by Rebecca Lake
When I reached the age of five, I walked around, pencil in hand, conquering the page with childish script and stories of turtles and friendship. For years, my hand swore to a dedicated path of writing creatively, looking toward imagination to form ideas on paper. The rigid educational structure of high school periodically ruined the creativity in my ink and paper relationship, causing the inspiration to drain from my assignments. Intrigue and the ability to drop projects with lack of interest was soon replaced with procrastination and frustration as words fell in checklist regulations and systemic formulas. In high school, the frequent novel based essays continued to strain my pursuit of writing, and the necessity of research papers in college added another level of struggle in the effort to write. This essay explores my own personal struggles with research papers, dealing with my own poor habits and motivations for those actions. Other students resort to bad practices due to the pressures of time restraints, deadlines and stress of grades. However, the focus for teaching essay writing should follow a comprehensive understanding to finding appropriate sources and acquiring a general understanding of grammar mechanics to promote confidence in student writing. None of my suggestions offer any concrete method to eliminate these bad habits or to revive creativity in academic settings.
My high school course of English Literature introduced me to the idea of research writing with an assignment on the cultural and historical contexts for the Nazi and Confederate flags. The requirements for the assignment demanded database information, a relevant and recent article from the newspaper, and a minimum of 2000 words. Library staff adequately prepared my class for an academic standard search, relying primarily on database articles to fuel our background information. The librarian assistance added reassurance and a guarantee on how to easily find appropriate scholarly sources, but direction ended with only navigation and tips for keyword searches. Neither my teacher nor the librarian warned us against the possible bias in academic work or offered any citation guidelines beyond MLA format. As a high school student with a database of hundreds of possible sources at a computer stroke, I was overwhelmed with the one-week paper deadline. As time constantly dwindled with every tick of the clock “[my] ability to access information online [was] increasing exponentially, [but my] ability to use information effectively [was] decreasing dramatically” (Perelman 131). With no experience in vetting, reading, and comprehending scholarly sources, my poor freshman self-panicked at the enormity and difficulty of my upcoming deadline.
At a moment of panic, each student has many choices on how to execute their assignment: nestle into late nights to vigorously work on the paper, spit out a mediocre essay with an all-nighter, or plagiarize in some form by either buying or stealing work from another source. Unfamiliarity brings uncertainty and doubt, and as a student having to combine new concepts in writing to historical and cultural subjects, I chose to take shortcuts in composing my final research paper, not wanting to apply myself to a boring topic. The requirements for the assignment demanded at least five article sources, and with only a few days remaining before the due date, I relied on only two sources to draw information from; the other three sources listed in the works cited page sat as MLA placeholders. While I never directly quoted those unused sources, my inclusion of their titles on the citation page serves as a type of misrepresentation. The findings from Howard, Rodrigue, and Serviss reflect how I personally implemented sources in my paper: much of their student paper pool (14 out of 18 papers) included information from a source that did not accurately express that what was found in the source (108). Upon my analysis of these unused sources, one was found to be inappropriate for my paper topic. On first appearance, “Origin of the Swastika” seems to fulfill the historical aspect for the Swastika symbol, but the actual information differed from that assumption. While this short article offers some brief overview material for the swastika, much of the information focused on small, obscure civilizations and their religious practices with the swastika image (Freed 73). If the pressures of time did not constrain my efforts to identify five adequate sources, this “Origin of the Swastika” would never have made the cut for my citation list as it does not follow the guidelines of the assignment.
For the one source with the honor of my attention, I skimmed the thirty-nine-paged article to find a limited historical knowledge and quotes that would help sustain the appearance of a source-backed research paper. This leap-frog approach to reading only accesses the surface of source use, not truly diving into meaning and understanding by “[citing] sentences rather than sources” (Howard et al. 186). The makeup of the overall essay relies on sophisticated and creative descriptions of the flag designs, high school history teaching, a summary of a newspaper article, and a quote that was already quoted in a source. At the end of grading, my essay scored a 95%, with the only critique being my choice of words for the concluding sentence. My teacher offered a better solution to the sentence, but other than that I was provided with no additional comments related to the quality of my sources, citations, or information. As proven with Perelman’s observation on student’s inaccurate SAT essay, a sense of comprehension sometimes leads to this undeserving success in writing (128-129). Even by making shortcuts to ensure my essay’s completion, I still got an A. My ego claims I deserve this A for the stress of spending hours of writing and database searching, but the quality of my work ethic belittles that accomplishment. The A reflects my ability to throw together a somewhat cohesive paper without the extra hassle of explicitly following the rules for the assignment. Overall, my detachment from the topic and the formal style of writing, I failed to apply my attention in completely understanding the points in each of the articles.
