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Who put the “I” in research?

“For many decades high schools and colleges have fostered the ‘research paper,’ which has become an exercise in badly done bibliography, often an introduction to the art of plagiarism, and a triumph of meaninglessness—for both writer and reader.”

—Ken Macrorie, author of Searching Writing

Some of our most common queries come from high school teachers and students who have concerns about research papers. And most of these queries deal with formatting and documentation style: Do I need a title page? How do I cite a Web article that doesn’t have an author or title? How do I list three different books by the same author? I know that all of this information can be confusing, so the fact that teachers and students are contacting us with these questions shows that they want to get things right.

I also sympathize with the students who are, year after year, put through the ordeal of the research process. It’s not that I’m against research; I’m just not a big fan of the Research Paper we have come to know and to dread. Completing note cards, creating outlines, following the proper form and documentation style—issues like these have so consumed students that the development of meaningful content often becomes a secondary concern. What is said takes on less importance than how it is presented.

Professional scholars may need to be meticulous in presenting their research; their professional standing depends on it. Well, high school students aren’t professional scholars, and they have neither the time nor the inclination to be so meticulous. In saying this, don’t think that I condone shoddy research and plagiarized papers—which, unfortunately, seems to be a growing problem. I just think that the traditional approach to the research paper may be the reason why this unfortunate and frustrating situation exists.

The I-Search Paper

Writer and instructor Ken Macrorie felt so strongly about the “meaninglessness” of research papers that he came up with an alternative called the I-Search paper. An I-Search paper begins with a student’s own natural curiosity about something. One person, for example, may wonder if she has what it takes to become an emergency-room nurse. Another person may wonder if fly-fishing would be a good hobby to take up. Once a personal need is established, an I-Searcher then sets out in search of information and answers.

An I-Searcher relies on interviews, correspondence, visits, and firsthand experiences as much as possible during the search. Print and online reading material is usually referred to upon the recommendation of an interviewee. The end product of an I-Search is the story of an individual’s own searching adventure, a story which naturally lends itself to genuine thoughts and feelings, a story that reads more like an engaging, in-depth feature article. (Yes, an I-Searcher writes in first person.)

Since an I-Search paper is an authentic piece of writing, stemming from a genuine need to know, students will want to tell a good story. They will incorporate the same elements in their writing that they would use in a thoughtful conversation about their research, including dialogue, sensory details, and personal reflection. And they won’t simply report on different parts of their research; instead they will look at them from all angles: They will, for example, describe the appearance of an interviewee, their impressions of the person, how the interview progressed, what they learned from the encounter, and so on.

What the finished product looks like is up to each I-Searcher. One researcher may feel that sharing a personal anecdote is the best way to begin. Another person may include, at different points in her paper, excerpts from a journal or log she kept throughout her research. Still another person may include a fitting illustration or photograph in the closing part. (Of course, with technology, the multimedia possibilities for I-Searchers are almost limitless.)

If I-Searchers need more structure, Macrorie offers this four-part format:

  1. What I Knew: In the opening, the I-Searcher explains why she picked the topic and what she did and didn’t know before starting.
  2. What I Wanted to Know: She then identifies what she hopes to find out from her research.
  3. What I Found Out: In the main part of the part, an I-Searcher shares the story of her research. She considers all important parts of the process, from setting up the first interview to evaluating the final article read.
  4. What I Learned: In closing, an I-Searcher reflects on what she has (or hasn’t) learned.

It seems to me that the I-Search approach could work in any discipline. For example, a literature student could research a question about a particular author, title, or type of literature and share the results of his searching. A history student could research a question about a historical figure, event, time, or so on.

My hope is that this blog entry will, at the very least, get teachers to reflect on their approach to the research paper: Do students benefit from the research experience? Does their research stem from a genuine need to know? Is their research authentic? Are they excited about sharing their findings? And do you (the teachers) enjoy reading the finished products? For those teachers who answer no to these questions, consider an alternative—the I-Search paper or, at least, a more personalized approach to the research paper. In the end, shouldn’t research be a process that helps individuals better understand their present, their past, their place in the scheme of things?

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