Help Yourself

Steve BernhardtDr. Stephen A. Bernhardt holds the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing at the University of Delaware, from which position he promotes strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a new, Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.

Model research papers

posted: 11.20.12 by Steve Bernhardt

One feature of Writer’s Help that both students and teachers appreciate are thirty annotated model researched papers. These papers represent a variety of genres, from business proposals, to research reviews, to reflection papers. They represent different styles, including APA, MLA, Chicago, and CSE (Council of Science Editors). Each has marginal annotations identifying its characteristic features. These models reflect our belief that many writers go to models when called upon to produce texts, especially in genres where the writers have limited experience. Because Writer’s Help is Web served, we don’t have page limitations, and so our collection of models is particularly rich and varied. And we continue to add to the store of models of  both formal reports, as well as many sorts of everyday documents.

In my introcomp this term, I used another sort of model as the basis for two linked assignments. Our writing program has a yearly contest for the best writing in our introcomp course, and we print the winning papers for use in our classes the following year. That gives instructors a useful collection of 6 to 8 papers, printed in a high quality booklet, with introductory notes from and pictures of the student writers, illustrations from graphic artists, and spiffy typesetting on quality paper. The winning papers tend to be longer, researched papers, representing a range of disciplines. These papers, coming from our own students, have increased appeal over the Writer’s Help models and represent a meaningful standard of excellence for our students in our program.

I asked students to choose one of the anthologized papers, and to do a kind of reverse outline, showing how the author organized the paper and developed the argument. They could use a traditional outline, some kind of drawing, a concept map, flowchart, or some other way of visually mapping the paper’s organization and argument. They were then to write an accompanying description and critique of how the author managed the paper—how claims were introduced, or evidence used, or lines of argument developed.

In the second assignment, students again chose a paper, the same one or a different one, and analyzed specifically how the author used sources. They described the author’s use of the source as part of the paper’s exposition or argument, and then they tracked down the citation and investigated whether the source was accurately cited, used appropriately in the paper, paraphrased or quoted effectively, and formatted according to the appropriate style guide.

These might seem like somewhat mechanical assignments, perhaps viewed as derivative since based on someone else’s writing. But my students really took to the assignment, with inventive argument maps and careful analysis. They tracked down the sources, and in a surprising number of instances, found problems with the uses of sources: misleading quotations (where words were twisted a bit to fit the author’s point) or missing or inaccurate information in citations, which made it difficult to track down the source. Some students who had not excelled on previous assignments found they were well suited to this kind of investigative and analytical writing.

I was a little nervous going in that the students might think I was asking for busywork, but many students said in their cover memos that these assignments were valuable–that looking closely at another student’s strong work gave them good grounding for doing comparable work themselves. They liked analyzing the arguments and then looking closely at how sources were used to support those arguments. They liked the fact checking, and they liked assessing whether an author was being fair to the source material. They learned something about close editing, including the important lesson that even work that looks polished and careful might have problems with the use and documentation of sources. This kind of learning parallels the findings of The Citation Project, which is closely documenting student practices, and mispractices, in working with source material. All of this was good preparatory work for their own researched papers, which I anticipate will be better and more carefully delivered because of these two preparatory assignments.

 

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