Category Archives: Dirk

“The Research Paper” as a Genre without a Discipline in Dirk

Given that it is likely students will be asked to write such papers during their tenure in college, how might we best prepare them for writing a paper that changes across disciplinary contexts despite its common generic name? I believe that treatment of a research paper as an isolated utterance within a composition classroom is problematic in that such papers fail to encourage transfer.

Here’s my problem with teaching “the Research Paper” that Dirk calls “an isolated utterance within a composition classroom”: it lives outside of any academic discipline. In biology, there are lab reports, or researched studies, or literature reviews; in literature, there might be a researched work of literary criticism commenting on a single text; in anthropology, there are ethnographic studies; in sociology, there are widespread studies involving surveys and statistical analysis. But in no discipline besides college First-Year Writing is there a disembodied “academic style” research paper, on either a topic of the student or instructor’s choosing. For that matter, which citation style should you use? Should you use MLA if you are writing about history, and APA if you are writing about education or psychology?

I guess the problem that I think Dirk is identifying is an assignment that has taken on artificiality because it has ceased to belong in a specific situation outside of the composition classroom. When students can define the framework that they want to use in order to make a researched argument, making choices about audience, form, rhetorical approach, sources, investigational primary research tactics, and other questions of agency, then the researched argument will again be a living, breathing genre with a purpose and an audience and as Dirk suggests, “situate their research writing as part of… an activity system.”


So far, Dirk’s essay has given me the most ideas for teaching. I was prepared to look favorably upon a study that used Bakhtin, for I have read and admired his Rabelais and his World and want to read more of him.

Barwashi believes both that the prompt is a precondition for the existence of student writing, a means of habituating students into the subject as well as the subjectivity, they are being asked to explore… without acknowledging its presence explicitly … so that it appears their writing created its own exigency, that somehow their writing is self-prompted.

I found my myself asking since the instructor is always an important audience, whether explicitly or  implicitly, why not make the teacher as a primary audience very present? Doesn’t this follow from initial training in the teaching of writing to graduate assistants in practicums and courses in teaching, in that there is an “ideal audience,” supposedly neutral, and fair-minded, open minded, and able to handle the content presented? Why shouldn’t a teacher work to establish an ethos that would establish him/herself as an audience worth persuading?0


While I appreciated her reminder about the newer theories of genre, her nod to Bakhtinian dialogism, a flashback to my own cultural studies background), and her brief attempt to define an activity system (and just how is that different from a discourse community?), I found the whole discussion a bit fragmented and not all that useful. She does bring up the idea of students’ use of prior knowledge, which is something I think we tend to ignore and which Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak encourage us to take into consideration when approaching recalcitrant students. And she mentions the academy’s general notion that “freshman composition is being charged with preparing students to write in all disciplines (however ridiculous such an expectation)” which is, I think, the impetus for the last decade’s work on transfer in composition and the best way to achieve it.

That said, the only thing I really took from this piece is her work on the writing prompt and how limiting it can be, and that was more of a reminder than anything. It’s very easy to mandate form (three sources, one of which must be peer reviewed, etc.) and micromanage the process instead of, as she quotes Head and Eisenberg, “conveying substantive information that students also needed, such as how to define and focus a research strategy within the complex information landscape that most college students inhabit today.” That’s a good thing to remember when designing research assignments.


“Bergmann and Zepernick argue that ‘the primary obstacle to such transfer is not that students are unable to recognize situations outside FYC in which those skills can be used, but that students do not look for such situations because they believe that skills learned in FYC have no value in any other setting’” (139).

I read the whole of Dirk’s essay as pointing out the discrepancy between the actual curriculum of what is taught when the research paper is taught (writing for the instructor) and what our expectations are (writing for some other ambiguous audience). I found the analysis of prompts representative of the kinds of artificiality that exists in writing assignments, and I’m guilty, as I’m sure many of us are, in putting in some artificial constraints in an assignment prompt, such as “you must a certain number of sources and quotes” and whatever. These kinds of constraints in an assignment are determined by the professor and the students do them because they are required to. We might ask ourselves why we make these kinds of moves. Perhaps, we need to see, for instance, evidence that a student has learned how to quote and incorporate outside research into an assignment, and so we force the issue through the prompt. This kind of forced and artificial situation is highly problematic in that while students may do it, they perceive it as not useful beyond the writing classroom, as the quote above states. To correct this problem, then, requires us to think our own way of designing our curriculum in a way where students are able to see that the work they do has relevance beyond FYW.

I would just add that in addition to designing curriculum that has relevance to students’ perceptions beyond FYW, that students begin incorporating research from the beginning of the semester and in virtually every assignment so they get accustomed to reading and thinking with others and learning the technical skills of quotation and citation from the beginning of Comp 1. The “research paper” shouldn’t be a set of new skills that they have to dive into, but should be an extension of the work that they have been doing all along.

Thankyou, Next

Okay, Postscript: You see that I just posted on “The ‘Research Paper’ Prompt” by Dirk? Well, upon further reflection, it seems I fell into the very trap he describes:

“Students are able to recognize a prompt; they know, in other words, that they are being asked to write something. But a sampling of what exactly is being asked for in these prompts shows how varied a research paper is among different sections of composition:…”

I was given a prompt to write a blog post here — only, I wasn’t sure where, exactly, “here” was. I wrote it, and didn’t know exactly why or for whom I was writing. I jumped in. And what I “uttered” was a shout into a previously conceived well.

