“Research” as Synecdoche: In Defense of First-year Writers

The research paper is perhaps the most familiar genre, competing with the five-paragraph essay (which occasionally might serve as a research paper).  And as the Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson argue, the genre deserves a place in writing provided a change in emphasis from “rote performance of pre-established conventions of research writing” to assignments that “value knowledge production and critical thinking” (243).  Perhaps the emergent idea is that research serves as a synecdoche.  In this regard, I like the discussion of Helen Foster’s information retrieval scaffold “that both ‘foregrounds the importance’ of information retrieval and reveals the ‘multiple embedded tasks’ with the process” (Howard and Jamieson, 236).  The scaffold acknowledges the process yet points to the complexities of the process.  This acknowledgement helps to re-frame an assignment as a “research project” (Howard and Jamieson, 236).  The assignment becomes a series of activities, a clutch of genres rather than a single monolithic paper.

However, while I find the discussion much welcomed, I also return to our discussion about what is composition studies and the associated topic of what happens in the composition classroom.  many of the activities are recognizable – paraphrase, summary, engaged reading (a nice change from critical reading), and of course citing sources.  On the one hand, the chapter invites enthusiasm.  Images of a life of the mind swirl amid the discussion of information literacy and tracing “trails writers lay out for others who might wish to find and read the same sources and thereby join the conversation” (Howard and Jamieson, 239).  It is invigorating.  I enrolled in a doctorate program to perform these activities.  On the other hand, the chapter poses paradoxes.  Students need to engage with material yet exhibit reluctance. The Citation Project findings offer disheartening statistics that “46 percent of the 1,911 citations were to material from the first page of the source—and a total of 77 percent of the citation were to material no deeper than page 3 of the source” (Howard and Jamieson, 234).  I want changing the emphasis toward information literacy to serve a purpose, but I wonder how I might more effectively achieve improved learning if students evidently are not engaged.

Engagement for me is proving to a nebulous and persistent concept.  Engagement, I think, presses the question of what happens in the composition classroom and perhaps alludes to what is composition studies. That is, in reading Howard and Jamieson and in reflecting on previous readings, I find myself at a point of irresolution – a great place for a theory class but not the best for pedagogy development.  The chapter by Howard and Jamieson returns me to the discussion of Greg Myers about reforming education.  Does the introduction of information literacy unburden research from the ideologies of the research paper?  The chapter sent my mind to David Bartholomae and student writers navigating through the finding of authority and the need to mimic conventions.  Maybe students need some activities in rote memory in order to engage in more complex information literacy activities – but which ones to commit to memory?  I would argue the most recursive activities might serve as excellent candidates for rote memorization.  Of course, this discussion segues into process as well – even in the plural, process looms in much of the discussion of juggling the complexities of research.

As a parting thought, I offer an apology for first-year students. I have spent part of my time as a graduate writing consultant helping graduate-level students find and work with sources; in anticipation of a statement, no, they are not all international students.  I have spent periods in my own academic pursuits in perplexity about how to find and use research.  The world is endlessly beautiful in its complexities, and I often find myself mustering ideas as a statement of my confusion than a cogent argument.  Confession: I find the certitude encouraged in some academic writing disturbing.  And my stint among the sciences and mathematics has raised further disturbances on that issue.  Where is the space to explore – really explore, in the sense of I did not know about this topic but here is what I found, what it means is unclear, but clarity could occur in time.  Inadvertently, first-year students perhaps find themselves with no such space.  College is expensive so the impulse to derive a “tangible utility” is strong.  Am I needlessly fretting over the idea of research projects functioning as a gesture to pragmatism yet circumventing the learning that might occur in writing a research paper?  I do not know. But I think that research irrespective of the noun it modifies — paper, project, task, skill — is difficult for first-year writers, graduate students, faculty — and me.

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