Writing, Christianity, and Environment

Essay Based on Library and Original Research

In the first essay (based on personal experience), you practiced the skills of narrowing your topic, developing descriptions and narratives which pay close attention to detail, and using revision to improve the quality of your essay. In the second essay, you worked on developing an analytical argument about an advertisement and supporting it with evidence. In your most recent assignment, (making an argument about an environmental "issue" from a Biblical perspective), you have (1) moved from summarizing different people's positions to developing a carefully reasoned, well-supported argument that takes into account other points of view, (2) practiced MLA style citation, and (3) used evidence effectively. In this next essay, you will also conduct your own original research, and work on incorporating and balancing a number of (sometimes competing) sources, while keeping your own ideas at the forefront as you craft your argument.


You are free to choose your topic, but it must be an issue related directly to the environment as physical space (you are free to focus on the inhabitants of that space, upon a “built” environment, or upon the non-material things, such as music, which fill that space). This issue may be related to one we have talked about in class, or it may be a new issue.  Here are four examples of the kinds of arguments you might make:


1. An argument that takes a position Having identified a debate or controversy, choose a position that you believe represents the truth. You can take one of two (or more) opposing views, or find a position somewhere in between. For example, you might take a position on the college’s use of chemicals (such as cleaning supplies and lawn applications).  For example, you could argue that chemical use is worthwhile, that it’s dangerous and shouldn’t be used at all, or that it’s OK to use spray for weeds on the football field, but not near the residence halls.


2. An argument about causes Argue about how something came to be or why something is the way it is.  For example, you might speculate on why students at Northwestern College are reluctant to recycle by basing your analyses in part on interviews or a survey of fellow dorm inhabitants.


3. An argument that proposes solutions Identify a problem, consider proposed solutions, and argue for the solution or combination of solutions that you believe will be most successful (or argue success is impossible). For example, you might propose solutions to the problem of farmland erosion based on your observations of farmers at work or through surveys or interviews of farmers or conservation officers.


4. An argument that interprets or evaluates events or phenomena Argue about what some observable event, trend, or phenomena means. For example, you might attempt to explain the significance of the growing use of terrorist tactics by certain radical environmental groups. This might entail research into the various groups' history and the development of their beliefs and/or talking to environmental historians or radical environmentalists themselves.


Obviously, in order to even begin writing this paper, you will need at least a rudimentary knowledge of your subject.  This will involve some preliminary research to help you develop the central question you want to answer through your field research.  This initial research will be done as part of the process of preparing your proposal. Your research (and understanding) will continue to grow as you work on this project.  By the time you are finished, you should be an "expert" on your topic. The result of your research should not be a "report" of factual information, but an argument that persuades your readers to think, believe, or act in a particular way.  In other words, the point of the essay is to convince your reader to consider, and at best agree with, the opinion you yourself have developed as a result of your research.


Details: The finished product should be roughly 7-8 pages in length. In the process of writing this essay, you will also write a 3-page research proposal with an annotated bibliography.


October 24th: A brief statement of your topic and the Library Research Assignment are due along with the Library Research Assignment.

October 31st –Nov 3rd: The first draft of you proposal is due when you meet with me.

Nov 4th:  The final version of the proposal and annotated bibliography is due.

Nov 16th: Essay outline due

Nov 21st: Peer Review Day: Bring three copies of your completed draft to give to your peer reviewers.

Nov 28th :  Research Essay workshop: come with printed copies of your reviews

December 2nd: Research Essay Due

Dec 5th-15th: Research Presentations 

Dec 9th: website due if you've chosen that option instead of an oral presentation


I encourage you to be CREATIVE and ORIGINAL in your choosing your issue, conducting your original research (interview, conduct a survey, designing an experiment etc.) and developing your arguing strategies.  The structure of an argument may vary (attempting to totally discredit another position vs. acknowledging its validity in some scenarios but pointing out its inadequacies in others), but there are several basic strategies that you need to consider:


1. Identifying an issue and its importance.  Remember, at center of an issue (as opposed to a topic) is a fundamental tension that is open to dispute; this tension can lead to a clear research question.


