Anh’s essay was written at the end of the semester in WR 120, as the final academic paper in the course. It wasn’t precisely a research paper, but it did involve juggling a number of different sources—the Coates memoir, which we had read together, as a primary exhibit source, and then several background and argument sources that Anh found in the course of developing the ideas for her paper. One way I might use this paper in the classroom would be as part of a discussion about how students come up with ideas for papers when the topic choice is entirely open. After talking extensively about Coates’s book in class, students did a group multi-modal activity representing the book graphically. Through this group work, students raised a number of questions about the book; Anh wondered specifically why each chapter began with a line from a song, and what those lyrics were doing in—or for—the book. That was the beginning of her work on this paper, and I know there were points at which she worried that she was beginning “wrong,” in some way, but of course that kind of open-ended, genuine inquiry is precisely (one of) the “right” way(s) to begin an academic paper. Students could talk about their strategies for coming up with topics, beginning with questions rather than thesis statements/claims, and talking about what works well for them, what leads them down overly-constrained paths, and what may work, but may cause them to feel uneasy because the process is such a contrast from high school writing.

WR 120: First-Year Writing Seminar