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Background Essay

English 127
Research Writing

Points & Length:  200 points; 4-5 pages (1200-1500 words)
No cover page; double space; include heading on the first page (top left); place shortened title and page number in the header of every page (top right); see Format Instructions for more details
Title:  Include an informative, interesting, provocative and/or creative title that reflects your NARROWED topic (see CR)
Drafts:  First draft to be copied and pasted into a forum window; final draft to be submitted as an uploaded file on Canvas.
Student Sample Background Essay

Remember that all three of the major essays for this course should be on the same topic, though the way that you narrow it will continue to evolve throughout the quarter (contact me if you want to change your topic altogether after submitting the Background Essay).  See Research Topics, especially the "Prohibited Topics" section; make sure how you're narrowing your topic has a social science focus and that your research is focused on the United States. 

The purpose of this essay is informational NOT argumentative.  In this exploratory essay you will present background information relating to your proposed (narrowed) topic, including relevant history; statistics; laws and/or policies; organizations and programs (that address past and current needs and problems); current debates, disagreements, and controversies (pay attention to different stakeholders, but don't take sides or give your own opinion); etc. In your conclusion, you will also identify what aspects of your topic you will continue researching for the next two essays. 

Review the Assignments page to get a sense of how the Background Essay fits in with the Scholarly Review and the Final Research Article; a revised version of the Background Essay will become the background section of your Final Research Article. 

Required Elements

Introductory paragraph:  

  • The first paragraph of your essay should present some context for your narrowed topic (why it's currently relevant).

  • Briefly describe the various subpoints of information that your paper will present. 

  • Close your introduction with a single sentence that provides an overview of the main subpoints of information that your paper will cover.  (Note that you are including an overview statement rather than a thesis statement since you are not putting forth an argument in this paper.)

  • Introduction should not have too many quotations or provide too much information, which should be saved for the body paragraphs. 

Body paragraphs:  You should have at least five body paragraphs (125-225 words) that cover the following types of information: 

  • historical background (key events and developments; key figures; key laws and statistics; etc.); note that your coverage of history may include discussion of causes and effects, though keep in mind that those may be debated rather than "fact"
  • statistics (at least two, but more may be necessary depending on your topic)
  • laws and/or policies
  • organizations, programs, agencies, etc. that seek to address past and current needs and problems
  • current (published) debates, disagreements, and controversies (what stakeholders may disagree about and why, but without taking a position in those debates yourself)
  • additional information can include relevant definitions, current news stories; etc. 

Further guidelines for body paragraphs

  • Each paragraph should begin with a clear topic sentence indicating what that paragraph will cover (connected to the overview statement from your intro); don't begin a body paragraph with a quotation.
  • You must tell us where you got EACH piece of information or viewpoint (including authors (or title if no author is available), year of publication, and page or para. number); don't just include one or two citations in a given paragraph.
  • Don't assume that you have to write one paragraph for each type of required info above; for example, you may have more than one paragraph on history, and your discussion of history may include statistics and laws.
  • See Paragraph Development webpage for more explanation.

Concluding paragraph: 

  •  Indicate any important information you were not able to find and if you are intending to narrow your topic further.

  • Propose one POSSIBLE research question (see CR, Ch. 3) that you would like to explore and try to answer regarding your narrowed topic.  Your proposed research question should not be merely informational, opinion based, nor a good/bad, either/or, for/against, pro/con, yes/no, etc. type of question; nor should it predict the future or try to solve a problem (your job will not be to solve a problem in the three papers but to contribute to its analysis). Explain what is significant about your research question, that is, why is it important to understand that aspect in particular? 

  • Note that how you’re narrowing your topic and your proposed research question will continue to evolve, so don't feel that you are tied to your research question.  It is just a starting point as you begin looking for scholarly sources for your next paper, the Scholarly Review

  • Do not use "I" or other forms of first person voice in the three formal essays for this course, including here in the conclusion. 

Quotations (in-text citations):  You must have at least one quotation from each of your five required sources (see next section below). 

  • Follow APA guidelines for in-text citations to setup each quotation or citation grammatically with a signal phrase or attributive tag, and include a comment or explanation for each major quoted passage. Include authors' last names only, year of publication, and page or paragraph numbers for EACH in-text citation. Do NOT include authors' first name, initials, or credentials in the body of the essay.  Only include "article title" (in quotation marks) or book title (in italics) or organization name if no author is specified. 

  • In addition to the required five quotations, you can also paraphrase or simply refer to your sources, which still requires in-text citation.  If you have more than the minimum required five sources, you must cite all of them in the body of your essay even if you don’t quote from them. 

