Writing and Communication Center

Integrating Writing

Creating a distinction between writing, reading, and speaking is simply a way to organize these various sections. In practice, these categories are never separable. Nevertheless, this section offers guidelines for helping students actually put pen to paper in some low-pressure pre-writing exercises, for stepping students through the multiple steps of writing research essays, for coming up with different kinds of assignments that will encourage analytical writing (rather than just reporting), and for writing creative fictional and non-fictional narratives. Finally, this section offers some strategies for addressing plagiarism.

On this page:

Writing Research Projects

Writing Narratives


Finding a Topic

Purpose:

Because you will generally design a course around a particular theme or set of issues within a disciplinary or multidisciplinary context, it is a good idea, when assigning a research project, to give students the opportunity to identify a topic within that theme that interests them and that they can invest in on a creative as well as a critical level. Moving from the course theme to the topic is the first step in a process of narrowing their interests to something manageable in a 10-week, 10-12-page research project. They are somewhat constrained by the theme, but as the theme for a course is generally quite broad, you can anticipate that each student can find something related to this theme that will hold his or her interest for a quarter.

Application:

In order to discuss the steps toward bringing students to find a topic, we will use as an example an introduction to interdisciplinary studies course that focuses on the concept of "work." This example is particularly useful in that the theme is broad enough to give students many entry points in terms of locating their own interests.

When introducing the research project (probably early on in the quarter), remind your students that they will need to locate their own investment in the course/project by means of the following types of prompts. (It is a good idea to ask them to free-write in response to these prompts):

  • Finding a personal concern: Since you've enrolled in the course, you can't just look at the theme and say, "I don't care about this!" Take a few minutes to think about the issues that most concern you in life. Are you particularly concerned about education? Human rights? Consumerism? Art? Any of these areas would offer a way to focus the broad issue of "work" into a topic. For example, you may be concerned that the educational system is not preparing our children for the kind of jobs that will be available when they leave school-or, conversely, that students are being too narrowly prepared for later employment. Or you might have read about workers whose human rights are violated by the terms or conditions of their employment. You have a great deal of latitude.
  • "I notice . . . I wonder": Another rich approach to finding a topic and issue that concern you is to be very attentive to what you observe in your daily life, as you read, drive to the supermarket, watch television, etc. For example, have you ever been struck by how tidy the homes of even the largest and busiest television families seem to be? It's something you notice that can lead you to wonder about a lot: who does the cleaning? Is cleanliness on television an aesthetic or a social concern?
  • Worldview/lenses: Once you identify what concerns or interests you, you can begin to identify a perspective you want to bring to it. You may want to narrow by disciplinary perspectives, perhaps because you have a particular interest in psychology or political science; or you may want to examine your topic from the perspective of the individual, or society, or a particular community, or globally. Stop to think about what you know about your topic and what experiences you bring to it.

Topics are, however, still general, and an attempt to write about a topic would most likely result in an informative report rather than our goal of taking a position and supporting it with evidence.

  • Narrow a topic to an issue by identifying problems or controversies and discovering differing perspectives and discussions. Anne Herrington, a specialist in composition and rhetoric, offers another way to think about the difference between a topic and an issue. She writes that "we are more likely to go beyond reporting information to selecting from it and reorganizing, synthesizing, and interpreting it when we are trying to solve a problem or answer a question [i.e., address an issue] for ourselves" (Anne J. Herrington, "Assignment and response: teaching with writing across the disciplines," in S. W. Witte, N. Nakadate, R. D. Cherry, eds., A Rhetoric of doing: essays on written discourse in honor of James L. Kinneavy. [Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 1992]).

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Posing a Question

Purpose:

In order to avoid "report" writing, students need to move from their topic to a controversial issue inherent in the topic. At this point, students should be reading initial sources about their topics to begin to identify the controversial issues within or surrounding the topic. (You may assign them, for example, to find two provocative sources about their topic. For more information, see Searching for Sources.) They can arrive at an issue by posing a question about their topic.

