We have argued that research writing in freshman composition courses should move beyond the cliched and templated “traditional research paper,” as defined by Larson, Connors, and Ballenger. We have also shown how students work to adapt to the new types of research writing assignments Now I want to broaden our scope and examine research writing in courses outside of freshman composition. To frame my analysis, I'm using terms from Robert Davis and Mark Shadle’s (2000) CCC article, "'Building a Mystery': Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Art of Seeking."
In this article, Davis and Shadle accuse the traditional research paper--what they refer to as the “modernist” research paper--of being “notoriously vacant, cliched, and templated” (417). According to Davis and Shadle, the traditional research paper is formal, linear, logical, and objective. It values “modernist ideals of expertise, detachment, and certainty” (418). Like Ballenger, in response to this traditional notion of the research paper, Davis and Shadle argue in favor of alternative research writing. Alternative research writing values inquiry, exploration, and personal engagement with the subject. Davis and Shadle want students “to use research writing to follow questions wherever they lead and write this winding trail in discourse that is dialogic, Protean, and playful, while also passionately engaged” (422). They discuss genres such as the research argument, the personal research paper, the Montaignian research essay, and the multi-genre/media/disciplinary/cultural research project as examples of alternative research writing.
I’ve assigned a number of these alternative research writing essays in my own freshman composition courses, but I often wonder if this inquiry-based approach towards research is the norm in courses in the disciplines. In order to investigate research writing across disciplines, I gathered information from a larger study I've conducted of 800 writing assignments from courses across the disciplines at forty-eight colleges and universities across the United States. I collected these assignments via an Internet search of departmental websites in four disciplines: hard sciences, social sciences, business, and humanities. In order to aim for an arbitrary sample, I visited institutional websites through an index of the home pages of all accredited universities, regional colleges, and community colleges in the United States, which is found at http://www.utexas.edu/world/univ. This index is organized by state, and I visited each state and selected the first institution that provided access to course websites. The courses ranged from freshman surveys to senior seminars. One of the things I looked at in the study is the genre of the assignments I collected, and one of the genres I examined is the research paper. Of the 800 assignments I studied, 25% required research writing.
There were four basic questions that guided my research:
Research Assignment 1: History of the American West
Research Assignment 2: Introduction to Sociology
Research Assignment 3: Public Policy and International Economy
Relevance for First-Year Writing