Responsibility falls to myself in my execution of my assignment, but I see flaws in the standard teaching approach for essay writing. With twenty to thirty kids in a class, the instructor has no control over the sources students eventually access and use for their final paper. Additionally, the task of reading essays and ensuring the originality of the work increases in difficulty with the amount of students in the class. I cut corners in the research process by correctly assuming my professor would not double check the authority and appropriateness of the sources. To hold students accountable for their writing and source use, the teacher should handpick the specific documents to be used within the research assignment. If the teacher knows the article content, they can detect when a student fumbles their way through an assignment (by only using a few sources) or when they plagiarize in their work. This method still maintains the dreadfulness of a stark, non-creative research paper; it only offers a higher standard for source analysis from the instructor as they are familiar with the information in the text.
I extended my own essay under more scrutiny, wondering if my shortcomings in the writing process manifested into unintentional plagiarism by patch writing or “[copying] from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym-substitutes” (qtd. in Howard et al. 178). No plagiarism sites, out of dozens, identified any sort of patch writing or direct copying in my writing. However, I found through a website, Grammarly, that my paper had twenty-seven grammatical errors related to comma neglect, misplacement or the wrong preposition. (The website found an additional forty-nine “advanced issues” which needed a payment to access). As a native English speaker, forced into twelve years of public education, I learned many rules for writing. The errors found in my essay highlight that my secondary education did not adequately prepare me for all facets of correct grammar execution. In writing, a student must know the English rules and understand the subtleties in the language and grammar. Only through proper instruction and knowledge can a student overcome one challenge of essay writing; it may not abolish plagiarism, but it might encourage more detailed work in structure and grammar.
My suggestions only offer an idealized version of education, not considering the individual motivations of the collective student body. School institutions place a firm emphasis on good grades which correlate into academic and later professional success, but fails to accurately measure student understanding on a topic. As a student, I detest having to put effort into work, especially for something that holds no interest for me (like a research paper on flags). Even with the haunting presence of failure, students continue to prolong their assignments, pushing them off to last minute due to the craziness of teenage life or the disinterest in writing something that provides no excitement to them.
Currently no solution exists for the plague of students lacking of motivation or the unreasonable grading expectations for educators. More grammar education provides the possibility for students to write with more poise, to have more confidence in the writing process: confidence, in this case, possibly breeding a more inspired passion for writing. But a grammatically sound paper does not mean a student understands the articles and information within their essay. Even with a solid list of sources, students may still ignore the importance of an article as whole, relying on horizontal reading methods to support their writing. In academics, the institutions can move towards improvement, not absolute perfection in the attempt to challenge procrastination and plagiarism. As college classes require, I will continue to struggle with my disinterest in research subjects, trying to understand sources despite the pressures of time and grades. For me, my mind still clings to breathe of creative writing, desiring the ease and flow that words once brought to the page.
Perelman, Les. “Information Illiteracy and Mass Market Writing Assessments.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 1, 2008, pp. 128–141.
Howard, Rebecca Moore, Tanya K. Rodrigue, and Tricia C. Serviss. “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentence.” WPA: Writing Program Administration- Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, vol. 2, no. 2, 2010, pp. 177-192.
McClure, Randall. “Examining the Presence of Advocacy and Commercial Websites in Research Essays of First-Year Composition Students.” WPA, vol. 32, no.3, 2009, pp. 49-74.
Freed, S. A., & Freed, R. S. (1980, 01). “Origin of the swastika.” Natural History (Pre-1988), 89, 68.