  • You may need to indicate what source you are using more than once in a single paragraph:  the reader should always know where you are getting your information from; there should never be confusion about whether you are stating your own ideas and interpretations or presenting someone else’s information or views. 

  • This is a research writing class, so you are expected to quote from multiple sources to indicate where you are getting EACH piece of information or viewpoint.  However, the quoted passages should not be so many or so long that they dominate your own essay.  The majority of the writing in the essay should still be your own, not the authors’ you quote. 

  • Include quotations and citations to avoid plagiarism (see Academic Honesty section of the Syllabus), which can lead to failure for the assignment and the entire course. 


A minimum of five substantial and diverse sources are required for this essay (at least two of which should be no more than two years old).  Do not rely on any one source for the majority of your information; demonstrate that you have synthesized information from multiple sources, especially for your historical accounts.  Experiment with various subject and keyword search terms and combinations.  You should plan to sift through and evaluate numerous sources to finalize the ones that you plan to use.  Your five sources must come from the three source types listed below, with at least one source from each type.  If you make use of more than five sources, you may include some information from other source types, including organizational websites, documentaries, TED Talks, youtube videos, news stories, etc., but be very cautious about the credibility and authority of sources.  See the Holman Library Class Guide for this course to find sources.  Find at least five sources from the following three source TYPES (at least one from each type):

  • "Reference" articles:  See the "Find reference articles" tab of our Holman Library Class Guide.  Look for articles from the databases CQ Researcher and Gale Virtual Reference Library, encyclopedias (e.g., Britannica), social science textbooks, print materials from a library’s Reference section, etc. You may not use Wikipedia (or Ask.com or related services) as one of your sources, though you may consult the References section of a Wikipedia article to locate other relevant sources; see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Academic_use. Dictionary entries will not count as one of your five required sources. 
  • Magazine articles You must have at least one article that you find from the ProQuest database, which you can find from the "Find magazine and newspaper articles" tab of our Holman Library Class GuideTry out a variety of search terms in ProQuest to find relevant and substantial articles (must be longer than 1000 words); use the tabs at the top of the search results (the list of article links) to sort and view only the magazine articles. Online magazine articles are also acceptable.  Avoid academic journal scholarly journals for this essay, which will be the main source type for your next essay (Scholarly Review).  Newspaper articles will not count! 
  • Books or book chapters:  See the "Find books and book chapters" tab of our Holman Library Class Guide.  Use the online library catalog to access GRC’s holdings as well as electronic books that you can read directly from your computer.  You can also look for books via WorldCat, King County Library, UW Libraries, and amazon.com.  Use the Inter-Library Loan service to have GRC get books for you that Holman Library doesn’t own. Rereading America articles do not count to fulfill this required source TYPE.

***Start a new page with this title after your concluding paragraph. You will create a list of citations in APA format for the sources you used in your paper.  Some important features of APA format for your References page (bibliographic entries) include alphabetization by last name (or article title if no author is available); indentation after the first line of each entry; rules for use of capitalization, italics, and quotation marks; full last names only with first and middle initials (without listing credentials); inclusion of secondary title (e.g., article title AND name of magazine or website name); and inclusion of doi (digital object identifier), name of database, or url (website address) for electronically retrieved articles. 

***Note the difference between magazine articles (where the audience is the general public, as in Newsweek, or a particular segments of the public, as in Popular Photography) vs. academic journal articles (where the audience is made of scholars, such as Journal of Popular Culture or Journal of American History).  You will focus on scholarly sources for the second major paper, the Scholarly Review.  It can be difficult to distinguish between magazines and academic journals when you do a database search (e.g., on Proquest); see Scholarly Sources to understand the difference.  Avoid scholarly journal articles for the BE; if you do use one for information (rather than a report of current research), you should also make sure you have the other three required source TYPES listed above. 

***You are encouraged to find as much relevant background information on your topic as you can, so look far and wide at many different kinds of sources, but the bulk of your information should come from the three source types above.  You may even end up finding sources for the Scholarly Review (scholarly journal articles) or the Final Research Article, in which case you’ll be ahead of the game!  Ask a librarian for assistance as you hunt for relevant sources and information; click the link for the 24 hour online chat with a librarian at the top right corner of the Holman Library website.


See the Syllabus section on grading for the expectations for A, B, C, D, and F-level work.  You will be graded on the following elements:

  • Topic selection and title:  appropriately narrowed; social science aspect; U.S. based; not on list of "prohibited topics."

  • Informational:  not argumentative or opinion-based; overview statement with subtopics of info in the introduction.

  • Body paragraphs:  clear topic sentences; required subtopics of info, including relevant history; statistics (at least two); laws and/or policies; organizations and programs (that address past and current needs and problems); current debates, disagreements, and controversies (pay attention to different stakeholders, but don't take sides or give your own opinion).

