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Pop Goes the Research Paper

Here at NMSI we strive to find ways to improve teaching and learning every day. Today Justin Conn, an English teacher in California, shares some ideas on how to make research papers more appealing, and relevant, to students.
I am a wholly unapologetic consumer of popular culture. I read anything I can get my hands on – from The Atlantic to People, from Salon to US Weekly. My passion for pop culture lies not in the schadenfreude that often drives fascination with celebrities, but a curiosity at how the popular narrative of the world around us is conveyed. While working on my Master’s degree in Literature and Writing, I found myself spending more time considering the implications of the democratization of music through streaming services and “piracy”, than analyzing character development in 18th century French comedies (although I enjoy Piron as much as the next English major).
I am certain that my fascination with the modern media landscape is a result of my nine years as an AP English Language and Composition instructor. That course demands that students take a critical lens to the world around them, and develop the ability to write and speak thoughtfully about the “texts” they encounter throughout their day – be they books, magazines, commercials, websites, tweets or music.
The schedule for my AP course was broken down by the three major essay types – synthesis, rhetorical analysis and argument. While working through each essay type, my students were also engaged with a corresponding novel (The Things They Carried, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby, respectively), and a major project. The project that tended to lead to the greatest student buy-in and interest was the MGP, or Multi-genre Project, that went along with the synthesis unit.
For many years, I had always required a significant research paper as an element of my AP English Language course. The students had a tremendous amount of choice on their topic, but the structure of the paper was very consistent. The directions for the research paper asked students to make an argument about the cultural significance of someone or something. The students were able to choose their subject, and the specific “culture” that was impacted by said topic. After a few years, I came to realize that I was just as bored with this research paper as my students were.
As a result of my boredom, I started looking for other options, and was fortunate enough to stumble upon the work of Tom Romano – a Professor of English Methods at University of Miami in Ohio. Professor Romano was the first educator I had seen articulate the idea of multi-genre writing. He embraced the idea that a single genre – namely a research paper – is not necessarily the ideal form of expression for all students. Instead, the multi-genre approach requires students to blend a variety of texts – poetry, journalism, maps, narrative and many others – to most effectively express an idea or argument.
My first year assigning the MGP included many bumps. I allowed students to choose absolutely any topic they wanted. I ended up with papers on The Smurfs and Sand Volleyball. Any of these topics could have been good, but I had not quite articulated the idea that students had to craft an argument, not simply explain a cultural phenomenon.
The paper can be a tremendous challenge to teach. One of the main struggles is that many students are uncomfortable with the academic freedom that the assignment allows – something that doesn’t always happen much in high schools, but happens a tremendous amount in college.
It is also a struggle to get students to truly analyze the culture that surrounds them. The finest papers I have seen from students have not been on topics that seem deep and philosophical. A couple of my recent favorites were on the phenomenon of “twerking” – and how it was culturally appropriated by “pop culture” – and an unintentionally Marxist analysis of the British soccer club Arsenal.
After a couple of years of refining this project, it has come to be the most meaningful activity my students do all year. They are able to make choices in terms of what genres they use, how they order them and what topics they are addressing. It’s an activity that is truly preparing them to be critical thinkers. If you’re interested in using MGPs to help your student engage in new ways with coursework, take a look at my assignment sheet.
Justin Conn is a teacher for the San Dieguito Union High School District in Encinitas, CA and a consultant for the National Math and Science Initiative. He taught AP English Language and Composition for eight years, before most recently moving into an English/Language Arts leadership role for his district. He is also the athletic director at San Dieguito Academy, where he coaches track and field and cross country. He lives with his wife, Jessie, who teaches third grade, and his two children Eliot and Emily.