By Dr. Kaylene Armstrong
When I first started reading one student’s media history research paper, I was surprised. Her writing had improved remarkably from all the previous work she had turned in. Naturally, my plagiarism antenna went up, and within a few keystrokes I found her paper word-for-word — on Wikipedia, no less. I expected the usual litany of excuses for plagiarizing — no time, started too late, illness/personal problems/work interfered with getting it done, etc. Instead, the response she gave was one I hadn’t really expected: “I’ve never written a research paper in my life, and you didn’t teach us how to do it.”
She was right. That’s the sort of thing my own children learned in their high school senior English class, not in a college class, right?
This piece is meant to spark discussion among colleagues so that more voices can add perspective and ideas for successfully tackling the student research paper.
Through the last few years of teaching a media history class, I have encountered several challenges with students when it comes to research papers: the assignment itself, the writing, the sources and the citations.
Making the research paper assignment interesting and at least a little challenging has always been my plan. I have each student write a history of his or her hometown newspaper. It wouldn’t be thorough by any means because it only had to be 1,000 words, but I hoped it would inspire them to work on finding some interesting things about what should be an institution in their hometowns.
The perimeters for the assignment include using at least four sources, one of which has to be an interview with a live person at the newspaper, preferably the publisher or editor, about its continuing role in the community. I suggest they ask the existing editor if an old, retired staffer was still around who also might have historical knowledge to share about the newspaper, knowledge such as when the old linotype machines were replaced with “cold type” or what quirks the old presses had or stories they have to tell about experiences in the newsroom.
The students are specifically warned NOT to use Wikipedia or any other unreliable sources. I suggest the students check for books or journal articles instead. In many areas of the country, enterprising researchers (perhaps as a dissertation) have written books or lengthy journal pieces about the history of a particular newspaper. As most of my students are from Oklahoma, I suggest they use a book found in our library: “The story of Oklahoma newspapers, 1844 to 1984” by L. Edward Carter.
The newspaper itself can serve as a source, especially articles from the earliest editions that might include information from early editors and reporters who address the purpose or goals of the newspaper. I encourage them to find the first edition (many are available online) and then determine who were the various editors.
When I first designed the project, I got excited just thinking of it. I tried to convey that excitement when we talked about it the first day of class. I expressed my hope that some of the small newspapers they wrote about would be interested in running an edited version of the student’s paper (with the citations modified), and I offered extra credit if they did.
I wish I could report that I got wonderful papers, with stellar writing and excellent researching, but alas I did not. No one earned an A. Most of them found the exercise daunting and not as exciting as I had hoped. Actually interviewing another person intimidated almost everyone in the class, even when I provided lengthy lists of possible questions to ask. Only a few included the newspaper itself as a source, but did a poor job of incorporating it smoothly into the paper. In fact, the biggest challenge for students seemed to be figuring out how to transition between the various pieces of information they found. Almost all had major writing problems: sentences that didn’t make sense (fragments and incorrect word usage), and grammar/spelling/punctuation errors. Few had taken the time to copyedit their work.
Now I spend at least a couple of days, sometimes three, on how to research and write a research paper. I hand out and review an example research paper that I created. I emphasize copy editing, reading work aloud, getting someone else to read the work. I remind them that I grade harshly for carelessness. I require all sources to be approved beforehand—so many want easy Britannica-like sources online rather than using the databases that the library provides to find academic sources and books. I require all papers to be submitted electronically so they can be run through Turnitin to find plagiarism issues. As usual, I encourage (beg?) all students to come see me for help.
A friend suggested I drop the research paper and save myself the headaches. I won’t do that. I will continue to try to teach these students how to do good research, and maybe I can spark the same love of media history that I have.
Dr. Kaylene Armstrong is an associate professor of mass communication, Northwestern Oklahoma State University.