Years ago, long before non-GMO became a common label on foods, before Safeway even had an “Organics” section, and before “gluten-free” became a thing, a junior came to class with an idea for her research paper. “It sounds interesting. They are altering the genes of food,” she said about the NPR broadcast she’d listened to on her way to school. ”
“What do you think about it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I want to find out.”
Her eventual essay included the word “Frankenfoods” in the title, so we can see where that led.
Over the years, students rarely choose to write about topics they begin by knowing little about, but those papers are most often the best. Writing a research paper should be as much about finding out truth as proving it.
Changing our mind is probably one of the greatest struggles any of us have. We get an idea in our head and simply cannot move. For a teenager to research a topic with an idea already clear in their head about what they want to say is pretty typical. For a reversal to occur is rare indeed.
Recently, a junior was writing about forcing sports teams to change what some perceived were racist logos. She argued this would be unnecessarily costly and inconvenient, would destroy honored traditions and history, and anyway, “racism” was not the intent and probably not even effect of these logos. She got through two drafts, and then the day before the next draft was due, the one that was supposed to be done other than minor word-smithing, she came to see me after class.
“I have a problem,” she said. “My thesis is wrong, or anyway I disagree with my thesis. I made a mistake and now I don’t know what to do.” She had, the night before, read an opinion piece about the damage racist stereotypes, including the images used as sports logos, do to young people living on reservations. Such images preserve and inflate prejudices and contribute to a sense of exclusion and hopelessness for children already living in poverty and on the margins of society. “I’ve seen that,” she said. “It’s true.” She had worked as a volunteer on a reservation.
“Change your thesis,” I said.
“But I don’t have time to start over.” She sounded surprisingly reasonable, given her sense of her dilemma. This had to feel like a disaster in her world and she was struggling to maintain her calm. She began to rattle off all the arguments that supported her original thesis.
“But one article convinced you that you were wrong.”
“So use everything you already have, and then show me how you were convinced. Concede everything—inconvenience, costs, fan outrage—and show me how there is something more important at stake. It convinced you; convince me as a reader.”
She did it too. Changed her hook, reversed her thesis, fiddled her body paragraphs, and concluded with a bang. Her argument was logical and emotional, reasonable and persuasive.
It can be done. We can change our minds.
Long ago, another junior showed up before class, the day before a draft of the same assignment was due. She was in tears. “They have to shoot them,” she wailed. “They have to do it as a symbol, and the sea lions aren’t even the real problem.” She had been writing a paper to argue against killing the sea lions that were eating salmon at the base of a dam spillway. She could prove that the sea lions were not the cause of dwindling wild salmon populations, but she also came to understand that the issue was not as simple as she’d hoped.
Another student, in his senior research paper (SRP) was struggling to prove his thesis, that welfare recipients should be drug tested as a condition of receiving public assistance. Why should people on public assistance be allowed to abused those funds? The trouble was that drug-testing had been tried and had proven that few people do abuse drugs and it cost a great deal more to test for drug abuse than was gained by cutting such people off from public services. Ten or twenty times more. There were also issues related to privacy and other forms of public assistance and contracts that he did not even want to address. He had not changed his world view, but he did change his point of view on this particular policy.
Students have proposed legislation that was eventually adopted (hat off to you, Russell for advocating pleasure boat pilot licenses), as well as the use of artificial turf, graphite bats, and golf carts during tournaments. I read about forty essays on allowing or banning abortion, most of them on both sides rather hysterical and unconvincing, before I banned the topic altogether. One senior cried so hard every time she tried to work on her pit bull essay that I chose to put that topic, too, on the banned list.
Religious arguments? Mostly banned. When a student used Thomas Jefferson’s faith as part of his proof that we are a Christian nation, I suggested he had better read the work of our third President. When his mother argued that no Christian ever owned slaves, I gave up trying to reason with her. In order to use a faith-based argument, you would first have to convert your audience. I was teaching in a public school.
I readily confessed the obvious. I have opinions. I am opinionated, but I am more interested in the writing. I have been convinced by students, and even when I am not convinced, my purpose is to evaluate their skill, not to make them agree with me. One of my all-time favorite essays, one I still recall vividly and with respect, was written to support preserving “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a hot topic one year because of a California lawsuit. Three students wrote supporting restoration of the original form of the Pledge. Two wrote supporting the current form. One of those last was brilliant. I still don’t say “under God” because my mother taught me not to, but I respect and honor that student’s essay. Her exploration of the history and implications of the Pledge were more complete than anyone else. She won me over.
It is one of the side gifts of teaching researched persuasive essays: I learn a lot. Sometimes I find I know random facts I cannot even explain. I have no reason for knowing about water rights and road-building, statistics about rape and fishing, the costs of medical insurance and how many student athletes are injured by sport. Part of scoring their papers involves reviewing their research, verifying their claims, checking for additional overlooked aspects of a problem. I read a great deal.
And as determined as students are to avoid interviews, talking to the right person will yield solid facts and details available no other way. Even so, the right questions of the right person are critical. A student asked an engineer working with nuclear power via email what health risks were associated with nuclear power? The man emailed back that he was “unaware of any health risks.” The student quoted this as proof that nuclear power was non-polluting and harmless. I had to break it to the student that “he may be joking.” An engineer would not be the right person to ask about health issues, and he needed to research nuclear accidents. Plus, you know, the long term effects of The Manhattan Project . . . “Look it up.”
I am a good researcher, and with the internet and experience evaluating sources, it is surprising even to me what I can find out if I look hard enough. The key is a willingness to look beyond what supports my prejudice.
Skepticism is a good thing, I have found. Finding multiple sources to confirm the same information is important. Avoiding the crazies. Doing the math. Recognizing that a minority opinion is not necessarily wrong. But it isn’t necessarily right either. What’s worth arguing is never simple.
In the face of personal experience, we might alter our perspective. In the face of evidence and logic, we must be willing to consider other perspectives.