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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Research Papers Don’t Have to be Boring

I can’t speak for every teacher, but I’m fairly sure I’m not the only instructor out there who dreads reading research papers.  It’s not the extra time that goes into commenting on and grading research papers that I have a problem with (although that’s certainly a factor). No, what really makes me want to put off looking at those stacks of essays for as long as humanly possible is how mind-numbingly dull most of the paper topics are. 

Somehow we’ve become indoctrinated with the idea that research papers have to be boring.

When did we learn that a dry, un-engaging writing style was a necessary requirement of academic writing?  I’d like to place the blame solely on high school, but I’m afraid that even the professional journals we refer our students to in college perpetuate this misperception of what an academic paper should sound like. 

Looking at my stack of research paper proposals, I have 8 papers on global warming and 5 on illegal immigration to look forward to… in just one of my classes.  Maybe 2 or 3 of those students feel passionately about those topics, but I’m willing to bet that not all 15 students care about (or are even particularly interested in) those issues.  So…

Why do students choose boring topics?

  • They think the topic will guarantee they get a good grade.

Actually, the more interested you are in an issue, the better you will write about that issue.  Interest alone doesn’t guarantee good writing, but it makes the process of researching and writing about a topic much easier and more enjoyable.  Let’s face it – when you couldn’t care less about an essay topic, you’re not going to feel inclined to invest much effort in it. 

While it is true that you could be disinterested in a topic and still craft a beautiful essay about it, the process of writing that paper would probably have been less than enjoyable.  College students in this day and age have so many demands on their time that they have to be selective about how they spend it.  Writing a research paper on a topic that you aren’t passionate about or don’t want to learn more about is painful for both you and your teacher.

We’re all about multitasking in the 21th century;  let your essays do double duty too. 

  • They can’t think of anything else to write about.

When you choose a run-of-the-mill topic just because it’s common (e.g., global warming, health care reform, illegal immigration), you’re actually doing yourself a disservice.  It would be much easier on everyone (including the teacher) if the essay topic were assigned.  The instructor makes you come up with your own, though, for a reason

Employers don’t stand behind you looking over your shoulder while you’re on the job.  They may if you’re in training, but after that period is over, you’re on your own.  You’ll be given a task and told to complete it but very rarely will you be told step-by-step exactly how to go about completing your assignment.  It’s inefficient to have an employee who needs their hand held in order to get anything done. 

As valuable as being a self-starter is to employers, the ability to come up with innovative ideas for improving the company is just as important.  Coming up with a research paper topic is supposed to be challenging because it’s an exercise in intellectual independence. 

How to choose a good topic:

Choose something you’re interested in.  That’s it.  That’s the secret essay topic choosing technique passed down by nerds for centuries.  If you like your paper, your paper will like you back. 

Unless you’re used to filling out those “50 Random Things About Myself” memes all the time, chances are it’s been a while since the last time you sat down and thought about what it is that interests you.  No worries – the way to figure out your interests (for those who have no idea what they like) is to take stock of what you DO. 

When you get together with your friends, what do you usually talk about?  Is there a t.v. show you like watching?  Do you have any hobbies?  Do you (or anyone in your family) have a special ability/quirk  that you could hone in on as a possible paper topic?

Take me, for example.  My twin and I love watching horror movies.  Good ones, bad ones, high budget ones, low budget ones…we’ve seen them all.  That affinity for horror movies has great potential when it comes to essay topics.  Do good horror movies have anything in common? Do the bad ones share a common denominator as well?  Is there a position I can take about what factors need to be present in a horror movie for it to be good/profitable (or what shouldn’t be included in a horror movie)?  All the evidence I need to back up my claims are at the local Blockbuster and online.

I like comic books too.  They’re a veritable trove when it comes to controversial topics for an essay. Just earlier this year the way Batman was killed off was a mockery of everything that made him Batman! Grrr! I could go on for pages about how wrong his death was… stick a few citations here and there and I’d have a persuasive research paper.  

Try and think about what topics make you stand up on a soapbox.  Not only will you have a better chance of writing well, you’ll also be doing yourself a favor when it comes to essay length.  When you don’t know anything about a topic and don’t want to  know anything about it, it’s awfully difficult to meet those paper length requirements. 


Photo credit: Zen

Monday, October 12, 2009

The 4 Types of Evidence

Evidence is the information that helps in the formation of a conclusion or judgment.  Whether you know it or not, you provide evidence in most of your conversations – they’re all the things you say to try and support your claims.  For example, when you leave a movie theater, turn to your friend, and say “That movie was awesome! Did you see those fight scenes?! Unreal!”, you have just made a claim and backed it up. 

