Multisource Research Papers

Until recently, every student who passed through first-year writing was required to compose a long multisource paper that involved some measure of library research.  What instructors often received was a sprawling, poorly structured paper, often disparagingly referred to by faculty as a “data dump” since these papers weren’t so much arguments but rather a pastiche of source material, with quoted passages quilted together mostly to provide information about a subject. The paper was known primarily for its length. Coming in anywhere between 15-20 pages, “the research paper” became a rite of passage for first-years, and was dreaded by students and teachers alike.

There is nothing wrong with asking students to make generous use of the library. Students should, after all, come to understand it as, effectively, the center of campus.  But it deserves to be used well. We can help that along by avoiding research paper assignments built around “topics,” rather than real questions pursued by a community of scholars and public writers. We can teach students to read rather than raid library sources. Almost no one in communities of scholarly practice choose the focus of their papers by “narrowing” a topic.  Instead, researchers begin with issues and questions that have emerged from their reading in a field, where they have observed debates and discussions about matters over which scholars disagree.  Often, the locate some aspect of an ongoing disagreement that deserve extended or different attention. They may also locate fresh questions not anticipated earlier. They begin, that is, in careful listening–eavesdropping in you will–to what’s gotten mulled over by those interested in solving a dilemma or seeking an explanation or designing a theory.

“Information literacy” is an unfortunate term because it misconstrues the world of reports, analyses, and arguments as just so much information.  Most professors don’t ask their students to seek out information, but rather to locate ways of understanding the world: perspectives, approaches, conceptualization, theories, etc. Here is a critique of that paradigm:

Van E. Hillard, “Information Literacy as Situated Literacy,” Teaching Literary Research : Challenges in a Changing Environment, Kathleen A. Johnson and Steven R. Harris, Eds. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2009: 11-21.


Joseph Bizup, a rhetoric and Writing Studies scholar, designed an approach to teaching research writing practices that asks students to characterize their sources’s background, approach, method, and findings, a strategy that goes by the acronym “BEAM.”

Joseph Bizup, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing,” Rhetoric Review, 27:1 (2008): 72-86.