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July 2014
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Totally Write!

Research: Hey, Teach – Here’s The Junk I Found!

July 24, 2014

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid in school, my teachers used to assign these little projects. They covered a range of general subjects, from current events to geography, famous people to animals and natural history. I was allowed to make my projects as long as I wanted. I was told what kind of information I had to find, and how I had to make my work neat and attractive — you know, with headings, colored pens and pencils, colored paper, lots of pictures, a nice cover. When it came to content, I was to “tell my ideas” about the subject matter. Nice big printing, please.

I learned to do well on these projects. My folks’ collection of old National Geographic magazines gave their all in support of my efforts, and I was a star when it came to including pictures. I figured out quickly that my teachers seemed to be grading by weight: the more material I included and the more fancy pictures and neat lettering I offered, the better my grade. My ideas usually consisted of why I liked or didn’t like the subject matter. Couple of paragraphs — that was it.

Many of my friends did well too. They’d also figured out the grading by weight thing. When we got to high school and university, we figured the same rules would apply. After all, what would have been the point of getting us to do all that stuff in elementary school, only to change the rules on us later on?

They changed the rules on us.

I wised up fast (mostly luck, as I had a dedicated teacher who took me in hand and taught me a better way). Most of my friends weren’t that lucky. They were still working with the elementary school approach when they came stumbling into first-year university.

Oh, the horror.

My point is simply this. When you do research for an essay, you’re absolutely, positively, definitely NOT being tested on your ability to find everything there is to be found on your subject, dump it all into your paper, and then hand it to your prof with an attached note that says, “Hey, teach! Here’s the junk I found!” You don’t get to offer  your thesis, with all your research attached, in the certain knowledge that quantity of research will carry you through. Keep that up for long, and you’ll be an ex-student, sort of like the Monty Python ex-parrot.

Finding material relevant to your subject and thesis is the most basic part of the “what am I being tested on” thing as it relates to research. Much more importantly, you’re supposed to show that you can determine which pieces of evidence and which kinds of supporting material are the most persuasive for specific points you want to make. You’re supposed to do what lawyers do in preparing for a trial: they don’t care about the most evidence; they care about the BEST evidence.

Once you’ve found the most telling evidence for each of the points you’ll make in a paper, the next part of the test demands that you show you know how to introduce each piece of evidence properly, both logically, and in terms of proper sentence and paragraph organization. You have to show that you know how to cite your source by means of the required bibliographic notation system (MLA, APA, etc).  A failure in this particular are is always critical because it exposes you to the risk of plagiarism — instant academic death.

Then comes the most critical part of all. For each piece of evidence you introduce, you’re supposed to analyze its meaning in context, and you’re supposed to explain exactly how it supports the point for which you’re offering it as evidence. You don’t get to assume your readers will understand and make the necessary connections on their own — you’re being tested on your ability to demonstrate that YOU can do it for them. You don’t get to leave out explanatory details. You don’t get use evidence without making sure your readers understand it thoroughly.

When I was still teaching undergraduate English, first-year students would regularly ask how much of a research paper should be the research. A third? A half? How much is too much? The answer should be obvious, if you got the message in the preceding paragraph. If you’re specifically explaining accurate evidence and demonstrating why it is, in fact, evidence for the points it supports, it’s impossible for your quotations and research to “take over.” If you include more research, your paper will get longer, and that’s all (assuming you’re handling the material properly).

Obviously, your profs don’t want you going overboard, especially at the undergrad level. That’s another reason for choosing only the best evidence for each point. You may use only a small percentage of the material you actually gather as you’re working on a paper, but that’s okay. Never throw that stuff out; keep files. You’ll have more essays to write, and you’ll need to find topics and interesting material to work with. You’d be amazed how often you’ll be able to turn to your own research files if you keep the material and organize it well.

So there we go. I’m not up to doing another enormous, marathon post just yet. So, the business of looking at paragraphs to see exactly how the research integration process might work will have to wait for a bit.

Have yourself a great finish to the week, and a great weekend.

by Steve. Find out more about Steve here.