Most people think of “evidence” as numbers and quotes from famous people.  While those are valid types of evidence, there are more to choose from than just statistics and quotes, though.  There are four types, to be exact:

  • Statistical Evidence
  • Testimonial Evidence
  • Anecdotal Evidence
  • Analogical Evidence

1. Statistical Evidence

Statistical evidence is the kind of data people tend to look for first when trying to prove a point.  That’s not surprising when you consider how prevalent it is in today’s society.   Remember those McDonald’s signs that said “Over 1 billion served”? How about those Trident chewing gum commercials that say “4 out of 5 dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum”? Every time you use numbers to support a main point, you’re relying on statistical evidence to carry your argument. 

2. Testimonial Evidence

Testimonial evidence is another type of evidence that is commonly turned to by people trying to prove a point.  Commercials that use spokespersons to testify about the quality of a company’s product, lawyers who rely on eye-witness accounts  to win a case, and students who quote an authority in their essays are all using testimonial evidence. 

3. Anecdotal Evidence

Often dismissed as untrustworthy and meaningless, anecdotal evidence is one of the more underutilized types of evidence.  Anecdotal evidence is evidence that is based on a person’s observations of the world.   It can actually be very useful for disproving generalizations because all you need is one example that contradicts a claim. 

Be careful when using this type of evidence to try and support your claims.  One example of a non-native English speaker who has perfect grammar does NOT prove that ALL non-native English speakers have perfect grammar.  All the anecdote can do is disprove the claim that all immigrants who are non-native English speakers have terrible grammar. 

You CAN use this type of evidence to support claims, though, if you use it in conjunction with other types of evidence.  Personal observations can serve as wonderful examples to introduce a topic and build it up – just make sure you include statistical evidence so the reader of your paper doesn’t question whether your examples are just isolated incidents. 

4. Analogical Evidence

The last type of evidence is called analogical evidence.  It is also underutilized, but this time for a reason.  Analogies are mainly useful when dealing with a topic that is under-researched.  If you are on the cutting edge of an issue, you’re the person breaking new ground.  When you don’t have statistics to refer to or other authorities on the matter to quote, you have to get your evidence from somewhere.  Analogical evidence steps in to save the day.

Take the following example: You work for a company that is considering turning some land into a theme park. On that land there happens to be a river that your bosses think would make a great white-water rafting ride.  They’ve called on you to assess whether or not that ride would be a good idea. 

Since the land in question is as yet undeveloped, you have no casualty reports or statistics to refer to.  In this case, you can look to other rivers with the same general shape to them, altitude, etc.  and see if any white-water rafting casualties have occurred on those rivers.  Although the rivers are different, the similarities between them should be strong enough to give credibility to your research.  Realtors use the same type of analogical evidence when determining the value of a home. 

When you use analogies to support your claims, always remember their power


Photo credit: Billaday

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Power of an Analogy

Analogies can be very powerful things.  They are, after all, one of the four basic types of evidence.  They can provide support for a main point all on their own.  It’s important to keep one thing in mind:

With great power comes great responsibility.


To properly understand how analogies can be abused, we have to look back to the definition of an analogy.  SIL International has the following to say about analogies:

An analogy is a comparison of certain similarities between things which are otherwise unlike.

The important part to remember is that there must be some similarity between the two (or more) things, places, or people you are comparing, or the analogy falls apart.

For example, it’s not uncommon to hear jicama called the apple of Latin America.  That’s because jícama is similar to apples in texture, shape, and taste.  If someone were to call it the banana of Latin America…well, then there’d be a problem with the analogy.  Although a banana and a jícama do have a shared similarity – they both taste like fruit – that’s where the similarities end. 

When you try to link two things that aren’t similar enough to be linked, you’ve done more than just abuse the power of an analogy; you’ve committed a logical fallacy.  This fallacy is called a “weak analogy.”

When it comes to analogies, there is no “right” or “wrong” because, if you search hard enough, some kind of similarity can be found between two things that link them – even if it’s something as remote as “they’re both made of atoms.” 

Analogies are weighed on a scale of weak to strong.  Because of this leeway, analogies can be abused.  One such example of a comparison stretched to its limits comes from Orly Taitz, a staunch supporter of the Birther movement.  In several interviews on and off t.v., she has compared the Obama administration to Nazi Germany.  She even said that “We are getting another Stalin” when commenting on Obama’s presidency.  Here’s a link to the interview she gave on the Colbert Report: Orly Taitz on the Colbert Report

You can either like or dislike Obama, but compare him to a man who organized the deaths of millions of people as he “purged” his country of dissenters?  Wow. 

The following Doonesbury cartoon is an example of what happens when people notice how ridiculously weak your analogies are:

Doonesbury Sep 27 

So next time you think about using an analogy, make sure that the similarities that exist between the two items are strong, otherwise you might end up being made fun of in the Sunday comics. 

Photo credit: RiptheSkull