Teaching students how to think about and write about research

I teach at all levels of higher education — from first year college students to PhD students. No matter the level, one of the challenges is teaching students how to think about research differently. Many are used to thinking about research–published research, especially–just as something to understand and remember. Maybe to criticize or disagree with. But this misses one of the core elements that makes research exciting for those of us who do it for a living — which is that research is a conversation held among people who care about a subject, want to develop an argument or position that will help us understand it better, and want to discuss those positions with others.

A nice article by Joseph Bizup offers a very useful view for how to help students engage with research in a deeper and more active way. His particular interest is teaching research-based writing, getting students away from what he calls a 19th century, positivist way of thinking about research. The turn he proposes is toward a rhetorical perspective, that is, thinking about the work that needs to be accomplished in order to be a part of the research discourse community.

“…research should be regarded not as a sterile exercise in recovering what is already known but as a socially embedded act of inquiry that aims to further the collective understanding of a particular discourse community…[students] must be taught to view reading as an active exercise in “knowledge construction”.”

Bizup’s specific interest is to argue against traditional means of characterizing evidence, which he does by saying we need to define a source not by what it is intrinsically, but instead by its rhetorical function, that is, by what it does.

The 4 functions he lays out as alternatives, form what he calls the BEAM perspective:

  • Background — those things taken as givens. The author assumes here that no additional support is needed because the audience agrees with these as well. I see this as relating concretely to the task of understanding the perspective the author is coming from.
  • Exhibit — materials offered for explication, analysis, or interpretation. Bizup cautions that exhibits are not the same as evidence. Instead, exhibits work the same way they do in museums, as occasions for interpretations, discussions, and “readings.”
  • Argument — here the author gets into the meat of things. The materials “whose claims a writer affirms, disputes, refines, or extends in some way.” And here, Bizup uses a phrase I use constantly, these are the sources the authors is engaging with in a conversation.
  • Method — materials that the author uses for “a governing concept or manner of working.” Interestingly, method sources might not be cited, or cited only generally, if they are already accepted into that research community.

Thus, BEAM is grounded squarely in research as a practice, as a discourse. “Writers rely on background sources, interpret or analyze exhibits, engage arguments, and follow methods.” BEAM makes visible the way that research is a product of our assumptions, choices, and discourses. And it provides the mechanisms that help students develop the specific skills to themselves succeed in this community as well.

Bizup, Joseph. 2008. BEAM: a rhetorical vocabulary for teaching research-based writing. Rhetoric Review, 27:1, 72-86.

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