Nelson, Jennie. “The Research Paper: A ‘Rhetoric of Doing’ or a ‘Rhetoric of the Finished Word?’” Composition Studies /Freshman English News 22.2 (1994): 65-75. Web. 3 Sept. 2013.
The research paper is one of the “most institutionalized forms” of writing in college classrooms, purportedly used as a means of developing “better thinkers and communicators.” Nelson argues that there is a disparity between the theory and practice of the research paper, citing it as an assignment that is “problematic at best” (65). She determines that the research paper in classroom practice is more, a “rhetoric of the finished word” (Roaman and Bartholomae), rather than a “rhetoric of doing.” A “rhetoric of doing” encourages discovery and a sense of inquiry, while a “rhetoric of the finished word” is a tool-based approach, without critical thinking “goals and values” (66). According to Bizzell and Herzborg, the rhetorical situations in which the research paper is assigned needs to changed. Brent adds that students focus on the tools and skills of product, rather than a deeper “purpose” of research” (72).
Nelson surveyed students, pointing out that they viewed the research process as an information gathering exercise, not a means of discovery. Their responses were categorized into four areas based on questions as to how they developed their writing process and the sequence of steps they followed. Most students did not utilize any recursive approach, but used a linear – compile approach– for gathering information. Students viewed research as “collection and transcription;” writing known information for a professor, rather than using it as a means of discovery for furthering “independent thinking or critical analysis.” Bartholomae’s frame of “passive spectators” was used to describe how students’ writing often resides outside of the discourse community (66). Lack of an outside audience inhibits students’ engagement in the research conversation. For the research paper to be a successful, “rhetoric of doing,” students need to be inside the discourse community, where they can participate in the conversation. Brent advocated for efforts to be made to “help students get research back into the rhetorical act” (72).
Cooper, Donovan and Carr are referenced as they offer opportunities for students to research issues that matter to them in “real” situations that provide a purpose to their research paper. Nelson further asserts that if students become experts on a topic, exploring areas even outside the professor’s area of expertise, they will be encouraged to engage in genuine inquiry, resulting in a richer learning experience for everyone.
While dated, this is a worthwhile article for those interested in how to assign a purposeful research paper. By grounding her research in rhetorical theory, citing authors such as Bizzell, Bartholomae, Brent and Herzborg, Nelson connects the research assignment to the rhetorical canon, while recognizing that changes in rhetorical approach are necessary. I agree that the research paper can be a challenging and problematic assignment. It is often misused in the writing classroom, as students are not provided opportunities to engage in real inquiry. Rather, the research paper becomes an exercise in compiling facts and quotes, without offering any educational benefit.