Writing and Research in a Different Mode

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Theresa MacPhail writes about a research assignment in a medical humanities course that offers students choices. They can write a research paper, a genre students may be comfortable with. Or they can create a podcast episode or a video, website, or visual essay. In every case, the criteria are the same: they have to compose their ideas in a careful, organized fashion and incorporate good information that is documented. Are these projects teaching the same skills as writing a paper? She argues they do.

They require students to organize materials in a similar way and to literally write out their scripts. And just because these arguments are not made in a dry, formal prose style doesn’t mean they aren’t effective or smart. In most cases, I’ve found that students who choose to do one of these nontraditional research projects are making better arguments and end up putting a lot more effort into the overall project.

She doesn’t instruct students in how to create a podcast or a video any more than she spends class time explaining how to use Word. What she does talk about – building an argument, bringing in well-chosen evidence, telling a good story – fits every kind of project. A rambling podcast is not that different than a hastily-written stream-of-consciousness paper throw together at the last moment, and the same rubric can be used to evaluate both. She adds,

. . . these types of projects make it harder for students to plagiarize, steal ideas, or otherwise phone it in. Podcasts, videos, websites/blogs, and interactive essays require students to personalize their projects.

Added bonus: for some students, this option gives them an incentive to rise above their usual efforts and engages them in ways that show off skills they have but usually don’t demonstrate in more traditional assignments. And for students who feel more comfortable with straight-up writing, that remains an option. There are many ways to tell a good story.

If you would like to open up an assignment to add more choices for writing in a variety of genres, the library is happy to consult with students who need a bit of guidance, whether it’s finding the right way to find and incorporate good sources in a spoken-word project or whether it’s locating good how-to guidance for the technical side of simple media production. We may not have a state-of-the-art media studio, but it’s amazing what you can do these days with a phone and a standard laptop.