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Proving the Impossible: An Exercise in Early Research Paper Writing

Assignment Summary

This assignment takes place over two class periods, though all of the second period is not usually necessary (especially for 80-minute classes). This is the first session in the semester my class spends on the researched argument.

Class One
a) The first period begins with a review of the three parts of a quote or paraphrase: the signal phrase, borrowed material, and citation. Once students are clearly reminded of HOW to use a quote, the rest of the class is dedicated to practicing that in a way that will teach WHY one quotes or paraphrases and how to do so effectively in a research paper (as opposed to the textual analysis, for example).

b) Ask the class to get into four groups of five or so people. Hand out the assignment sheet (see below), with an appropriate distribution of group numbers circled on top, and read through the entire page with the class. It is important not to announce group topics until after the instructions are read, for the sake of minimizing distraction.

c) Write the topics on the board by group number and ask that they write theirs in the space provided on the assignment sheet. Do not allow students to switch groups or engage in other groups’ work. The theses I ask my groups to “prove” are deliberately impossible, for reasons I will explain in my comments below (#10). They are:

i) We are not here right now.
ii) Hot is cold
iii) The earth is flat
iv) Black is white

d) Set the groups to work. Circulate the classroom for helping, prompting, and monitoring progress, but wait several minutes before doing this, to be sure you are assisting the students instead of doing the inventing for them. It is crucial that group members compose each sentence together (and not individually). This ensures that everyone is involved in and witnessing decision making processes.

e) Forty-five minutes is usually necessary for composing these paragraphs, but if groups finish early, they can begin on the follow-up questions for Class Two (see below)
f) Have groups read their answers aloud, slowly and clearly, to the rest of the class. Discuss each piece as time allows, withholding in depth criticism for the next period. Collect each group’s composition and type them for distribution in the next class (if possible).

g) A good homework assignment for the next class is to ask students to come up with their own one or two-sentence (working) thesis and a paragraph or two of fictional supporting research. The follow-up questions (below) may also be used for homework.

Class Two

a) Depending on what was done for homework and in the previous class, ask groups to reconvene and read each of the typed group paragraphs and/or answer the follow-up questions. They are:

i) What is the value of this exercise to the actual research paper you will write? How significant is that to you? Please elaborate.

ii) From where/whom did you get your fictitious support? Why this source?

iii) What was biggest challenge (other than proving the impossible)? How did you cope?

iv) What kind(s) of appeal(s) do you make to your audience? Why?
v) How did you introduce and develop your quote(s) or paraphrase(s) to suit your needs?

b) Discuss each of the group’s compositions and answers to the follow-up questions. It is important to draw awareness to lessons learned inductively through these exercises, such as finding and using research, signaling and citing quotes, and using rhetorical techniques. The opposite dangers respective to these skills are not knowing what and why to research, disconnected quotes (lack of cohesion), and book reports or listed sources. Criticism of grammar, punctuation, form, etc. naturally and inevitably comes up in these conversations, which is preferable to decontextualized lectures on such topics.

c) Activities for more or the rest of this class may include close reading of group paragraphs (see Example Excerpts below), comparative reading of a published or sample research paper, an introduction to research techniques, and/or group or individual work with students’ actual paper topics and theses.

10) This assignment is a fun way of starting a typically unexciting portion of WRT 102, the dreaded research paper. It is important to introduce research writing on a positive note. For this, I find neutral subjects are necessary for the exercise to work. Controversial subjects like abortion and the death penalty direct attention to the topic rather than the task. Besides, a seemingly impossible objective creates an interesting challenge, and symbolizes the challenge to stay interested that lies ahead of each student. Most of them cannot wait to present their results and to hear those of their peers. The teacher’s task is to sustain that rare enthusiasm when it comes to the actual research paper. The good news for students is that they will not be expected to prove the impossible. The bad news is that they are not permitted to invent research on the real research paper!

Instructor's Comments

Goals of the assignment: To introduce research paper writing strategies and challenges; to foster purpose, invention, collaboration, discourse, and inductive learning; and to teach persuasion, signal phrases, MLA citation, and grammar.

No previously assigned work is necessarily required, though I usually use this exercise on the day for which my class has read the introduction to research paper writing (in Kennedy et al’s Writing in the Disciplines, excerpts from pages 142-172). Students should be familiar with using and citing quotes and paraphrases (which they ought to be already, from the textual analysis essay). It should be noted that I recommend this assignment only for after midpoint in the semester of workshop classes, so students are familiar and comfortable with group work and sharing their opinions.
genre argument and persuasion (researched argument ), correctness and style
course WRT 102
activity type small group discussion, class discussion, collaborative writing assignment, research
skills analysis, persuasion, thesis development, source documentation, transitions
duration 2 classes
handouts: assignment sheet (html, Word), explanation of example texts (html, Word)
contributor: Peter Khost