Puttering around in the repository of my computer this morning, I opened a folder labeled “Academics” where I have stored materials I used in my English classes, some of which date back to the previous century. I opened a few quizzes, lecture presentations, essay assignments, etc. and thought to myself, what a waste to have these documents lying dormant, as it were.
When I taught, I often found professional educational materials lacking, so I created my own. One such production was a 15,000-word primer entitled How to Write a Research Paper: A Hermeneutic Tale.
Rather than dryly explaining the process of researching, writing, and documenting sources, I created a narrative featuring two students, Bennington Rhodes and Flip Burger, who take very different approaches in tackling their research projects, which at Porter-Gaud included choosing the primary source.
The primer’s utility lay in its adaptability: I could update the ever-changing MLA protocols and save the school a ton of money in MLA handbooks, which become obsolescent in no time flat.
The primer includes explanations on choosing the primary source, amassing a preliminary bibliography, creating both a topic and sentence outline, and citing sources. I actually ghost-wrote Bennington’s paper on Chronicle of a Death Foretold, attempting to parrot the thinking and prose of a sixteen-year-old.
Obviously, the primer, which I assembled in 2012, is itself obsolescent given the MLA’s ever-evolving (devolving?) citation procedures; however, the basic information stands the test of time in my unhumble opinion.
Reproducing the entire document would be cumbersome in a blog format, but I thought I’d include here the last four pages to offer an idea what the primer was like.
If any of you lit teachers out there would like a complete copy, contact me, and I’ll send a pdf version. By the way, it’s not copyrighted.
So here are the last four pages of the text (the document actually ends with an appendix explaining how to document various sources). I’m critiquing Bennington’s essay, which comes a few pages before.
Structure of the Paper
By following his outline, Bennington insured that his paper would be well unified. He has, as curmudgeonly Dr. Crabapple puts it, “a multi-tiered thesis,” which simply means the thesis is broken into multiple parts that form the sections of his actual paper.
Each section of the thesis – the detective genre aspect, the tragic conventions, etc. reemerge in the topic sentences of the paragraphs devoted to them.
Again, here’s Bennington’s thesis:
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Garcia Marquez parodies several different narrative traditions – particularly detective fiction, Greek tragedy, and commercial romance – all the while subverting those genres to underscore the immorality of Macondo’s culture of machismo.
When shifting from paragraph to paragraph, it’s important to create smooth transitions, to refer ever so briefly to an idea expressed in the previous paragraph in the topic sentence of the next paragraph.
For example, Bennington’s second paragraph, the one devoted to the detective genre, ends with this sentence:
“Perhaps Gabriel Marquez is suggesting that the answer to the question of ‘who done it’ is everyone.”
His next paragraph, you’ll remember, is devoted to how Garcia Marquez incorporates elements of Greek Tragedy into Chronicle. Rather than immediately changing the subject from the detective genre to Greek tragedy, Bennington briefly refers to the detective genre as he begins the paragraph on Greek drama”:
“Garcia Marquez adds depth to the detective genre by superimposing upon it characteristics of Greek tragedy, and in doing so, he further underscores the dysfunctionality of machismo.”
Note how each of the emphasized words in the above quote plugs into the thesis. Pretty nifty, Bennington!
A research paper, unlike an informal essay, should be formal in style, which means you should avoid using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to “everyone,” as your omniscient narrator just did, and you should also avoid contractions so that your style is somewhat elevated. It’s a dinner at a snooty restaurant with your Great Aunt Gertrude, not a chilidog gobbled down with Flip at the pay counter at Bert’s on Folly.
Note that this primer is informal. Your beloved omniscient narrator is writing as if he is talking to you. If this were a formal essay, the above might be rendered like this:
A research paper, unlike an informal essay, should be formal in style, which means one should avoid using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to “everyone,” and one should avoid contractions so that one’s style is somewhat elevated.
Nevertheless, you should try to create a style that comes across has “heightened conversation” rather than dry analytical soullessness. For example, the off-putting formality of the above could be softened to this:
A research paper, unlike an informal essay, should be formal in style, which means writers should avoid using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to “everyone,” and should avoid contractions so that the style of the essay is somewhat elevated.
