Research Writing Skills

I've been thinking for a while now about all the various skill sets required in order to write a good, source-driven research paper. When I hear the "Johnny can't write" laments, and when I hear teachers complain about their students' failure to meet their expectations, I think of the complexity of what we are asking them to do when we ask them to write research papers (a.k.a. source-based papers, research essays, etc.). In order to do this well, students must have at least these five abilities:

1. the ability to marshal evidence for a specific purpose, or to make a point. This is the highest-order concern: keeping students from turning in a data dump. Students need to know how to be in control of the source information and use it in the service of their own argument
and organizational logic.

2. the ability to find sources (in library databases, on the internet, in the stacks, etc.) and evaluate their credibility. Also, the critical reading ability involved in finding a variety of sources that express a range of viewpoints on an issue, so that the student has a balanced bibliography of sources.

3. the ability to translate or convert another author's style into the student's style, also known as paraphrasing -- never an easy skill to teach.

4. the ability to integrate quoted material smoothly into the student's prose, which includes the use of attributive tags ("Jones argues that..." "According to Jones...") and what some call the quotation cycle, or: setting up a quotation, giving the quotation, and then interpreting the quotation or connecting it to something else -- the whole "don't just stick quotations in and leave them hanging" principle. There's a whole book devoted to just this skill -- though skill #1 is part of that, for sure.

5. the ability to master a documentation style like MLA. "What goes in the parentheses? The author's name and page number? What if there aren't page numbers? What if there isn't an author's name?"

There are probably more; I haven't even touched on audience, context, and purpose of the assignment. My notes here aren't any great contribution, but I just want to get them out there.


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the disciplinary question...

(oof, my comment didn't fit on Facebook)

Yeah, your note about audience, context, etc. leads me to think about the disciplinary contexts that surround any piece of research writing written by faculty - or, ideally, by any student working within his/her major curriculum.

In my discussions with faculty (here at UNH and recently at a nearby lib arts college), many express a desire to see evidence in their students' writing of disciplinary competencies that, when we break them down, end up being fairly advanced. As their students plan their research, faculty want them to ask questions such as "What counts as evidence or proof in this setting?" "What is the correct scope for a thesis or research question?" "How should a research paper respond to/build on/synthesize its sources?" "What are the appropriate topics to do research on in the first place?" "Which are the right databases to use?" etc.

These seem like general questions because they can and should asked in any research paper process. But the answers to all of them change dramatically with each new disciplinary context they're carried into. Which is why they're so hard to teach meaningfully as "general skills" in the first year. For example (and not as obvious an example as I thought it would be, it turns out), a research writing course prior to work in the major can teach a student very well how to use the library catalog to find a database or journal, but not which databases and journals would be best to use in their major work and why. They could be given a list by their future profs, but it doesn't make much sense until they're truly *in* the major, reading article after article and getting a true sense of the field's history and current issues. So, when they reach that writing course in the major, they might have competence in finding journals, but they still look incompetent because they haven't learned much about choosing the right sources or entering the right conversations in the right ways.

In brainstorming sessions with faculty, we've been making lists on the board: first, a list of what can be taught as a "general research skill" without much experience within a disciplinary context (i.e. the domain of first-year writing), and second, concepts that can only be truly understood when embedded within the discourse of a discipline. The first list is pretty small – basically some version of the five things you listed. But the second list is huge, and each item on it seems nearly impossible to teach (unless "teach" means "just make them read and write and revise a lot until they figure out the patterns").

I wouldn't say disciplinary considerations in research should be item #6 on your list, because in a way they comprise and reshape the five items you already have listed. Maybe it's better to say that the five items can be taught in a "basic" research writing course, but they'll also need to be retaught and reexamined through a disciplinary lens with each significant research project a student undertakes in his/her major...

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