The Research Essay from an Instructor’s Perspective

[The following is adapted from a talk I gave to colleagues who provide library instruction for first-year college writing courses, but have never taught one themselves. I thought similar librarians might be interested in the research essay from an instructor’s perspective.]

A little bit about my background with writing instruction. I started teaching writing, or rhetoric as it’s called there, at the University of Illinois in 1992. Except for a year when I exiled myself from academia, I either taught writing or worked in a writing center from then until the end of 1999 when I finished library school. I came to Princeton in 2002, and from 2002-2009 I taught seven writing seminars in the Princeton Writing Program. So I have a lot of experience on both sides of the instructor-librarian relationship.

The goal of a writing seminar is to teach students to be able to write argumentative, academic essays using sources, and in many ways this is an unnatural act. Take a look at the Elements of the Academic Essay, which the writing seminars used for years to provide a common vocabulary about writing, and which many other writing programs use. (They now use a variation of it.)

Elements of the Academic Essay

  1. Thesis
  2. Motive
  3. Evidence
  4. Analysis
  5. Keyterms
  6. Structure
  7. Stitching
  8. Sources
  9. Reflecting
  10. Orienting
  11. Stance
  12. Style
  13. Title

13 elements of the academic essay. That’s a lot to cover. Where does the library portion come in? Evidence (maybe), sources (again, maybe), thesis. Evidence could include sources handed out in class, interviews, etc. And the sources might be suggested by an instructor or by the references list in a scholarly encyclopedia. My writing seminars mostly focused on the work of John Rawls and responses to him. If you read the Rawls entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and follow the references, you won’t need to do much library searching.

Some of these are more difficult than others. It’s harder to formulate a thesis than a title, but students even have trouble with titles. In an essay about John Rawls, the title might be “John Rawls.” Not very indicative of what the essay is about.

Students come in as strong writers at a basic level, but they haven’t had much experience writing argumentative academic essay using sources, and it’s a big transition.

In the Princeton Writing Program, there are four essays, but the first three are the most important, and develop in a sequence. Typically, the first essay works with one or two sources and involves interpreting and forming a thesis about those. The second essay usually adds in a few more sources to write about. And the third essay is the research essay.

Librarians usually come in for Essay 3, but the first three essays are a continuum teaching students how to read, interpret, and use scholarly sources in an academic essay. For each essay, there’s a draft (D) and a revision (R). In between those the instructor comments on the draft, makes suggestions for improvement, and meets individually with the students to discuss the revision. The sequence goes D1 R1, D2 R2, and D3 R3.

As an example, I’ll discuss my own teaching. My last writing seminars focused on the work of John Rawls, a Princeton A.B. and PhD who was possibly the most prominent political philosopher in the English-speaking world in the past century. We’d start with a 25-page excerpt from his first book A Theory of Justice. Rawls is a complicated thinker and a dense writer, but we spent a couple of weeks discussing the excerpt, focusing on just a few ideas: the Original Position, the Veil of Ignorance, Justice as Fairness, and the Two Principles of Justice. In the first essay, students were to make some argument about Rawls.

In D1, most students struggled with his work, and some would wildly misinterpret him, building a strawman called Rawls and making bold claims attacking that instead of engaging critically with what he actually wrote.

There were two problems.

First, reading and interpreting difficult texts is, well, difficult. Nietzsche, who was trained as a classical philologist and thus a very careful reader, somewhere writes that most people read every fifth word of a text and then try to work out a meaning from that. That’s pretty much what most students did on their first pass through Rawls. Reading difficult texts and interpreting them carefully isn’t easy, and the students don’t have much experience doing it. Rawls is probably more difficult than many of the readings in a writing class, but eventually students will venture out into the scholarly literature which can often be difficult to understand for novices in a field.

Second, people tend to quickly form strong beliefs based on little evidence, and then accept evidence that confirms their beliefs while ignoring counter-evidence. That leads to bold, unsubstantiated claims and sloppy interpretations.

Princeton psychologist emeritus Daniel Kahneman studied fast thinking and slow thinking. We tend to make snap judgments and then come up with reasons to defend them. Learning to think slowly and evaluate evidence is difficult because that’s not how we normally think. Studies of motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases conclude the same thing. Some studies have even shown that if people strongly hold beliefs, then presenting them with an undeniable refutation of those beliefs only reinforces their commitment to them. Science is telling us what David Hume told us a quarter century ago. Reason is a slave of the passions.

Students are sometimes like the people Michael Shermer describes in his book Why Smart People Believe Weird Things. They believe weird things (in this case about Rawls) because they’re really good at coming up with smart reasons to defend beliefs they developed by non-smart means.