2. Making a claim.  The claim is your purpose or point, and is central to the argument.  What is your position, or what do you want to convince your reader of?  And why should we care?


3. Supporting the claims with reasons or evidence.  Reasons are the main points of your argument (the "because" part of your argument).  Why are you making the claim you are making?  Evidence consists of facts, statistics, authorities, personal experiences, etc., that you use to make your point.


4. Analyzing the evidence.  Your reader will not automatically understand how your evidence fits into the larger picture of your paper.  By explaining how the evidence backs up your points, you reveal the logic of the argument and convince even the most skeptical reader.


5. Anticipating the readers' counter-arguments.  You need to acknowledge and either accommodate or refute counter-arguments in order to convince skeptical readers.


Original Research: For this essay you are required to do at least one of the following types of original research:

1.     Complete an interview with an expert on your chosen topic.  This may be in person, or via telephone or email.  You may do more than one interview if it seems appropriate to do so.

2.     Design and complete a survey of a significant number of members of a specific population.

3.     Design an experiment that will test an hypothesis.

4.     Do archival research (looking at data or historical documents).

Neglecting to perform some sort of original research will result in your final essay grade being lowered one grade.

Writing a Proposal

Introduction: The proposal serves as a plan that outlines your objectives and specifies the methods you will use to accomplish your goals. The proposal is a tool that helps guide you through various stages of the project. The most immediate benefit is that, through the act of writing your proposal, your thinking will be pushed further than if you just sit down to write an essay.  I expect you to compose a plan that includes the project description and carefully details the methods you plan to use and the schedules you intend to live by during the weeks until the paper is due.  You should treat your proposal as if you are applying for funding ($$$) to support your project.  You want to convince your reader that your project is well-thought-out and organized and that it will produce the desired results.  If I'm not convinced, I will deny "funding" and send you back to the drawing board. Professionalism is a must.


Format: The list of concerns below will function as the basic structure for your proposal. They are what I want you to focus on. You should arrange your plan and use headings so that a reader can access certain kinds of information quickly. On the following page is a suggested order for the categories. You may certainly change the order or create subdivisions to suit your project and plan.


1.     Introduction and Statement of Purpose

Begin by writing an introductory paragraph that familiarizes your reader with the topic and with the controversy surrounding it. In your introduction you should summarize conflicting opinions, explaining how this issue has led to the question motivating your research.  This question should be stated clearly and concisely.  Remember the criteria for asking a "good question": (1) It should specific enough to guide inquiry, (and know when we have answered the question); (2) it can be answered with the tools you have decided to use;  (3) it does not limit your answer to yes or no; and (4) it is organized around an issue. You should also explain why this issue is important--in other words, what will be the tangible effects of the decisions we make or fail to make when we consider this issue (examples: tax dollars will be needlessly wasted, children will suffer from higher cancer rates, we will fail to adhere to appropriate moral standards, we will fail to understand an important element of our own culture....).  Keep in mind what might motivate  others to be interested in your attempts to answer the question.  Remember that you're "selling" your efforts to an audience.


2.     Methods

Here you provide an overview of the tools you will use to learn what you need to know to come to a conclusion about your topic. You know that you can: (1) conduct interviews and/or a survey; (2) perform an experiment (explain why this is necessary and how you’ll perform it);  (3) do archival or historical work (describe the archive or other source you’ll be using); (4) review the published literature on the topic (explain which sources will be most important and why); (5) observe and consider your own experience (explain why this is appropriate); and (6) come to terms with your own impressions.  Explain which of these methods you favor and why.  Discuss the appropriateness of these methods in terms of your question. What do you hope to gain by using your chosen method or methods?  How will they enable you to answer your question? Given the objectives you have set for yourself and the constraints of doing the research, are some methods better than others?