One last note, during your research, you’ll discover some writers refer to themselves in the first person. In other words, they throw around the pronoun “I” a lot. You should avoid doing this yourself because you aren’t a tenured professor sporting a wool blazer with patches on the elbows. In other words, you’re a sixteen-year-old who doesn’t bother to look up the words you don’t know in the dictionary.
A Critique of Bennington’s Paper
As Ms. Newspeak grades Bennington’s essay, she has four tasks to perform. First, she needs to determine how well Bennington’s essay conforms to the dictates of the MLA/ Porter-Gaud process. Then she needs to judge the essay’s content and style. Finally, she needs to subtract any grammatical or mechanical errors Bennington has committed (up to twenty points).
Ms. Newspeak takes Bennington’s process grade 98 and his content grade 90 and divides it by 2, so he ends up with 94. Then she subtracts his grammatical/ mechanical errors. Because Bennington’s a senior and has more or less mastered the mechanics of writing (and also because his fussy conservative Charlestonian bow-tie wearing father proofread the paper), Bennington received no deductions for grammar or mechanics. By the way, Bennington’s father caught a comma splice and a couple of other comma errors saving his son an overall 9-point deduction [5+ (2 x 2)] for you math people.
Nevertheless, Bennington’s essay is far from perfect. Let’s spend just a couple of minutes critiquing it before we bring this primer to a happy close.
Bennington’s title is a bit much; however, it’s better than a bland title. It does grab the reader’s attention.
By far, the weakest paragraph in Bennington’s essay is his introduction. The sentences don’t come together fluidly. He starts with Faulkner, then shifts to magic realism and then to different narrative techniques. There’s little continuity here. It would have been better to begin with a generalization about narrative techniques and to then narrow those generalizations using that one thread.
Also, Bennington’s essay would have been better if he had chosen only one narrative approach instead of three and had gone into more detail about how Garcia Marquez parodied that technique. If Bennington had spent more time on his research, he could have written a richer analysis on any one of the three techniques he discusses rather than touching upon each in a rather cursory fashion.
Bennington’s organization makes essay is somewhat quilt-like. There’s the detective square that’s sewn to the Greek tragedy square that’s sewn to the romance novel square. In addition, his paragraph division is somewhat dubious. For example, rather than including “omens and foreboding” in the paragraph on the classic unities of time and place, Bennington would have been better off creating a separate paragraph on omens and expanding that paragraph to flesh it out more. However, he does “weave” the idea of machismo fairly well throughout the essay, so there’s at least a pattern or motif running through his quilt. The very best essays, however, like valedictorian-in-waiting Connie Cerebrowski’s, interweave their arguments to create a seamless tapestry of quotation and analysis. Her essay on a Freudian reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers had AP professor Mr. Aridwitt, PhD flipping through “the book and [Thesaurus] of [his] brain” for superlative synonyms.
Bennington is, however, a capable stylist, having dutifully done his Wordly Wise lessons with dictionary in hand and having read his assigned novels word for word. Unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever be the case, a well-honed style can sometimes soften (at least) somewhat the heart of a English essay assessor, even one as gnarled and cynical as Dr. Crabapple.
As the research paper rapidly fades into a fond memory in Bennington’s consciousness, he looks forward to his last trimester of high school with a sense of anticipation and freedom. In fact, he’s looking forward to his free period so he and Andrea can perch like a pair of parrots on a bench outside on this mild, sunny day and mimic routines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a movie that they’ve seen forty-seven times between them. As he’s headed through the S&T Lobby, Bennington runs into a rather downcast Flip Burger bent like a hobo beneath the burden of his LL Bean bookbag.
“Hey, Flip,” Bennington says, “Andrea and I are headed outside to catch some rays. Wanna join us?”
“Dude, I got study hall.”
“A study hall? Why?”
“Dude, I failed English last term. It’s, like, so unfair.”
“Gotta split, dude. I got old man Crabapple for study hall. If I’m late, he’s liable to make me copy out sentences by Immanuel Kant or something.”
Perhaps, uncompassionately, Bennington has already forgotten poor Flip’s troubles as our hero pushes open the double doors and trots down the stairs to the balmy breezes and melodic birdsong of a glorious spring morning.