Possible Pre-Draft Assignments: Research Essay

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Possible Pre-Draft Assignments: Research Essay
UWS instructors are required to assign at least two pre-drafts for the research essay. It is recommended that one pre-draft assignment focus primarily on the research process and another focus on a specific “element of the academic essay.” Because the research essay will be the longest piece of writing most UWS students have ever composed, it is often helpful to focus on structure. Though I offer potential variations on these assignments in a few cases, they have been left somewhat vague in order to allow instructors to creatively adapt them to their own courses in more specific ways.

Pre-draft assignments should not be self-contained. In addition to using them as building blocks for the lens essay, instructors are encouraged to use pre-draft assignments as foundations for in class exercises. In most cases, I relate these assignments to exercises that can be performed either in class or on Webct message boards (or both). Because the research essay unit is usually the longest, you might consider assigning more the two required pre-drafts.

Assignment #1: Source Analysis
Ask students to write 1-2 pages complicating and analyzing the argument of one of the sources for their research essay (this usually works best with secondary sources). This assignment allows students to practice their analytical skills—an important “element of the academic essay”—while beginning to define their own position in relation to the broader discourse on their research topic. Because of its narrow focus, this assignment has the potential to lead to over reliance on one source in the research essay. It is important to remind students that this essay is meant to model the kind of analysis they should be doing less formally for every secondary source their will use in their paper.

Assignment #2: Annotated Bibliography
In addition to motivating students to think critically about their sources, this assignment allows instructors to check for deficiencies and biases in the collection of texts students have chosen to use in their research essays. Guidelines for both the composition of the bibliography and the contents of the annotations should be clearly defined by the instructor. The instructor should specify what kinds of sources primary/secondary, academic/non-academic, print/electronic, &c. students are required to gather. Each annotation should include: 1) a brief description of the author’s thesis, 2) a sentence or two describing how this thesis relates to the broader discourse on the topic, and 3) a description of how the student will use the source in his or her paper.

Assignment #3: Literature Review
This assignment can take the place of an annotated bibliography, or it can be written after it (possibly for extra credit). The literature review places the sources (usually only the secondary sources) for the research essay in dialogue, outlining a few of the major topics of debate and the major critical positions on each topic. A literature review is not thesis driven; it merely describes the context within which the student will situate the thesis of his or her research essay.

Assignment #4: Peer Critique of Introductory Paragraph (Roadmap)
After discussing the roadmap sentence as a common component of introductions in longer essays, ask students to draft the introductory paragraphs for their research essays and bring several copies to class. In small groups, students should discuss 1) the construction of the road map sentence and 2) the effectiveness of the structure the sentence proposes for the essay. I find that requiring a road map sentence in longer essays is important not only in making student writing easier for a reader to understand, but also in keeping students focused in the structure of their essays. In order to save class time, this assignment can also be done on Webct (especially good for classes that meet only once a week). Have students post their introductory paragraphs online and assign two students to respond to each post in the same manner they would in small groups in class. In addition to serving as a sort of mini peer review, this assignment allows the instructor access to each student’s thesis, motive, and essay structure before the lens essay is written, allowing him or her to troubleshoot off track assignments before the student composes an entire draft.

Assignment #5: Reverse Outline
Because research essays often require a bit more time for revision, you might consider assigning a written exercise after the initial draft has been turned in. In addition to highlighting a specific skill, the placement of this assignment will make students more focused on the revision process as a whole. The best assignment for teaching structure is a reverse outline. Ask each student to go through his or her research essay writing down the central claim of each paragraph in the form of a formal outline. In addition to emphasizing basic skills—such as the idea that every paragraph must have a central claim—this assignment gets students to reflect on the structure of their own work. Though it is possible to turn this into an in class exercise, I have found that the reverse outline often makes hidden redundancies, logical gaps, and structural indirection more obvious to the author, thus reducing the need for peer feedback. In addition to the reverse outline itself, you might ask each student to write a brief reflection detailing the revision ideas they have come up with during the process of writing the outline.

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