Application:

The following are some guidelines you can give your students to help them come to the kind of question that will inspire their research and critical thinking:

After identifying your topic, the next step in developing your project is to locate an issue within that topic. The issue you identify will generally represent something that interests, puzzles or surprises you within the larger domain of the topic you have been exploring.

Now you need to pose a question that will help you understand that interesting, puzzling or surprising phenomenon. At this point, you can really let loose with all your creativity and imagination. Bear in mind that the more complex your question, the more you'll discover in seeking to answer it.

The question should meet the following criteria:

  • It should, generally, ask us to determine relationships (frequently cause and effect relationships) that cannot be directly observed; that is, it should generally ask "why" or "how," rather than "when" or "who."
  • It should be precise enough to allow an approximation of an answer and yet open enough not to predetermine its answer.
  • It should identify or articulate a controversy about which reasonable people will disagree; that is, it will engage you in an intellectual "conversation" with scholars who are writing and thinking about your issue and who are not all arriving at the same answer.
  • It should be complicated enough that it cannot be answered directly, but open to multiple "good" answers. (Your job will be to come up the with answer that offer the best, fullest explanation of the phenomenon you are exploring.)

The more you read about and think about your issue, the more questions you will discover.

You've already developed some familiarity with the issue you've chosen through some initial searches. In order to decide on a question, you need to begin looking at specialized materials that examine your issue from the perspectives of different disciplines. In other words, you will need to turn to scholarly material, trade publications and government documents.

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Searching for Sources

Purpose:

Refer to library web sites for more thorough discussions of how to help your students conduct searches. It is always a good idea, however, to ask one of the librarians to help you customize a search handout for your particular research project. Identify for students the range of sources that would be appropriate for this kind of project and articulate for them what constitutes primary and secondary, scholarly and popular sources in this specific research context.

Application:

It is a good idea to get students doing preliminary searches at the beginning of the research process, especially as they are beginning to come up with topics. Assure them that they do not have to come up with a topic that "no one has ever researched before." In fact, part of the purpose of doing research is to engage in an ongoing conversation with others who have addressed a similar issue or question. They will add a unique voice and perspective to the issue as long as they are invested and interested in their process.

The following categories sketch out some of the different kinds of sources they will be encountering; work with a librarian to revise the list and to customize it for your class.

Scholarly publications:

Academics and experts in particular fields and disciplines discuss theories and research in journals and other scholarly publications. You can identify scholarly publications in a number of the following ways:

  • They may have a review editorial committee listed at the beginning of the journal.
  • They may indicated that they are "refereed" or "peer reviewed" by other experts in the field before they are accepted for publication.
  • They use specialized vocabulary unfamiliar to or difficult to understand by someone outside the field.
  • They, generally, reference lists at the end of articles. These lists show where the author obtained his/her information.

For an academic research paper, you'll probably rely on scholarly publications to a large extent.

NOTE: Since electronic databases don't allow you to handle and leaf through copies of journals that include lists of editorial boards or descriptions of the journals' review procedures, you'll need some additional access to this information. In the library databases, you'll find "Ulrich's international periodicals directory." You can look up journals by title in Ulrich's and find a lot of the information you need to determine whether your source is scholarly.

Trade publications:

These publications also are used by experts in particular fields; some examples include Beverage World, Advertising Age, Chemical News Weekly, etc. While these publications are not considered scholarly, they are a tremendous source for discovering what experts are talking about, trends that are going on, etc. Again, depending upon your question, you may need to augment your research with some trade publications.

Government Documents:

This is a fairly obvious source of specialized materials and much of it is available on the Internet. Those of you focusing on policy or political issues will no doubt incorporate some of this information into your papers. Note that the UW Government Documents Library is a Depository Library, which means that it receives items published by the Federal Government, several states and foreign documents as well. These can be hard to find or decipher in the UW Catalog, so feel free to ask for help!