You might, for instance, use a survey of fifty college students to test the results of another author's argument.  Does the argument apply to your peer group?  You might interview an expert to help you answer the larger philosophical questions your research raises. How do the views of your interviewee compare to those presented in the literature?  You might use a case study to help you make an argument, (e.g. what happens when one farmer, your neighbor Joe Smith, encounters EPA regulations).  You might use a survey to identify inconsistencies in people's thinking (they believe recycling is a good thing, but only do it when it requires no effort on their part).  You might also use a survey to compare the answers of different populations (those of college professors to those of college students or those of men to those of women.  Is one groups more aware or concerned about your issue?  What might explain that result?) You might perform an experiment to test your subjects’ responses to various noise levels or kinds of ambient sounds.


In this section you will need to give the name of the person or person you will be interviewing during your research and indicate whether or not you have managed to contact them (You need to have contacted them to set up an interview by the time the final draft of your proposal is due).  Explain why you want to interview this person or these people.  What makes them well-qualified to answer questions on your topic? Before you decide to interview a close friend or relative, decide if you will be able to view what they say objectively—in other words, will you be able to disagree with them if your other research leads you to believe that this friend or relative is mistaken in their views?   Provide a draft of at least five questions you plan to use for your interview. 


If you plan to use a survey, experiment or archival work, you should also provide a complete draft of your survey, a detailed description of your experiment, or an overview of the archival materials you will study.


3.     Discussion and Implications

It may seem a little premature to talk about what you hope to find in your study, but it would be useful to say something about what you believe your study can help you understand about the issue or question that has motivated your research.


4.     Timeline

Discuss what you will do when as specifically as possible, including when you will do your interview or survey, how long you will spend analyzing your survey or the results of your experiment. Include exact dates (i.e. "by November 20 I will…" ) and self-prescribed deadlines.


5.     Annotated Bibliography

A compilation of 10-15 sources, at least ten of them non web-based, listed in correct MLA format. At least three of your sources must be scholarly or "peer-reviewed" articles or books. At least 10 of your sources must be non-website sources. Each bibliographic entry should be followed by a short (2-3 sentence) objective summary of the article which includes what material is covered in the article and the author's "take" on the subject (what opinion they express if any). Please see the sample Annotated Bibliography provided on the course website.


Conducting an Interview

The key to a successful interview is PREPARATION.  The following information should help you as you PLAN for the interview. See also Everything’s An Argument, page 301.


Planning the Interview

1.     Do your homework! Perform initial research so that you can ask advanced questions.  You should not be asking your interviewee to provide basic knowledge about the subject.  This is a waste of their time and expertise.

2.     Decide who will provide the best information through an interview.  This person should be a specialist in his or her field or have an important perspective to offer based on his or her life experience. If you are at a loss for who to interview, ask me for suggestions.

3.     Contact this person and ask if they would have time and be willing to be interviewed.  Be sure to describe your project to them.  Professionalism in making this contact is a must.  If they agree to be interviewed, arrange a time and place that is convenient for them.

4.     Make (and double check) arrangements for the interview: time, place, etc. Be there on time.

5.     Search for existing information on the interviewee (or about the subject matter being discussed) -- anything that can be known prior to the interview.

6.     Write a draft of an interview script. (See "Ordering and Refining the Questions," below.)

7.     Practice the script -- on your roommate, your small group or some other real live people.  Get feedback on two levels: How did the order and pacing of questions make them as interviewees feel? What other questions -- or what different questions -- might you need to ask to get at the information you need?

8.     Revise the script for improved order, content, pacing.

9.     Do the interview! Make sure your subject signs a simple form giving you permission to interview him/her and specifying how you will use the material. Take notes AND tape record the interview, if possible. Be flexible with the script as you go; pursue new questions that are raised by what the interviewee tells you. Toward the end of your interview, check your script for  important questions that you forgot to ask.

