By Sophie Buckner
Aw… the research essay. The staple in undergraduate writing. At best, the student research essay poses a provocative question and curates convincing and credible evidence to support the student writer’s own unique answer to that question. At its worst, the research essay is a frustrating document embodying the boredom and/or confusion of the student writer.
In my experience as an instructor in UConn’s First-Year Writing program, I have seen research papers all across this spectrum, but mostly, research paper assignments produce formulaic and unengaged writing. And despite the few excellent outliers, the task of grading such an assignment—which is generally the longest writing assignment in a class—is daunting to say the least.
Besides, as I think of the future writing of my students, I can’t help but wonder if these research essays will mean anything to them when they leave the university. Perhaps instructors could do their students (and themselves) a favor by assigning a variety of genres beyond the research paper.
While we focus so much of our attention on the traditional research paper, there are so many other forms of writing that are valuable and worth teaching our students. What about personal essays, blog posts, or op-eds? Or what about digital writing? Like podcasts or videos? All these types of writing have real audiences that will motivate students to analyze the context of their writing and see it as something more than a grade.
Additionally, many writing studies experts argue that when students make a personal connection to what they are writing about, they remember the material better and can better internalize the knowledge (Sommer and Saltz 2004; Bean 2011; Newkirk 2014). In his book Engaging Ideas, John C. Bean states:
As cognitive research has shown, to assimilate a new concept, learners must link it back to a structure of known material, determining how a new concept is both similar to and different from what the learner already knows. The more that unfamiliar material can be linked to the familiar ground of personal experience and already existing knowledge, the easier it is to learn. (151)
The formality of the traditional research essay generally bars “indulging” in personal reflection, but other genres can provide the personal connection to subject material that will allow students to fully understand and remember the material.
I assign what I call a non-traditional research essay. In this type of essay, students conduct research about their topic and then write small pieces in different genres. Students write poetry, short stories, mock news reports, fabricated journal entries, and so much more. Then they arrange their pieces together to create one whole. As students learn the conventions of different genres, this assignment also pushes them to think about how their ideas fit together, rather than just plugging them into a formula. This assignment in particular gets students excited about their research, and I’ve noticed that when students care about their material, the quality of their writing improves.
Another genre that I enjoy assigning is the op-ed. Op-eds are characteristically short, so students don’t feel overwhelmed. But students also learn to make their argument and back it up concisely. Another bonus of the op-ed genre is that students can have an audience for their writing besides the instructor. I have encouraged my students to send their writing to the local newspaper, and several have gotten their work published.
Although the traditional research essay may remain a staple in undergraduate education, it is not the only option. Sometimes, a different genre is more practical and will leave a longer-lasting impression. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little fun!
For ideas on how to incorporate alternative genres into your classroom, see:
- Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean
- “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art” by Peter Elbow
- Twenty-One Genres and How to Write Them by Brock Drethier
- Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire by Tom Romano