The UW Bothell Library homepage provides access through a single location to all of the Libraries' resources, print and electronic, as well as tools, services and the ability to search a wide range of Internet resources. There are many subject- and discipline-specific databases. In thinking about the databases you want to search, see if there are databases that cover your disciplinary interests. For example, if we were looking at the issue of "using distance learning for vocational training," we might search ERIC, a database devoted to the field of education, which includes both research and applied articles.

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Assessing Sources/Writing a Literature Review

Purpose:

In order for students to locate their own arguments, they must first spend time organizing, assessing, and unpacking their sources. Once they can see clearly what kinds of voices and perspectives address their research questions, they can enter into the conversation by addressing counter-arguments as well as articulating and supporting their own arguments. On a more formal level, some kinds of research projects require a literature review section. These exercises will help students draft this section.

Application:

The following exercises provide a systematic process by which students can achieve the kind of familiarity with their sources that is requisite for incorporating them into their own arguments. Students should complete the exercises outside of class. You may assign them in sequence or you may decide to use only one or two of the following:

  • Assessing Sources
  • Creating a Matrix
  • Writing a Literature Review

Assessing sources

Begin the process of evaluating the sources you are finding by first reading the text and summarizing the author's main points by making notes, written or mental, annotations, or other means. In academic writing, you also need to be fully informed about the sources that look relevant to your research: for example, who is the writer and what are his/her credentials, what is the purpose of and audience for the publication and how does a particular source fit into the larger, ongoing conversation about this question. In other words, look at the factors external to the source in order to help you determine its credibility and authority. Answer the following sets of questions for each of your sources:

AUTHOR

Conduct a brief search on the author to determine his/her expertise, reputation, and credibility.

Look at citations, articles, and books by this author to find information about who the author is, what his/her credentials are, and what occupation or position s/he holds. Also check library reference sources
(e.g., Who's Who in American Education, American Scholars' Directory) for author information.

PUBLICATION AND AUDIENCE
  1. Examine the publication for which the author is writing to determine the author's intended audience, and the publication's reputation, credibility, and target reader/researcher.
  2. Look in the text for clues to what audience the author is addressing, e.g., specialized or general vocabulary, types of sources cited, explicit references to the audience.
  3. Look at the publication itself: front/back cover, submission guidelines, editorial board. Use Library reference sources such as Magazines for Libraries, which give an indication of audience and types of articles. Once you're satisfied that your source is credible and reliable, you are ready to analyze the text itself.
ARGUMENT/EVIDENCE
  1. Carefully read the text, looking at the evidence the author is using and the structure of the argument (e.g., whether it moves logically from point to point).
  2. Identify the range of evidence (personal opinions or observations, research, case studies, analogies, statistics, facts, quotations, etc.).
  3. Assess how the author presents and discusses alternative perspectives in relation to his/her thesis?
  4. Locate any gaps or inconsistencies in the development of the argument.
RELEVANCE/CONSISTENCY
  1. Analyze the text in relation to your question and developing thesis, and in relation to other sources you've been reading.
  2. If it supports your thinking, identify the assumptions/biases/perspectives influencing the writer, and how they compare to your own and those of other writers with whom this one agrees.
  3. If it is an opposing perspective, identify the assumptions/biases/perspectives influencing the writer, and how they compare to your own and those of other writers with whom this one agrees?
  4. Determine how this source contributes to your understanding or to generating new questions in your thinking?

Creating a matrix

From your initial forays into the sources, you should have some sense of the range of ways authors answer your question and that there are, in fact, several reasonable and defensible answers to your question. It is important to begin understanding what influences different writers to answer your question differently. This exercise will help you start identifying the perspectives, schools of thought, sets of variables, etc., that influence the question you're trying to answer. It will also help you organize your readings into categories that will help you choose the main arguments in support of and in opposition to your thesis.

