Research Project Instructions

            Think about your previous papers, and make a list of gaps in the evidence or reasoning which you needed to make the papers more successful.  Be specific, both in your focus and in the language you use to describe what you need.  Remember that expert vocabulary differs from common speech in that it uses specialized language (sometimes called “terms of art”) to describe its subject. Those terms of art usually are not readily translatable into commonplace words the general public uses to talk about the topic.  Choose either one of the papers whose topic still strongly interests you, or one of the questions which you think will be easily answered and which will make a significant improvement in one of the papers.  

             Good research questions are specific enough to be answerable, but not so specific that they have no general application to your best readers' needs.  A too-specific question often asks for a simple fact, such as "when did Columbus discover America."  The answer tells us nothing useful until it is interpreted by logical thinking that broadens its application (e.g., "in what years did major European explorers make their discoveries and what led them to do so?").  A too-general question asks for masses of information with no discernable purpose, and its answer is potentially endless, such as "what are the facts about China?"  Connecting the general question topic with the best readers' needs and the writer's purposes will make it specific enough to generate useful answers (e.g., "what are Chinese laws governing organ transplantation?"). 

            Rank your questions in terms of how difficult you think they will be to answer, and how much value they will add to the papers.  That will help you focus.  If the first question on your list resists your search, remember to ask for help from the library's bibliographic instruction staff, and/or from me, before you give up and move to the next question on your list.  Be persistent, but don't refuse to be flexible if the evidence resists discovery.  (With my permission, you instead may decide to locate information that will help you write a paper for another course, but I need to discuss that with you before you start.)

            On Monday, we will work on ways to clarify what information you seek and how you will use it.  Send an email to me by noon on Tuesday describing your research questions, how you hope to use the answers if you find them, and what methods you think you will use to find the answers This will allow me to forward them to the librarian doing the instruction session to help your search succeed.  If I can foresee problems, I also can help you redirect your search to something more likely towork.  The written product of this project will be a short report.  Click here for a description of the report's essential parts.  Click here for the specialized criteria I will use to evaluate your research process and your research project report.

             Keep in mind that our test of success will depend on the quality of the information you find.  Unless your sources are scholarly, you should plan on explaining why we should trust your sources to appeal to the paper's best readers' sense of what constitutes expertise.  Do not mistake quantity of information, or the ease with which it was discovered, for measures of the information's quality.  Usually, quantity and ease of discovery are in inversely related to information quality.

            Before you conclude your search, go to the library and explore its print collection.  The library contains book-length and article-length resources that have been pre-selected for academic quality, most of them having passed a professional peer-reviewed publishing process.  Your instructors routinely order book-length resources to support research on topics they know their courses will cover.  Internet-based resources may be of help, but remember that you are responsible for testing their quality.  Unless they are peer-reviewed sites, or have some other means of guaranteeing the accuracy of their information or the expertise of their reasoning, Internet-based sources may harm your paper instead of helping it.  (In English 104, you can use non-scholarly sources that are reasonably reliable, but when you get to English 105, or if you hope to achieve College Writing Proficiency in 104, you will have to get used to relying only on scholarly sources for secondary source support in academic writing.)           

            Our goal for this project is to find an adequate answer to one of your research questions, and to explain both the reason for the question and the answer you found in a short report, perhaps only a page or two long (with the usual MLA format).  Above all, don't confuse this project with what high schools sometimes teach as "the research paper," a huge collection of everything you can find on a broad general topic.  College-level research solves problems which writers encounter when they try to write using the primary source materials they already have and their own native intelligence.  Solving those problems requires you to find secondary sources, scholars who have preceded you, so that you can take advantage of their research by properly borrowing their intellectual property, and giving them credit in your paper when you have done so.  Reasons to use secondary sources begin with acknowledging work recently done on your topic, or pointing out that recent work has not addressed the aspect of the topic that your writing addresses.  Beyond that, reasons to use secondary sources tend to be specific to individual disciplines.

           If you successfully complete this research project, its results will help you in two ways.  First, you can get a good grade on the project report.  Second, you may decide to revise the paper you researched for the Final Portfolio, and in that case, you could improve its grade and your portfolio's chance of passing the CWP requirementt.  If you can use this research to demonstrate that you meet the research criteria of the College Writing Proficiency standards, you may be able to use it in a portfolio of three papers you can ask me to submit to the Writing Program in December.  Successful portfolios exempt students from taking English 105.

    Click here for Research Project Workshop examples from previous classes.