the mound on top of his head. (AIC brochure)
Throughout the paper, as Jin leads the reader from the Chinese to the Japanese and then the Korean galleries, her choice of form, a monologue, continues to animate the researched facts that she conveys. Like one of the best guides at the Art Institute, Jin's persona in this research paper is informative but not pedestrian, animated but not distracting:
Can you feel a Japanese air in the Bodhisattva figure? If not, take a right turn from Gallery 103 to Gallery 107. There you will see Japanese prints. You can see what the independent Japanese character is exactly. For example, A Woman Holding a Comb , from the Edo period, is full of Japanese zest: an "extraordinary nuance in color and line." (AIC Brochure) Brilliant. Sumptuous. Vivid. Dramatic.
Just less than ten steps takes you across the sea between Japan and Korea. As soon as you step into Korean art in Gallery 106, you can feel the extremely different atmosphere. Mute. Lyric. Grace. Noble.
Research can be formed into a script.
Gabriel, from Puerto Rico, also experimented with form. Writing of the greenhouse effect in a paper entitled "Waiting Could Be Deadly," he discussed the three catastrophes most alarming to environmental biologists. He conveyed the information in each of his three sections by first writing a script for a radio news alert:
We interrupt the traffic report to bring you this special bulletin on September
16, 2000, from radio WBBM-AM Chicago. The environmentalist group from Louisiana,
Save Our Marshlands, continues to picket the White House After posing a question
in bold print ("Why are marshlands, vegetation, and marine life threatened
with extinction?", he presented a lengthy and heavily researched section of
The greenhouse effect takes place when a unique balance in nature is lost. By destroying this unique balance, global climates will change drastically over time. We will see wind patterns shift. Rain patterns shift. Storm patterns become more violent. Droughts get worse. Flooding more common. (Begley and Hager, p. 80)
Flooding is more possible with higher sea levels vs. lower land levels. Marshlands could become completely submerged, and vegetation and marine life could be destroyed. (Titus, p. 21)
The three newsflash sections of Gabriel's paper clearly convey his engagement with the topic. Even the style of the three analytical sections is affected by his choice of form: the series of deliberate sentence fragments in the above passage, for instance, subtly reinforces the urgency of the preceding newsflash section.
Just as effectively rhetorical is his final page. Framed by two rhetorical questions are eight statements arranged in parallel form:
Can we wait for conclusive evidence?
Some say it's coincidence.
Some say it is upon us.
Some say, "We are taking the land from our children." (Wyncott, p. 89)
Some say, "It's still not clear whether this is a CO2 signal. The hard 5 evidence isn't there." ( Time , p. 57)
What do you say?
Research can be formed into a letter.
"Build on your strengths," we are told. In writing their research papers as monologue/script, Jin and Gabriel did just that: they capitalized on voice. Other forms can accomplish this, of course; it is for the writer, guided by the content itself, to discover the best form for each piece of writing. I saw this dramatically demonstrated as Agnieszka, from Poland, wrote her research paper. The impetus for her paper was a published statement by the Surrealist artist Man Ray which so shocked her that she felt she had to respond directly to him. Though she knew he was no longer alive, she decided that the letter form would best allow her to convey her opinions and the researched information supporting them. In the first part of her paper, after announcing her thesis, Agnieszka made some persuasive points based on the artist's life:
Dear Man Ray:
As I was skimming through a book on you, called The Photographic Image , I came upon a disturbing quote of yours. You say that "photography is not art" (Janus, p. 2). I am sorry to say that I strongly disagree with you.
I'm not the only one who thinks your photos are art. Many Surrealist artists chose you as their photographer. They include Breton, Duchamp, Tanguy, Miro, and Dali (Penrose, p. 85).
From further sources I understand that you are quite a temperamental person. They say if part of your work is appreciated, you turn against it. This of course includes your photography (Melly, p. 100). In fact, the art critics and public basically recognize you as a photographer and ignore your paintings (Baum, p. 104). I can understand why you may be bitter. Unfortunately this caused you to stop taking photographs completely.
In the rest of the paper, Agnieszka analyzed five of Man Ray's photographs, yet even in that analytical section, she never let her readers forget that she was writing a letter:
The subject of the fourth photograph I have chosen is 35mm film. The film is set upon the contact paper. This leaves a ghost-like appearance of negative (the film) on positive (the paper). The interesting thing is that camera film is not used in the camera. Instead, it is the subject for the print instead of being the tool to develop a photograph. That's very clever, Mr. Ray.
Research can be formed into a journal .
Other students have found that the journal form best fits what they want to say. For instance, Pete, a Thai student, became interested in the personality of Vincent van Gogh after reading the artist's letters as well as a psychological study of van Gogh. Assuming the persona of the doctor who actually treated van Gogh near the end of his life, Peter wrote his research paper as a series of journal entries which explored the relationship between the artist's personality and his work:
January 7, 1889
I have received information through the patient about his past that is very important. Vincent's father, Reverend Theodore van Gogh, had a stillborn son. The next year a second son was born, who was the Vincent we know today. Vincent came into this world not to have his own identity, but to replace his dead brother (Nagera, p. 7).
January 20, 1889
The day before Vincent's attack on Gauguin, he finished two paintings of chairs. They are rich with symbolism of Vincent's illness, but they are painted with great care and control. They were painted by a great artist unaware of his subconscious, not by a madman. In Vincent's most recent letter to his brother Theo, he indicated that the empty chairs are a symbol of death (Nagera, p. 137). I noticed this sentence: "Empty chairs -- there are many of them; later there will be more, and sooner or later there will be nothing but empty chairs in place of Herkomet, Luke, Fildes, Frank Hall, etc." (Letters,p. 352). From this symbolism, it seems that Vincent was planning to kill himself and Gauguin.
These students' use of non-traditional forms -- monologue, script, letter, journal -- in no way lowers the cognitive level of their papers. Nor does it prevent them from integrating a number of sources with their own ideas or from providing standard academic citations of those sources. The freedom to find forms that the writers feel best fit their ideas results in papers that are a delight to read.
"Delight is a delicate growth," wrote Thomas Hardy. Certainly, guiding my students through a project which initially caused them to recoil required a delicate circling around fears and misconceptions that could have prevented them from doing their best, most satisfying writing. Aleksandr, Natalia, Jin, Gabriel, Agnieszka, and Pete were all enabled to set aside the constraining myths about the research paper that they had brought with them to my class. In coming to see that research-based writing can be enriched by sources beyond the library and by forms other than the traditional academic form, they were able to become genuinely engaged with the full possibilities of their topics. The result is students who are not only experienced in writing a research paper but confident about doing so, for they have learned that writing can be both scholarly and creative.
back to content page