The following shows one way in which you might draw your matrix:

  Source #1 Source #2  Source #3 

Discipline

     

Evidence

     

Methodology

     

Critical/
Theoretical
Concepts

     

Conclusions/
Answer

     

Yours may look different depending upon the number of sources you are working with at this stage and depending upon the kind of research question you are raising. For example, if you are looking at quantitative studies of the incidence of chronic depression among working mothers you might want a category in the left column for the demographic make-up of the subjects of each study. Or if you are doing a comparative study of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers relationships to their careers across the country, you might have a category that identifies geographic location.

As you begin to fill out your matrix, it will start to look something like this:

Research Question: How do Gen Xers and Baby Boomers different relationship to work reflect larger cultural shifts in attitudes toward the individual in society?

 

Hypothetical
Book Title

Hypothetical
Article Title

Discipline

Cultural Studies

Sociology

Evidence

Cultural texts: magazines, the news, films, literature

Quantitative studies of careers/salaries of individuals over 40 as compared with individuals under 30.

Methodology

Close-reads the various cultural texts and places them in conversation (comparison/
contrast) with each other. Looks specifically at popular magazines
aimed at
Generation Xers and Baby Boomers.

Surveys and interviews primarily white subjects (from similar socio-economic background) from two different age categories.

Critical/
Theoretical
Concepts

Uses Marxist theories of production and alienation. Takes a less-critical look at Gen X than popular
press-criticizes discussions of Gen Xers as "lazy."

Hypothesis, methods and conclusions based on prior quantitative studies. Assumptions are based on criticisms of Gen Xers as apathetic, as products of economic prosperity, and the end of the Cold War.

Conclusions/
Answer

Gen Xers approach their work/career lives as temporary and requisite for supporting their commitment to individual freedom (understood in terms of "creative production"), whereas Baby Boomers have experienced their careers as expressions of their individual freedom.

Individuals under 30, on average, stay in jobs for 2-3 years; whereas individuals over 40 remain in one place for 7-9 years. This is an indication of the ways in which influences such as the media, internet, relative wealth of parents, post Cold War mentality have fostered short attention spans in 20-30 year olds.

As we can see, so far, neither source directly answers the research question, but they each suggest approaches toward answering the question and each will provide arguments or counter-arguments in relationship to your own argument.

The next step is to begin to position your own argument (as well as your own assumptions) in relation to these sources. For more information, see Developing a Thesis.

WRITING A LITERATURE REVIEW

Bearing in mind that a viable research question produces more than one reasonable answer, the literature review:

  • Describes the kind of search that was conducted
  • Summarizes, analyzes, and organizes the various responses found in the scholarly conversation regarding the question
  • Explains why different scholars provide different answers for the same or related questions (i.e. accounts for the debate/tension in the literature

As a result, the literature review does more than report the conclusions of researchers; it accounts for HOW those conclusions are reached.

The literature review plays an important role in research projects because:

  • It locates our research question within the scholarly debate relevant to our concerns
  • We don't need to reinvent the wheel, so we need to discover what has been done and represent it
  • We let the reader see the history of the question and demonstrate that we have done our homework
  • We identify what has not been done, or what has not been done well

Use the following steps in writing your literature review:

  1. Organize your sources by detecting a pattern that helps you explain why one group of sources comes up with one answer and another group comes up with another answer. Creating a matrix, as shown in Part II, is a very effective way of doing this.
  2. Summarize these different groups of sources in terms of how they address the question: what methodology, evidence, critical concepts, etc. do they employ?
  3. Analyze the content of these sources in terms of the answer they provide to your central question or in terms of the question they raise (which may be slightly different from your question). Show how they offer important insights. Show how they neglect particular areas.

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Developing a Thesis

Purpose:

Developing a tentative thesis is one of the most important stages in the process of researching. In this stage, students will learn to move toward a position or an answer to their question and support it with arguments and counter-arguments.

