Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to Write a Literary Research Paper in the Digital Age

This post is intended to give a sketch of my current thinking on how to go about doing research and writing on literary topics while working from within both print and digital contexts.

I am an advocate of experimenting with new forms of academic communication, and I believe teachers and students should be actively exploring how to reach traditional aims of academic writing, but not merely through the production of text-only, paper documents.

However, for now, I am setting aside such experimenting and instead will look at how one can use online writing and social media to improve the processes and products of traditional college-level writing about literature. In short, here is a recipe for using digital methods for traditional, print-based academic writing.

Here, then, is my proposal for the literary research paper of the 21st century in three phases: Exploration; Development and Drafting; and Publication:

Phase 1: Exploration
During this initial phase, students learn to use blogs and other social media, as well as face-to-face interaction, to explore four things:
  1. the online medium (blogging, social media, and online collaborative tools)
  2. topics (somewhat random, but in part drawn from their reading of primary literary texts)
  3. audiences (who demonstrate an interest in the student or in the topics being explored)
  4. themselves (because online writing is part of constructing one's public identity, and because the new tools allow for them to discover and express personal interests which they can then relate to the topics and texts they are studying)
The online participation needs to be frequent at first in order to create a critical mass of content in a brainstorming kind of way. Frequency is also important in order to emphasize informality and brevity. They should get to know the online writing media as places where they can readily share observations, tentative opinions, and knowledge in process (and not as a place merely to post developed, formal thought). Students should have a "try it out" approach both with respect to ideas they are developing and to media whose uses they are exploring and integrating.
In this phase, the student's online writing is not expected to have topical coherence; it is more about developing the student's interests and voice and getting acquainted with what one can do with the online medium (link, embed, and comment upon other content; make brief and informal observations; create communities with others online; return to past ideas and develop these; play with length and frequency, etc.) 

What are the measures of success in this first phase? 
  • Critical mass of content / Personal style or voice
    Students have posted enough to start shaping a set of interests (not purely academic) and the beginnings of a personal style and voice. This includes visually designing their blog and giving many clues as to their personality and interests. 
  • Exploratory posts about literature
    At this point students should have written thoughtfully, if not formally, about a given literary text -- enough to show the potential of further analysis.
  • Use of non-textual media
    Students have figured how to link to and embed content they have not created, as well as to comment upon others' content.
  • Social media literacy
    At this point students should already demonstrate they are in conversation with others (beyond simply trading comments on blog posts). They need to be comfortable using high-attention social feeds like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter for academic purposes (posting links to their blog posts, having discussions with classmates and non-classmates within these media on personal and academic topics).
  • Interaction with others
    Online writing / blogging fails if it is merely a monologue or a way of documenting that one has fulfilled an assignment (presuming an audience of only the evaluator). In this early exploratory stage, students must gain some level of comfort in finding and interacting with others in areas of common interests, and to do so with people who are not classmates or prior acquaintances. This may take learning some "social discovery" skills in order to find and connect meaningfully with such audiences.
Unlike personal blogging, which can be diffuse and indefinite, this sort of academic blog is intended to move from being less coherent to being more coherent. Students cannot remain in the exploratory phase.

Phase 2: Development and Drafting
In this phase students become reflective and selective, more formally research topics, and set forth prospective claims about their topics.  In this phase students must
  1. Identify areas of interest (including both trends in their own writing as well as ideas that have generated response from audiences with whom they have shared ideas in phase 1)
  2. Research their topic (within traditional scholarship as well as through online searches and social media)
  3. Document their research process and curate / organize prospective sources (blogging about books, articles, and other resources and their prospective value to their developing focus; making annotated bibliographies or wiki resources to organize sources, data, etc.)
  4. Circulate a "tweethis" statement (a prospective thesis statement shared to social networks until responses are obtained)
  5. Post outlines, drafts, and interim segments of a final, more finished piece of writing and solicit responses from peers and interested parties.