A good writing seminar should help students break this habit and think more like academics: careful reading, detailed analysis, qualified claims based on the evidence. Even if writing instructors don’t realize it, they’re trying to suppress and retrain natural mental instincts formed over a hundred thousand years of human evolution, and instead teach students to develop their beliefs based on a careful consideration of all available evidence. Compared to that, searching Summon or the catalog to find a few books and articles is fairly easy.

The instructor then comments on the draft. Many of my comments would be pointing out misinterpretations, which usually meant showing that some bold claim the student made about something Rawls supposedly supports was refuted by some other part of Rawls the student ignored. Sometimes there were structural or other issues as well. The revision, R1, would be a little better. Students would have dealt with my counter-evidence and qualified their claims.

In D2 students are a little better still, more careful in their interpretations and more cautious in their statements, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Reading and interpreting carefully. Developing beliefs based on the evidence. Classes spend 5-6 weeks on teaching these skills and the elements of the academic essay before ever tackling the research essay.

By D3, they’ve gotten better, but now have to use the same skills on sources that the class hasn’t read and discussed together. We librarians step in and show them the basics of library research and how to find books and articles, and we make it pretty easy for them with discovery layers. Even then we might be fooling ourselves, since we know that most of the traffic to our electronic resources is driven by Google, not our databases.

Regardless, finding the sources is a lot easier than the task of reading, analyzing, and synthesizing them into a careful argument, and that’s the major goal of the research essay. All the students are familiar with the very basics of online searching. Librarians teach them to do that in a more scholarly way. It’s all the other stuff that’s new to them.

In D3 there are a series of stages: the research topic, the research question, and the thesis statement.

The research topic is first, and there’s no point meeting with us as librarians before they have that. The topic is broad, and could come from some class readings, instructor suggestion, initial interest of the student, or wherever. That’s the point they need to do some preliminary research, which will just be their first round of research.

Then comes the research question, which is best formulated after some searching, but more importantly some reading. Students have to read and understand enough about the topic to know what questions can be fruitfully asked and what questions are already answered or impossible to answer.

Then, they have to research and read more to develop a thesis, a debatable claim they can support from the evidence.

To distinguish these stages, I’ll use a possible example about Rawls.

The topic is John Rawls’ concept of  “justice as fairness.” This is what is known as a “lens essay,” looking at some subject through the lens of Rawls’ work.

Rawls argues that justice as fairness requires us to imagine what a society might be like if we designed it from behind a “veil of ignorance,” what he calls the “original position.” What kind of society would we want to live in if we had no idea what place we would have in that society? Rawls answers that question at length. He argues that we would secure basic individual liberties, make sure positions in society were equally and openly competitive, and that social and economic inequalities would benefit the least advantaged. So we could look at some current social arrangement and ask, is it just?

But let’s complicate it by adding an animal rights perspective suggested by the work of Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton philosopher. This would be a double lens essay, looking at animal rights through the lenses of both Rawls and Singer.

We could come up with a research question:

What if we applied Rawls in the way that Peter Singer might think about? Blind to species? What kind of society would we come up with if we not only didn’t know our human place in society, but didn’t know if we’d occupy the place of a human or a dolphin?

If we thought about and researched this more, we might come up with the following thesis:

When we view John Rawls’ theory of justice through the lens of Peter Singer, some non-human animals would possibly benefit from rules of justice formed behind the veil of ignorance, and some homo sapiens might lose consideration.

This is still more of a working thesis. It should be more specific about the consequences, but first, the student would have to, in Hegel’s words, work through the labor of the notion to develop the complete argument, responding and reflecting on the related sources, such as Mark Rowlands’ non-speciesist response to Rawls and Hallie Liberto’s and David Svolba’s responses to Rowlands, both easily found through a simple PhilPapers search.

Like the introductory paragraph—which should be written last when you know what you’re actually introducing—the final thesis should be written after the argument is complete and you know what you’ve actually argued, and then you should go back through the essay and cut out everything that isn’t related to it. It’s hard work.

To conclude, students aren’t used to reading difficult texts, interpreting them carefully, arguing with them, reflecting on them, and developing an arguable claim from the sources they find instead of just believing stuff and hoping to find evidence for it. These skills are difficult to learn, which is why what passes for discussion and debate out in the world is so terrible. The lack of these skills and training explains why there are people who fervently believe we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.

And because of this, when it comes to learning how to write an academic research essay using sources, finding the sources is probably the easiest thing the students are going to learn. It’s everything else they have a lot of trouble with. The librarian’s role in the process is important, but relatively small considering all the other things students have to learn to write good academic essays.