10. If the interviewee's answers are vague, evasive or misdirected, try rephrasing your question to be more specific about what you're after. If you think the interviewee is implying something that's of special interest to you, ask him/her if they mean to imply that. That kind of reflective comment might shake loose some interesting new material.

11. Transcribe and/or rewrite notes, adding your observations and impressions.


Ordering and Refining the Questions

1.     Start with the easy, non-threatening but necessary questions ("How did you become interested in environmental history?"). Don't start with an open-ended question ("What is your mission in life?").

2.     When moving to open-ended questions, start with a more general question ("What subjects have you researched in the field of environmental history") and moving to more specific ones ("Do you agree that the invention of the modern plow is responsible for topsoil erosion?"). This is called funneling.

3.     Don't ask many (or perhaps, any) questions that encourage simple yes/no responses. Work on rephrasing such questions in your script, so that you're more likely to get an enlightening answer.

4.     "Filter questions" can be used at the beginning of sections of your script to expedite the interview ("Do you do any research on the history of Midwestern agriculture?").


Analyzing the Interview:

Read back over the interview and look for recurring patterns or themes. Think through what your interviewee has said.  Highlight (or write down) quotations that you will want to incorporate into your essay.  How will  you be able to use what they've said to compliment your other research?  Do you agree or disagree with their perspective on the issue?  Why? 

Developing a Survey

Although interviews are great for getting in-depth information from relatively few individuals, sometimes you'll want to get information from a broader population; surveys can allow you to learn more about a larger scope of people.  But like an interview, surveys must be designed and executed carefully. Also see Everything’s an Argument, page 302. You will also need to submit your plan to the Research Ethics Committee for approval.


1.     While this may seem obvious, be sure to ask yourself the question: What information do I want and must therefore make certain I will be collecting?  Remember, if you do not ask for it, you cannot discuss it later.


2.     Surveys, like essays, often need to go through several drafts.  Write more questions than you plan to use, and try them out on a small sample group.   First drafts often have items for which everyone gives the same answer or no one gives any answer at all.   As you make a rough draft of your survey, be sure to keep the sequencing tips that we discussed for interviewing in mind.


3.     Before settling on the final draft of your survey (deciding on the number of items, and the type and sequence of questions) be sure that you have covered the complete domain of content that you have identified as important to the survey.


4.     Remember, you can ask many different types of questions.  For example, you could have open-ended questions (like "What was your last advising session like?"), fixed answer questions -- or a combination of both.  For fixed answer you could have respondees:

rate something on a scale you provide

choose a word from a list you provide 

answer a yes/no question

fill in the blank

Thinking ahead to how you plan to analyze the data can help you decide what kinds of questions you want to ask; for example, do you hope to: 

·        compute percentages (22% were sociology majors)

·        produce averages (on average, the students in this survey did not choose their major until their 5th semester) 

·        compare groups (60% of the women surveyed claimed to be concerned about world population growth, while only 20% of the men made similar claims) 

·        look for relationships (no connection could be found between how liberal or conservative people are and their environmental views)

·        see what categories emerge from short answer descriptions (three types of discrimination recurred throughout the descriptions offered by those surveyed: A, B, and C)


5.     Be sure to think about the logistics of administering the survey.  What population will you survey?  How and where will you find them?  Will you ask the questions orally  (writing their responses down), or will you give people surveys to fill out (take home or on the spot)? Also important: how many people will you survey (the number must be large enough to yield significant results)?  Note:  Placing a survey on the Informer does NOT work.


6.     Be sensitive to issues of ethics and confidentiality.  Only ask for info regarding age, sex, race, income, etc. if it is pertinent to your study, and be sure to explain to those you survey what their responses will be used for.  If the information you are collecting is personal, be sure to protect the confidentiality of your sources.



More Information on Conducting an Interview

More Information on Developing a Survey


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