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Research Writing in ENG 126

Approaches to research in second-semester composition

Focus on Research Writing in English 126

Research skills and research writing are key components in the learning objectives for first year composition courses across CUNY. At York, we have chosen to divide the research tasks between our two courses:

  • In English 125, we focus on the development of key research skills: locating and evaluating sources. This work culminates in an Annotated Bibliography.
  • In English 126, we focus on the practice of research writing: incorporating and synthesizing sources. This work culminates in a short research essay of 5-6 pages. 

In English 126, students work on research writing by bringing secondary sources to bear on a primary literary text. We strongly encourage instructors to curate the research sources for this paper so that students can focus on research writing rather than searching for sources. Typically students will focus on one primary literary text and 2-3 secondary sources.

Approaches to the research paper

English 126 is conceived as a composition course with literature, not as a literature course, so the approaches we suggest to the research paper do not typically emphasize literary criticism. Suggested approaches to the paper include:

  • Taking the literary text as a jumping off point to discuss a particular issue. For example, A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen could provide a starting point for a paper examining gender roles, ideas of motherhood, etc.
  • Using the research paper as an opportunity to contextualize an aspect of the literary text. For example, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin might spur a student to explore Jazz in post-war New York or to look at Black life in 1950s New York City.
  • Framing the research paper as an opportunity to explore how a literary text presents a particular event or time and examine why it might take such an approach. For example, “Aubade with Burning City” by Ocean Vuong could allow a student to explore how and why Vuong’s work offers a different perspective of the fall of Saigon.

Curating the Sources

We strongly recommend that instructors curate the search process in English 126 in order to allow more focus to be placed on the research writing stage. Creating a bank of sources for this paper can also allow you to steer students to sources that are reliable without being overly specialized. You may find, for example, that introductions to books, or selected book chapters can offer scholarly sources that are more accessible to second-semester students than peer-reviewed articles.

Remember that even with a bank of sources, you will need to build in time for students to assess the relevance of these sources for their particular topics—an essential task in the research process—and to read and annotate their selected sources. These tasks can stimulate conversations about previewing sources, understanding the structure of sources, and the importance of reading an entire source in full.

Some instructors may ask students to choose 2 sources from the curated list and find one additional source on their own. If you take this approach, consider allowing time for students to share that additional source with the class or peers in order to discuss its reliability and relevance.

Modeling Writing from the Sources

In keeping with the composition focus of English 126, instructors should aim to work with students on the research writing process, paying particular attention to summarizing, quoting, and paraphrasing skills. While students will likely be familiar with quotation protocols, many will benefit from practice on smoothly integrating quotations.

Students at the first-year composition level may also be less likely to employ paraphrasing and summarizing in their writing, so you may wish to focus some class time on exercises that ask students to work on these techniques with special attention on how to rephrase and reword in order to avoid plagiarism.

In scaffolding the research paper writing, also consider paying special attention to how to structure and write paragraphs that incorporate multiple sources. Students may need particular practice, for example, in crafting topic sentences that can frame the connections between a primary and a secondary source.

Throughout this work, students will likely benefit from models of both body paragraphs and whole research essays that exemplify this genre of writing.

MLA style and Citations

As part of the discussions around ethical citation and attribution, English 126 instructors should foster students’ use of MLA style to document sources. But, just as in English 125, we do not recommend drilling students on the minutiae of MLA style.

Instead, aim to further students’ understanding of the roles of documentation in a research essay. In particular, help them develop an understanding of the way in-text citations work in conjunction with a Works Cited page.