Student Essay-Writers: A Field Guide
Unlike winter, essay season seems to come earlier every year. A list of topics goes up. The request for a thesis and outline goes out.
And of course, there’s a rush on the libraries.
Over the last 3.5 years, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe different strategies to the “research” part of the research paper. Now, I’m not talking about whether you use notecards or looseleaf; obsessively note page numbers or look them up later.
I’m talking about procuring sources.
Sources are currency. Sources are power. Sources are the security blanket that lets me sleep at night.
There are several types of student essay-writers. Let’s look at a few.
Style: Start early. Clear shelves before other people even have a topic. Hoard books like a squirrel hoards nuts, because if you leave it too long, everyone else will steal your books and you’ll have nothing left to use.
Traits: Twitchiness, anxiety, slight hunchback or raised shoulder from carting heaps of books.
Worst Fear: “Item due back: April 8”
Style: Automatically set catalogue filters to “online resources.” Read books, journals, primary sources without ever leaving the comfort of your room or carrel.
Traits: Blurred vision, headache, aversion to smell of old books.
Worst Fear: “Access Denied.”
Style: Seek out the really old, really rare books that can’t be taken out. Set up camp in library, lifting brittle pages late into the night. Don’t come out until research is done/essay complete.
Traits: Dust-covered fingers, keyboard marks on face, vague feelings of pride and loneliness.
Worst Fear: “The library will be closed the weekend of….”
The One-Hit Wonder
Style: Find one book. A real book. Probably the authoritative book on your subject. Read that one book. Quote that one book throughout. Have a list of vaguely related articles from which you occasionally cite a sentence or two in order to meet bibliography requirements.
Traits: Smug grin, skill at mental gymnastics.
Worst Fear: “Plan to devote considerable attention to the historiography…”
Style: Between databases and rare collections, come up with mostly primary sources. Not only mostly primary sources, but mostly random, obscure, hard-to-categorize primary sources. Pamphlets with no real publication information. Oral interviews. Third English Editions of a translated passage of a primary source in an electronic book currently in its second edition in the original French.
Traits: Half-bald from pulling hair out, sore teeth and jaw from constant clenching, a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style lying in a broken heap in the corner.
Worst Fear: The correct/recognized way to cite your source simply does not exist.
Style: Read the Wikipedia article. Track down and use their footnotes. Done.
Traits: A mix of confidence and desperation, tendency to lose hours to following the Jacob’s Ladder of Wiki-links.
Worst Fear: The prof edited Wikipedia.
There are more, I’m sure, but…I need to return to my stacks upon stacks of books. 😉