Application:

The exercises included in this stage can be conducted in class. Give students time to begin to articulate their tentative theses, map out their arguments, and receive feedback from their peers. By the end of this phase students will have a tentative thesis; that is, they will have proposed an answer to their question, based on research to date, that they will support or defend. Remind your students to relax and to be creative during this stage. Tentative means they may decide to modify or refine their theses as their research progresses. The following sections provide sample in-class and overnight exercises:

I. Articulating your thesis through arguments and counterarguments:

Your tentative thesis is not a recap of evidence you have encountered in your research; rather, it is a statement of your position based on your synthesis of the ideas and perspectives you have encountered thus far. Your next task is to isolate the most powerful arguments surrounding your question (both those that support your position and those that oppose it).

One way to think about your supporting arguments is that they provide the "because" to the question "why is your thesis so?" You will generally need a minimum of three arguments (or "becauses") to adequately support your thesis.

When we are choosing among a variety of possible answers (theses) to a question, we not only find what is most compelling in support of our position, but we determine what is lacking in other positions. Writers are sometimes tempted to attend only to the arguments that make their case, and to hope readers will be persuaded by those. But a powerful argument also anticipates the alternative perspectives that readers are most likely to entertain and responds to them, identifying their inadequacies. Some of the most common inadequacies of alternative perspectives are that:

  • They don't take into account some important variable(s)/consideration(s)
  • They are based on unreliable research
  • They are not appropriate to the population or setting you are examining
  • Sometimes you may acknowledge that they are reasonable but that yours is better for some reason that you can explain to readers

II. Mapping out your argument:

A good way to see where your thesis fits in relation to arguments in support of and in opposition to your own is to represent your research and thinking visually and spatially as follows:

  • Using a large sheet of paper, place your research question and tentative thesis somewhere in the blank space (keeping in mind that the placement of this question and answer may be important in representing your argument). Use a web-like design, or concentric circles, or a roadmap, etc. to represent the arguments for and against your thesis. Whatever design or schema you select, be sure to represent the connections you are making between your thesis and the arguments/counterarguments. Your map may look something like the following example:

 

visual representation of first bullet content. Tentative Thesis box in the center with three main arguement boxes stemming from it.

III. Articulating your thesis:

All of us have biases formed through experience, study, etc., that we don't articulate. These biases lead us to expect certain outcomes. The process of anticipating the answer you expect to find at this early stage provides you with an opportunity to explore your assumptions about your subject. When you identify the outcome you expect (your tentative thesis), you can begin interrogating your biases, assumptions and values. Why do you expect the outcome you expect?

For this assignment, review your research to identify the most compelling argument in support of your tentative thesis and the most significant alternative perspective to your thesis. In 4-5 paragraphs:

  • Restate your research question and tentative thesis
  • Provide the argument you find most compelling
  • Support the argument with evidence from three sources you've read
  • Provide a significant alternative perspective on your research question
  • Identify the limits of this position in relation to your tentative thesis, using evidence from three sources you've read
  • Use APA format for in-text citations

Exchange these paragraphs with those of a peer. For more information, see Writing Peer Critiques.

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Drafting the Essay

Purpose:

It is important to factor enough time into the research assignment for students to work on two to three drafts of their essays. The steps they will have done prior to structuring and writing the actual essay are good pre-writing strategies, but much of the thinking and organizing happens once students start making connections in writing among ideas. These connections, and the arguments as a whole, cannot gain clarity and take full complex shape without the benefit of writing, getting feedback, and rewriting.

Application:

Give students clear due dates for each draft, scheduling time for peer reviews and/or for you to make comments and suggestions for revision. It is often a good idea for students to receive feedback from more than one reader. For more information about peer reviews, see Writing Peer Critiques. Step through the following sections to guide students through their writing process:

  • Writing a First Draft
  • Writing a Second Draft
  • Writing a Final Draft

WRITING A FIRST DRAFT

In developing your thesis, you have been working on determining and developing your main argument that supports your position. The difference between this and the first draft is that your draft will give you a clear beginning, middle, and end. By the same token, this is not written in stone; in this draft you are still exploring your ideas. You will have lots of time to revise and edit for your audience once you are satisfied that you have covered all the ground. Writing the first draft also gives you the opportunity to see how well your arguments support your tentative thesis and how the differing perspectives or opposing viewpoints will affect your position. Follow the following steps in drafting your essay:

