A Case for abandoning the 10-page research paper

I am someone who enjoyed writing long research papers in college. When one of my professors in graduate school assigned me a 15-20 page research paper in my syntax course, I wasn’t nervous – I was thrilled.

But that’s me. My students may not feel the same way. In fact, many of them don’t (as I’ve found out), and it’s usually for one reason: they’re concerned about their ability to write about one topic for ten pages. Even though assignments for long papers are usually broken up into several smaller assignments, this fear still permeates the mind of many college students.

On top of that – I don’t like grading long papers. It’s tedious. And because students deserve feedback that is both helpful and constructive, you can’t breeze through them, either.

When designing my composition II course this semester, I tried to think of ways to circumvent the long, 10-page research paper, and came up with this (adapted/modified/basically stolen) from They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Instead of having your students write one, long paper, have them write two: one that seeks to explain their issue, and another one that asks them to take a position on said issue. This is all assuming that you’re teaching a 16-week course.

Essay 1: Describing a larger conversation

The first paper students write is expository in nature. They are not making an argument – not yet. The goal is to research various perspectives about their chosen issue (e.g. universal healthcare in the United States). Essentially, what has been said about their topic? This is a good assignment to start with at the beginning of the semester. Here, you can introduce students to primary and secondary sources, teach them the basics of summary writing, and how to integrate quotations into their body paragraphs.

Essay 2: Joining a larger conversation

The second paper is argumentative in nature. Here, students must take a position on their chosen issue. Before delving into the essay, ask your students to write down some points of contention for their position and the opposition’s. You can introduce the concept of rebuttals/refutations, counterarguments, and argumentative writing strategies, including the rhetorical triangle.

Most 10-page research essay assignments would ask students to include a lengthy background section, anyway. At the end of the semester, students will have completed ten pages of writing, and gained further practice in expository writing, and learned how to craft a persuasive argument. Win-win, I think.

(And it means a little less grading in the long run.)