Maybe Dirk has more on the ball than I would previously like to admit.

A Shot in the Dirk

A Shot in the Dirk

Growing up as I did in a strict, religious household, surrounded by hundreds of  books on or about the Old Testament, I tend to associate research with enlightenment. It all seemed pretty simple to me as a child: I know little to nothing now about subject A; I would like to know more. Once I discover even a little bit more than I previously knew about A, I feel a palpable sense of light, a kind of dawning going on in my mind. One tiny match (to paraphrase a saying of the Rabbis) has now dispelled a whole lot of my darkness.* True, hermeneutics isn’t the same thing as research, but when I read Dirk I see some parallels. Dirk talks a lot about the importance of Prompts, and I agree. The first tenuous steps of inquiry matter; no task is too great if you chip away at it; and you don’t have to be afraid of what you don’t know, because a little bit of progress will transform your feeling lost in one particular context into the passion and confidence to journey forward into another.

I could quote a great deal of what he writes. I might toss in a few of my favorites, below; but, overall, I can’t say I found Dirk all that helpful. This may sound petty, but he doesn’t show me how to address my greatest nightmare: how to grade the research paper. If I am teaching transferrable skills (and I think that I am in ENG 1101), I am all alone come December in assessing them within the walls of my class/house/wherever I am grading. No Anthropology or Sociology professor comes to my aid, even though I feel I will have helped them a great deal come spring semester.

But okay, at least I know that others share my woes. Dirk writes: “The research paper has caused our field decades of warranted stress over its place in the curriculum, yet research is so pivotal to every discipline—and to many careers—that it would be imprudent to banish it from writing courses…In the 1980s, continual dissatisfaction with student papers often prompted instructors to discontinue the use of this assignment (Ford and Perry). Indeed, even today, most scholars still seem unsatisfied with the results, as research papers are often introduced as necessary evils (Blue; Moulton and Holmes; Sutton).”

Necessary evil, indeed. I teach a lot of things in my 1101 classroom — everything, probably, except English. I teach music appreciation, or the history of photography, or how to get a date. I talk about real topics and real things in the hopes of demonstrating, modeling, or otherwise showing the students (rather than telling them) how to get “there” from “here” with the act of writing. However, I never seem to figure out how to make the mother of all assignments, the Research Paper/Project (call it what you will, and Dirk lists a bunch of ways) transferable to what the heck I want to accomplish in MY classroom. The students’ future professors should thank me. I think I have taught skills (is “excitement” or “open-mindedness” or “confidence” a skill worthy of mentioning alongside of source evaluation?) that transfer to their disciplines. That said, on my end, having gotten past the hurdle of dismantling the students’ pre-conceived notions about the five-paragraph essay, I have little time or energy left to disembowel the enemy of a given class’ research paper expectations. Their issues are so different. Some want the high school paper to stand in for the college paper (Dirk points this out); some lack the English skills to sustain the writing of a long paper, period, and are too terrified to try. And of course, the dreaded Thesis Statement. No other course, from what I can tell, seems to demand a Thesis except mine. The students gain tons of knowledge in our in-class discussions, but I am left grading for lack of arguable, problem-driven, give and take. Why? Because I teach English. Which seems to be different than Knowledge. At least in terms of my Research Paper Grading Rubric as it stands now.

Yes, I do sound a lot like Dirk when he says: “…a person who thinks situation B is like situation A, when encountering situation B, might act in B as he/she did in A (Russell, “Rethinking” 515). As a result, students who have written previous research papers may come to freshman composition with preconceived notions about what all research papers should look like, thus creating papers like those they have previously written no matter how different the situation. We see this often when students arrive in our classes and turn in a five-paragraph essay for the first assignment—a common occurrence that illustrates how students try to transfer previous writing experiences to present ones.”

But all that talk about genre? All the Bakhtin…not so helpful for me, except, again, as an aid to talking about pedagogy with all of you this coming spring. Perhaps some of my colleagues can help me make the jump from grading anxiety to genre chat: “Russell and Yañez argue, ‘students are alienated in part because they don’t see the genres assigned as part of a human activity that makes sense that has uses beyond pleasing the teacher to get a grade’ (351). Yet genres are developed not as stand-alone texts but as integral parts of activity systems that Bakhtin calls ‘spheres of human activity and communication,’ which each ‘give rise to particular genres, that is, certain relatively stable thematic, compositional, and stylistic types of utterances’ (64). Does that pleasing the teacher part get you, as it did, me?

It’s my sincere hope that by creating this new pedagogical conversation between 1101 and 1121 we will alleviate some of my own, personal, issues. Why must research in English 1101 and the innate Human desire to wonder — to go beyond limits — be so different? Isn’t, to paraphrase yet another Rabbi, “all the rest commentary?”

With any luck, I can transfer my childish outlook into something that will help all of you during PD this term. Meantime, I am reading all the other assignments, and finding more to like than I did here.


*[Literally, the “room” of]