1. Get Started:

Plaster your research question and tentative thesis prominently above your work space, so you can refer to them as you write. Review your notes thoroughly and list ideas that you want to be sure to address in your paper. It is important to have an idea early on of what your thesis looks like in relation to the main arguments and to get a feel for the direction that you want to go. Authors often find it useful to lay out the components that they will include in their writing: introduction, background, tentative thesis, main arguments, alternative perspectives, and conclusion. There are several ways to get this broad picture or overview; two of the most common are mapping and outlining. For more information on mapping out your argument, see Developing a Thesis.

Outlining usually takes the form of a linear listing of the components, organized around a hierarchy of concepts and sequences within each hierarchy:

  1. Introduction
    • Background
    • Research Question
  2. Tentative Thesis
    • Main argument
      1. Support
      2. Support
    • Main argument
      1. Support
      2. Support
      3. Support
    • Main argument
      1. Support
      2. Support
  3. Conclusion: By now you should have identified the three arguments you find most compelling in defending your thesis. If you have a pretty clear idea about the sequence in which you want to present them, an outline might be most appropriate to you. If you have not yet determined how you'd like to sequence them, mapping might feel more appropriate.
2. Begin drafting:

It is not necessary to begin at the beginning; you can start writing wherever you feel relatively confident. You might, for example, begin by defining or explaining terms and concepts in your research question. Once you have done that, move on to another area you feel ready to discuss. Keep asking yourself what your reader will need to know, and write about that.

3. Review what you have written:

Once you have gotten on paper as much as you have to say, read it back carefully, see if you find contradictions, make new connections between ideas, or notice things you've omitted. The tentative thesis that you have plastered above your desk is there to keep you focused. As you review your main arguments and the material you have used to support it, put it to the "Why? Because" test—providing the "because" to the question "why is your thesis so?" Similarly, review the alternative perspectives to confirm that you've adequately addressed them.

Once you feel you have covered what you want to cover, read through again to make sure that the organization and development are logical. One strategy for doing this is to note in the margin in a few words the point of each paragraph. Take those brief phrases and look at them to see whether they follow logically or require reorganizing. Is anything necessary omitted? Make any appropriate changes to your organization and development.

WRITING A SECOND DRAFT

By this time, you will have received feedback on your first draft, which you need to review carefully. Look for patterns in the responses or questions that are raised by readers. You also need to reread your first draft with a fresh eye, as though you were reading it for the first time.

Up to this point, the focus in developing the paper has been on offering a solid thesis, supporting it with strong evidence, anticipating alternative perspectives and responding to those decisively. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you clearly articulated your thesis?
  • Do your main arguments give the reasons for "Why your thesis is so?"
  • Have you supported these with credible and relevant evidence?
  • Have you adequately addressed alternative perspectives?
  • What additional reading or research do you need in order to strengthen your thesis and arguments?

After you have more clearly articulated your thesis and arguments by responding to these questions, you can spend some time thinking about the overall presentation. Whether you began with an outline or with a map, you must now confirm that your presentation is organized clearly and logically for the reader by creating an outline from your current version.

Read what you have written, make margin notes on the purpose of each paragraph, and then take these notes and arrange and rearrange as needed. It is a lot easier to rethink the organization when you are looking at brief notations than when you are looking at the entire text. After you have rearranged your notations, you can cut and paste your document to match the new outline.

  • Once you are satisfied with the organization:
  • Provide transitions between paragraphs that indicate to the reader how each paragraph relates to your thesis.
  • Develop an engaging and informative introduction.
  • Look for evocative language that allows you to tie each section of the paper to the thesis without becoming repetitious.
  • Come up with a conclusion that returns us to the primary thesis of your paper and gives us ideas about where we can take it next.