What are the measures of success in this first phase? 
  • Developing Focus
    While students can continue to post things of interest to their blogs and social streams, it is critical in this phase that the students are obviously returning to and developing a small set of ideas and working toward a single, central claim.
  • Outside points of view
    Writing is no longer just personal observation and opinion. Students are discussing and referencing both formal scholarly sources and informal, social sources that both support and challenge their developing ideas.
  • Collaboration
    Students demonstrate engagement not only with their own ideas and evolving projects, but with those of others (both classmates and non-classmates). They represent in their writing how others' work is influencing their own and document efforts they make to provide input and help to others with whom they share common interests (in and beyond the classroom).
  • Presentation and digital creativity
    Students begin to develop effective means of engaging audiences in their content through good visual and rhetorical design of their posts and through employing appropriate non-textual media for communicating their ideas. (For example, through creating a video trailer of their project).
  • Prospective, authentic publication
    Students have been involved in social discovery sufficiently that they can identify appropriate audiences and formats for their completed, formal work (presentation at a conference, publication in a traditional outlet, guest post at an appropriate blog, webinar, etc.)
Phase 3: Publication
In this phase students actually publish their finished, formal writing, and market it appropriately.

This phase is most foreign to traditional college writing, which never seriously anticipates real publication. In the digital age, I feel that such private writing is far less appropriate when it is possible and valuable for students actually to circulate their ideas.

Given the highly social nature of the prior phases, it should be understood that students have already been continuously publishing their writing and research process. To this, one can add a more formal launch of a final, finished form of researched writing.

As I said at the end of the prior phase, students can and should aim for sharing their work with audiences whom they already have qualified as being interested in what they are writing about, and within formats that are appropriate for such audiences.

These are the components of the publication phase:

  1. Conduct a peer review (of a completed draft and with a classmate or other appropriate secondary audience).
  2. Finalize content
    While I believe we need to look forward to novel forms for publishing academic content, at present this can simply be the completion of a traditional research paper of about 8-10 pages or 2000-2500 words. While the ideas can be considered complete, it is still possible that the content will be reformatted within this phase depending on the target audience and venue for publication.
  3. Package content (for archiving and marketing).
    This means preparing the content so it can be appropriately archived and marketed. The content package should include
    1. Metadata, including standard paper heading info plus a creative commons license, a brief biography and photo, plus a URL to one's research blog and/or public profile page.
    2. A "tweethis" following the title (as a kind of subtitle, brief enough that it could be shared in social media streams)
    3. A video trailer (a 90-second summary / introduction to one's work that includes a link to the complete content)
    4. Reformatted content (as appropriate for audience or venue). For example, if submitting the paper to a conference, prepare an abstract or revise. If submitting this as a guest post, shorten and reformat the paper and revise its level of formality for that outlet. 
  4. Self-publish finished paper (on one's personal research blog)
  5. Archive content
    Arrange to deposit the formal, finished research paper in an institutional repository (more permanent than just posting to one's blog)
  6. Submit or present final/reformatted content (to appropriate venue)
  7. Advertise to appropriate venues (one's social streams, email lists, etc.) the publication of the finished piece (in whichever locations and formats seem appropriate).
What are the measures of success in this first phase? 
  • Quality of writing and research
    Using traditional standards of writing, does this finished piece effectively analyze literature and make meaningful, well-supported claims about it?
  • Interaction and collaboration
    Has the student interacted sufficiently with peers and those outside of the class for it to be credible that the finished content will be of value to others? Is there evidence that they have worked with others in revising and developing their content or in reformatting, publishing, and marketing their finished work?
  • Format(s)
    Has the finished content been appropriately formatted for its intended audiences? Has it been packaged using a tiered content model (short, sharable notice through a tweethis; longer, introductory trailer; complete, longer or more formal content)?
  • Response
    What evidence is there that target audiences have read, responded to, or otherwise valued the final or reformatted content?
In stark contrast to traditional researched writing in college, completing the content is not an adequate or final destination for this process; students must package and present their ideas through available communications means and prove that their work does in fact have an impact through the social proof of response.

38 comments:

  1. This is a format that needs to be used much more often. The internet and social writing has a tainted reputation for obvious reasons; however, that interconnectivity gives us an unprecedented view into how people truly communicated. Modeling our research and writing methods after an online model is not simply playing with imitations (Deridas, Beaudrillard), but rather--I posit--getting back to the reality of how we communicate. Research serves no purpose when it is shelved away in a back corner of the bottom floor of the HBLL.

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