Teaching the research essay: an inter-disciplinary approach

by Thiruvarangan

Many of us who teach English 110 at Queens College require our students to write a research essay as the final paper for the course. While the research essay has in general allowed me to gauge my students’ ability to research and analyze a topic and present their work to a scholarly audience in line with the conventions of academic writing prescribed, one of the most difficult challenges I faced when teaching this essay was tailoring this assignment in such a way that my students who were specializing in the sciences did not feel alienated by it. English 110 at Queens College is a theme-driven writing course and the theme that I always chose for my classes was cultural identity, a topic that some of my students interested in the sciences found difficult to relate to as scholars. I write this post as a way of contributing to our conversations on what we at Queens College can do to make the task of writing this paper an enjoyable and meaningful process for our non-humanities students.

An inter-disciplinary approach to teaching writing can help us deal with this challenge at least partially. We, writing instructors trained in the humanities, should step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves by initiating conversations between the humanities and the sciences in the writing class as part of the process of laying the groundwork for this research paper. It is important that we encourage our students to think about the relationship between science and culture, for instance, and how they inform and interact with one another. Concepts like social Darwinism and biological racism are some topics that jump out to me as I begin to pin down some examples that would help our students approach cultural and racial identities through an inter-disciplinary lens. When such topics become the focus of their papers, students who study Biology, for example, will see in the research paper an opportunity to make use of the knowledge they gained during the Biology courses they took in the past.

The writing pedagogy that evolves, when we initiate an inter-disciplinary conversation, re-animates the relationship between the teacher and the student in such a way that the student, too, motivates the teacher to learn new things. This dialogic approach, a term that I borrow from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, will discourage the non-humanities student from viewing College Writing as a cumbersome academic requirement imposed on him by the school.

The research essay, if the composition of our writing classes permits, should usher in collaborative essays that allow insights offered by scholarship in the humanities and perspectives that originate from research in the sciences to cross-pollinate. For example, a student who studies Community Medicine can work with a student of Cultural Studies in a project that explores the cultural and social dimensions of a disease in a particular region. Environmental Studies is another area where the humanities and the sciences intersect in intriguing ways leading to the creation of socially useful knowledge. In topics covered under social psychology, societal factors such as race, class, gender are brought into conversation with medical conditions. Pointing to these inter-disciplinary possibilities will make the students realize that the act of writing the research essay is indeed linked to the larger academic goals that they are pursuing at Queens College.

An inter-disciplinary approach to writing cannot be cultivated at once; it is a process that needs to be developed carefully with appropriate reading inputs and a robust pedagogy. When we choose readings for our theme-based College Writing courses, we should give priority to articles that may speak to the varying interests of our students who come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. As a way of motivating our students to learn the conventions of writing not limited to their chosen fields, we may also want to highlight that researchers do publish their work in venues that are not associated with their own disciplines in the conventional sense. I would present as an example the article “Allometric relations of teeth and jaws in man” which J.A. Kieser, an anatomist, and H.T. Groeneveld, a bio statistician, co-authored in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Before our students embark on writing the research essay, we should consider inviting a non-humanities professor at Queens College to deliver a guest talk to our writing class about writing in the sciences. This activity will productively disrupt the monotony that we often subject our students to in our writing classrooms; a different voice that presents different perspective will indicate to our students the polyphonic nature of academic writing and encourage them to be creative and flexible when composing their scholarly texts. The writing instructor alone cannot make such inter-disciplinary exchanges possible; stepping up to the challenge, the College should evolve a system where cross-disciplinary events of this kind find financial and institutional support.

In teaching the research essay, instructors need to see the writing class as a space where they prepare future researchers and scholars working in different fields to talk to one another across disciplinary boundaries about topics that interest them. Making writing opportunities that would foster this conversation available for our students is one of the central tasks of not only the writing instructor but also the institution that she serves.

Date: September 29, 2017

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