WRITING A FINAL DRAFT

As you wrote the second draft, you continued to incorporate new research evidence, refine your thinking and the overall organization and development of your work.

In preparing your final draft, you need to be able to focus on presentation and style, and eliminate distracting errors or breaks in organization, i.e. you need to edit. Editing your final draft includes the following:

  • Reading carefully for flow and consistency
  • Reading aloud for sentence boundaries and structure variation
  • Proofreading for grammar, punctuation, and spelling

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Writing Peer Critiques

Purpose:

One learns how to write, in part, by learning how to read and respond to others' writing. Giving students an opportunity to read each other's essays will also foster the intellectual community and conversation of the classroom. In the midst of working on their own research projects and considering how to make arguments and counterarguments, students are in a wonderfully attuned toward reading their peers' work.

Application:

Assign peer reviews to at least one draft of the research project. It is a good idea to get students into groups of three for this process so that each student will have two sets of comments. Use the following guidelines and suggestions to help structure the process. It is also a good idea to type some version of the bulleted points up and provide room for students' responses on the handout. They can also make comments on copies of the essay but it is important for peers to write comments in complete sentences on the handout in order to facilitate the review process.

A General Note to Peer Reviewers: Your initial response to an essay written by your peer may include expressions of empathy, sympathy, or admiration for an accomplishment or identification with an experience. These are terrific ways to begin providing each other with feedback. But remember that in addition to being supportive, one goal in reviewing each other's work is to learn from your classmates and to help them learn from you.

Therefore, in addition to providing general responses, it is very important to provide specific references to text in the following ways:

  • Let your peers know precisely what passages were particularly clear or eloquent, which were confusing (and, if possible, what your confusion is), etc. Look at the organization of, and support for, arguments and counterarguments.
  • Do not worry about mechanics of grammar, spelling, etc., at this stage-unless they interfere with your ability to understand what the writer is saying.
    Ask the writer for clarification or additional information you need to understand what is written.
  • Be sure that the question is real, rather than a value judgment masquerading as a question (e.g., "why did you need so much detail?" which really says "you didn't need so much detail.")
  • Share some of your associations to what you read. For example, if someone is making an argument about the advantages of a hand-count of the Florida vote during the 2000 presidential election and an advantage that was not mentioned occurs to you, share it.
  • Similarly, share disadvantages of the hand-count that occur to you.
  • Remember to identify the strengths in the essay.
  • For most of us, our writing is deeply tied up with our very selves. It's difficult to hear criticism of our writing because it feels like criticism of our being. Remember that, both when you give and when you receive feedback.

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Avoiding Plagiarism

Purpose:

One of the greatest frustrations for an instructor is to be in the midst of reading a student essay and suddenly and abruptly to hear a dramatic shift in the "voice"—the rhetorical style and vocabulary of the text—to the extent that the instructor senses that he or she is suddenly reading the work of another writer. After the instructor obtains proof of transgression, students are accused of stealing and must suffer the consequences: usually, a failed grade. If the instructor cannot find the proof, he or she calls the student into his or her office and tries to get the student to confess.

This kind of scenario seems more and more probable with students' unlimited access to information over the internet, information that is becoming increasingly difficult, in its sheer volume, for instructors to track down. Further, this mode of disseminating information frequently does not respect scholarly conventions for citation and thus provides students with examples that undermine academic policy and the spirit of a scholarly conversation and exchange of ideas. This kind of scenario describes, in short, plagiarism in its most blatant manifestation: using other writers' ideas words without giving them credit.

However, identifying, punishing, and preventing plagiarism is often not so clear-cut as the above scenario suggests. This notion of plagiarism assumes that texts are pieces of property, owned by a single author. The increasing emphasis on process writing, in the form of peer critiques, visits to the writing and communication center, and multiple drafts of essays, can render the line between plagiarism and collaboration and the boundaries that define intellectual private property unclear at best for both instructors and students.

