What should this research report look like when I get done? I last took an English class when Jimmy Carter was president, and didn’t like it much. I only got “A”s because I gamed the grading system. As a consequence of those youthful traumas, I have no desire for this project to generate papers like English teachers assign. But I’d better review those instructions, at least because they contain a list of mistakes not to make, and also because it would be horribly embarrassing to overlook anything that’s in them.
My favorite search engine can find me a million sources that will tell me how to write a literary analysis. What do I find? Three generic classes of misses, two hits.
- Mechanical processes that won’t teach anybody anything
- Useless exhortations
- pre-fabricated powerpoint course materials for schoolteachers (students of the 21st Century, you have my pity)
- A thing that’s really interesting! Instructions for how to think about papers, instead of how to generate them by mechanical processes.
- Corey Olsen‘s recorded lecture for the Mythgard Institute “On the writing of papers”. (It’s on line here, but that link only works for Signum U students, alas.)
I’ll skip all the parts of Prof. Olsen’s lecture that deal with the propensity of students to do the minimum necessary for a grade, since I am a passed master at that now-useless skill. Beyond chasing grades, though, anyone who thinks up his conclusion first and then looks for evidence to support it is an enemy of all true scientists, and not welcome to our fellowship. I have no need for encouragement on that point.
I am definitely going to take Prof. Olsen’s advice about “deductive” versus “inductive” approaches to writing. Inductive papers are the papers I’ve most enjoyed reading.
Tom Hillman tells me that literary analysis should be approached the same way as scientific analysis, which suggests another possibility. A standard lab report consists of:
- The subject under study.
- The hypothesis to be investigated.
- The method to be used, including apparatus and procedures
- Experimental observations
- Discussion of results
This has echoes of the dreaded five-paragraph essay, but step #3 is the critical difference. The idea that a research report would have to define its methods and equipment is fairly new. For example, Sparrow gives credit to the Lexos tool, which is the first time I’ve seen it in print. As more of us scientists get into the field, though, expect more of it. I don’t imagine that it would get a good reception if we used numbered sections the way we do in a scientific journal, but burying the structure in a narrative flow would work.
This fits in nicely with the inductive structure. The hypothesis can be expressed as a question, where a thesis statement is supposed to sound like a settled fact. Expressing it as a question raises an issue, while neatly solving the problem with induction that Prof. Olsen pointed out — that the reader doesn’t know where the paper is going until the end. Then the experimental-observations section forms the inductive chain, and the discussion section ties it all into a coherent whole. The conclusion section answers the essential “So What?”