My "Soap Box" on Teaching Research Papers!

kazakhnomad
kazakhnomad
Apr 21, 2008, 7:20 PM |
0

The mournful wail of a Kazakh student living in England grabbed my heart the other day.  I was talking on the phone to this student, (let’s call him Zed) who was under great pressure to accomplish a major economics paper of 48 pages for his “dissertation” for his bachelors degree.  He wailed, “But I don’t know HOW to write a research paper!”  I’m not sure which university Zed was attending in London, it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that Zed was sent abroad ill equipped to accomplish what was expected in his economics department. 

Obviously Zed hadn’t plagiarized much after looking over the text where all the articles were missing.  Zed also kept mixing up the irregular verbs of “lead” when he meant the past tense of “led” or writing “felt” when he meant “fell.”  Zed also used personal pronouns of “I” or “we” and used contractions such as “can’t” and “let’s.”  All considered errors if writing a major research paper for his British profs, especially if this is to be considered his “dissertation.”  I still can’t get over that phrase but that is what Zed kept calling it.  The title of his paper was: “Discuss the factors behind the 1992-1996 recession in Russia.”  An interesting enough topic to me since it could have parallels to what happened in Kazakhstan once the former Soviet Union fell apart.  The following is his 98 word abstract which I helped “clean up:”


”Currently the world community has met yet again the problem of crisis when some countries of the former Soviet Union started to experience the first steps of recession. This paper will specifically consider the past experience of Russia. When the post-Soviet republic was dismantled from the Soviet Union, it implemented reforms to move from planned economy to market economy.  However, that implementation brought the country to deep recession during a period of  6-7 years (from 1992-1996). Reasons and consequences of Russia’s recession are discussed in the paper along with the vision of political and economic processes being analyzed.”


The main problem with Zed’s text was that he did not use any in-text citations but footnotes instead.  I asked Zed over our crackling cell phones what formatting style he was using, he claimed he didn’t know.  I tried to see if his footnotes of sources matched what was in his bibliography, in some cases they did not.  The Bibliography often did not have authors’ names or if it did, they were not even alphabetized properly.  Zed had numbers next to each source up to 70 citations.  Remarkable bibliography which had the appearance of being thorough research.  However, out of curiosity, I asked my teaching colleagues the next day about this numbering and they said in the Soviet past it was considered correct to number your sources and if you had at least 50 of them, then you were fulfilling the research requirements.  Back in those Soviet days, that meant books and not just short journal articles or Internet sources.

Another thing notable about Zed’s references was that he was using many Internet sources without showing authors’ names, where it was retrieved from and when he retrieved it.  When teaching my own composition students, I work around that problem by not allowing the use of ANY Internet sources especially since there is not usually an author’s name attached to it.  Too much junk science is on the Internet.  That is why I insist my composition students learn how to access the electronic research databases. 


If only our dear students knew that all the work has already been done for them to access the thousands of journal articles that their university has paid for through research databases such as EBSCOhost, ProQuest and J-Stor.  In some cases, someone has taken the time to scan every page, just the way it looks in the actual journal that was published on a specific date, in a particular place.  True scholarship acknowledges author, time, name of article, name of journal and page numbers.  Internet sources at the bottom of the page, such as
www.gsk.ru , just doesn’t quite do it for me.  I didn’t check to see if the nine or so URL links of Zed’s were accessible to me even though I had the electronic version of it.  I was too busy straightening out his grammar problems of articles, personal pronouns and irregular verbs.  To Zed’s credit, he had used his spell checker, because there were very few spelling errors until the last several pages of his paper.

One last thing that was notable about Zed’s economics research paper was the use of graphs and tables, he did not make reference to them in his text except to say “the table below.”  I cautioned Zed that he must be specific by writing in the text “Table 6” or “Figure 4.”  Besides that, I’m not sure where he got his material except I suspect he cut and pasted from the Internet.  These graphs and tables were obviously not his own work but he did not “fess up” where he got this material that was supposed to buttress his points he was making throughout his paper.

I felt sorry for Zed and the fact that he probably had several teachers in
London who had marked up with red ink his earlier written assignments until they bled.  His English teachers have probably already written him off as “unteachable” when it comes to writing.  Admittedly, for this Kazakh student, English is his second or third language besides knowing Russian (he used about seven Russian sources in his paper but did not translate them in his footnotes).  I would strongly differ with Zed’s teachers that he is not able to learn the proper way to write a research paper, it just takes time and patience.  Zed and other Kazakh students like him, should not be beaten down for not knowing how to write in English, they should be encouraged.


I believe strongly that if the composition students are taken through the myriad of steps on how to access information and if they have an insatiable curiosity about their subject, it will seem like a wonderful and exciting project to them.  Just going through the motions and trying to fulfill the superficial “regulations” of having a thesis statement or topic sentences throughout the paper with proper citation format will make the students HATE writing a research paper.  I will not forget for a long time the sad voice in England who claimed “But I don’t know HOW to write a research paper!”  It seems my life mission is to change students’ voices into a happy “I’m so excited about what I found, I want to SHARE it with you!!”

As a composition teacher, I want to read good research papers instead of seeing it as a task of drudgery.  I always maintain that if you are bored at teaching something, the students are bored at listening to you. If you are not enjoying teaching research papers, the students will not enjoy it either.  As teachers, we need to find out what painful steps we are expecting of our students by doing the assignment first ourselves, rather than making them do all the work.  However, if we allow plagiarized papers to come at us as the end result, we have also not done our job as teachers.  The students will take other classes at their university or study abroad and not be able to do the papers expected of them.  Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now.