Application:

Rather than merely reiterating the university policy on punishing plagiarism, this section will attempt to address the mixed messages that a liberal arts curriculum can send to students regarding the production of scholarly writing by means of some specific guidelines on how to help students identify, and avoid engaging in, plagiarism. This section draws heavily from Lisa Buranen and Alice Roy's edited collection, Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999). All references throughout this section will draw from this source.

Giving clear guidelines regarding documentation conventions:

Professional organizations such as the APA and the MLA provide clear guidelines that formalize documentation conventions in their handbooks. It is a good idea to order one of these handbooks as a required text in the course; students will inevitably need and use it throughout their academic careers and beyond and it is a waste of time to illustrate these conventions in class. However, do give specific direction in terms of the mechanics of quoting and paraphrasing, and allot time in class for students to practice. Often students plagiarize unwittingly simply because they have not yet learned or practiced the fine points of and strategies for giving credits to other writers for their words and ideas.


Designing Writing Assignments:

Adjust your assignments so they change from quarter to quarter and address the kinds of conversations unique to this particular class. In her essay on "Competing Notions of Authorship," Sue Carter Simmons also points out the effectiveness of encouraging students to draw from their personal experience—and to use the personal I—in their essays. Students may feel more invested in their own authorship when they are given permission and encouragement to bring their own experiences and perspectives into the writing. Another suggestion Simmons makes is to cut back on the number of different writing assignments per course. Instead of launching multiple assignments, assign papers with several revisions. This way you can focus on each student's process of developing his or her own ideas. It is quite difficult to plagiarize a series of first, second, and final drafts of the same essay (42).


Articulating the difference between collaboration and plagiarism:

One of the integral components of participating in an academic community is learning how to exchange ideas with other students or colleagues, and how to provide each other with constructive criticism. Rather than laying out a stringent anti-plagiarism policy (that reiterates university policy) on your syllabus or writing assignment and leaving it at that, describe how you understand the distinction between sharing and stealing. And keep this conversation open throughout the quarter as you approach new activities and assignments.


Encouraging collaboration in writing groups:

In her essay, "The Ethics of Appropriation in Peer Writing Groups," Candace Spigelman raises the question of "how to negotiate the demands for legitimate appropriation and attribution while engaging in wholly collaborative and intertextual enterprise of peer group response and collective revision"(231). Spigalman underscores the fact that in the work of a writing group, the text comes to be seen and treated as "community property" (233) as peers offer criticisms, raise questions, and even suggest sentence-level as well as concept-level revisions. In the face of rigid statements issuing dire warnings about plagiarism, students may be confused about how to use these comments. It is a good idea to share your own experience with collaboration and the fact that professional writers rely on peer critiques all the time as a way of encouraging them to draw from such conversations. However, it is also a good idea, as Spigalman suggests, to ask students to write an acknowledgement page to accompany their essays, crediting ideas or language that came directly from peers. This will help students get used to crediting others' ideas (while recognizing that this practice does not have to diminish their own ideas) while also underscoring for students the communal nature of writing.


Debunking cross-cultural stereotypes:

We often hear that students from other cultures have been socialized in ways that encourages practices that look like what instructors in the United States would call plagiarism—that, in different cultural contexts, these practices are seen as forms of respect. As Lise Buranen discusses in her essay, "But I Wasn't Cheating: Plagiarism and Cross-Cultural Mythology," recent research has shown that when students are confronted with a topic with which they feel uncomfortable or ignorant (regardless of their cultural background), they are more apt to rely on others' ideas. Further, this research has demonstrated that students raised in cultures outside of the United States can describe and define plagiarism to the same extent that students raised and educated in the US can. Recognize the fact possibility that we may identify plagiarism more easily when reading essays written by non-native English speakers because, in fact, it becomes more visible: the discrepancy in "voices" is more apparent. This does not mean that it non-native English speakers are more apt to plagiarize. (70).

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