Thinking about Research: Guest Blog from Amanda Mefferd, Newell-Fonda

Thinking about Research: Guest Blog from Amanda Mefferd, Newell-Fonda
Amanda Mefferd, Newell-Fonda High School English teacher, shares her reflection as she ponders the research process…
Students in my college composition class are currently writing a position research paper. After some grumbling, difficulty finding sources, and a few long discussions about finding a topic that interests them, I made a discovery. My students’ first instinct when faced with any sort of difficulty is to revert to “playing school.” 
 
By playing school, I mean that they start asking questions like “How long does this have to be? When is this due? How many examples of evidence do I need?” And “is this enough?”
 
I decided it was time to take a hard look at the purpose of research. Yesterday, I told the students we were going to do something a little different with class. They opened their books and read “Cheap Food Nation.” I told them that I wanted them to read this article for three reasons: 1. It is an excellent example of a position research paper. 2. It’s short.  3. They are the intended audience. 
 
The last reason is what sparked the most questions.  “This was written for teenagers?” To which I answered, no. “Then why are we the audience?” I asked them to read it first.
 
After they were done, I asked how they felt. My favorite comment was “stupid, but not because I didn’t know this stuff, but more because I feel like I should have been asking.” I asked who should read this.  “Everyone.”
 
We then looked at the impact of the larger work Fast Food Nation by the same author. We read another article about the many works that have been spawned from the ideas in that book and how our nation’s culture surrounding food has shifted in the last decade because one person had information he felt everyone needed to know. 
 
I asked them what the 10 year effect of their paper would be. I got the honest answer: none. I acted surprised and asked why? “Because it just goes to you.” Fair point.
 
Then, I dropped the bomb. I told them I was changing the criteria for their paper grade. This didn’t bother them. The culture in my room is open, and they knew we’d discuss the changes I was making and their input would be taken. Instead of grumbling, they watched as I wrote “EFFECT” on the board. I told them that their grades would be based on the effect their paper had on their intended audience.
 
Their contemplation was immediate. No one questioned it. I asked what they believed the purpose of research was. After a few student averted their eyes, I changed the question. Is the purpose of research to get a grade? Resounding “no.” Then why are they relying on the grade? Because that’s when they’ve always done. But that’s not how real life works.
 
I have told them that they’ve been conditioned to be experts at playing school. At 17 or 18 they actually believe that their goal should be to aim for the A. They are amazing students, but I asked them at the beginning of the semester what dent they are intending to make on the planet. So what is the goal? What is possible? 
 
I told them that I can’t grade them on effect. I told them that as of right now, there wasn’t a way for quantitative evidence to be gathered during this semester to support the giving of a grade. I told them if I could delay giving them a grade for 10 years I would. At that point I was interrupted. “But it wouldn’t matter then.” “What wouldn’t?” “The grade.” Exactly.
 
Can I grade the you on effect? Nope.
Can I delay your grades a decade? Definitely not.
Can I teach you to think bigger than just turning in an assignment? I hope so.
Does your voice matter? Absolutely. 
Can I teach you how to support your opinions and communicate effectively? Yup.
Can I force you to take your findings further than just what you turn in for the class? No.
Am I going to be seriously disappointed if you don’t? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt because I know the effect you CAN have.