  • Concluding paragraph: report of any significant info you didn't find; how the topic might be narrowed further; and a possible research question you will use to continue your research along with its signficance (note that the research question should not be informational; nor should it be a yes/no, good/bad, either/or, pro/con type question, nor one that tries to solve a problem or predict the future). 

  • Quotations (in-text citations)s:  APA format; at least one quotation from each of the five required sources; quotations used when necessary with sufficient context and explanation; signal phrases with author and date; page (p.) or paragraph (para.) number in parentheses after the quotation; punctuation, grammar, and mechanics.

  • Required sources: at least five sources from the three required source TYPES; at least two sources that are from within the last two years; sources from the required databases from the Holman Library course guide; credible sources that avoid bias.

  • References page:   APA format for bibliographic entries (see explanation above).

  • Style:  avoid first person ("I," "me," etc.) and second person ("you") voice; word choice is appropriate to an academic context. 

  • Grammar, spelling, and other formatting

Additional Considerations

Narrowing your topic:  Before making a final topic selection, be willing to consider and even do preliminary research on more than one topic.  Make sure you are focusing on a social science aspect of your topic rather than a scientific aspect.  For example, do not attempt to write a paper on the effects of psychotropic drugs on brain chemistry, though you might, for example, explore the policies around mental health and medication for prisoners.  Even though you must narrow your topic before getting started so that you are not biting off more than you can chew, you will likely have to provide background info that is more general than just your narrowed topic.  For example, if you were writing a paper on mass transit in Seattle, it would be relevant to look at the history of mass transit more broadly along with the experiences of other cities.  Your job will be to balance the specific information you provide about your narrowed topic and the broader background and contexts. 

Information, Evaluation, and Analysis:  Of the three major essays, this one requires the least explicit written evaluation and analysis on your part, but it is still not a "data dump," in which you just throw together all the information you can find.  Although there may not be any such thing as objectivity, you should seek to remain neutral.  Remember that in this paper you will not be putting forth an argument about your topic, which in fact you will not develop until the Final Research Article.  Therefore, do not put forth your opinion, take sides in a controversy, or form judgments about what is right and wrong, good or bad.  However, you will still need to exercise and exhibit your own critical thinking, judgment and creativity in narrowing your topic.  You will also need to evaluate sources for credibility as you select, organize and present relevant information in a clear, concise and meaningful way. 

Voice and Audience:   Don’t use “I,” “me,” or other forms of first person in the three major essays for this course.  Also don’t use “you” (second person) voice.  Use third person speech, but avoid awkward and unnecessary uses of passive voice.  Contact me in advance if you wish to include brief, relevant personal experience that you will discuss in the context of other non-personal published research.  Never use first person to give your opinion (“I think” or “I believe”) or to narrate the trivial details of your own research experience (“Then I went to the library to find some more sources!”).  For the Background Essay and other writing in this class, your audience is NOT the general public.  Instead think of your audience as fellow researchers, for example, your fellow students in this class. 


Information Questions:  Even before you begin or as you get started hunting for relevant sources and information, make a list of as many information questions you can think of with regard to your topic.  What is it that YOU think you might like to know or need to know about your topic?  It is helpful actually to write these out since it will focus your hunt.  As you research, keep adding to this list.  Which information are you not able to find out?  Why might that be?  Whom might you ask for help in locating the answer to a particular question that you think is important but can't seem to find? 

Historical Timeline:  Come up with a historical timeline with the dates for at least 3-5 major events, laws, or other developments.   Briefly explain the significance of each date; perhaps write a mini-narrative.

Statistics:  As you go through various sources, identify at least one or two statistics that are relevant for your research topic/question.  Why are these statistics relevant?  Would everyone agree on what they mean, or are they the subject of disagreement and controversy?  See the Misleading Use of Statistics

Stakeholders:  List as many different groups or parties that are involved or affected by your research topic/question (do not say "society," which is too general a category) as you can think of.  List at least five different types of groups/parties.  Ideally, you should be able to identify their distinct interests, perspectives, and relative power and voice, which may motivate you to look for even more diverse sources.  For example, in researching the criminal justice system, how might you go about researching the experiences and points of view of prisoners themselves?

Debates/Disagreements/Controversies:  Describe and explain at least two major debates or disagreements that are relevant to your topic from published sources.  Who disagrees with whom and why (think about different stakeholders)?  Do they disagree because of conflicting evidence, interests, values and/or assumptions?  These disagreements might be found in the mainstream media or in some other sources.  Remember that you will not take a position or give your opinion in these debates and controversies; you are simply trying to give the reader an understanding of who disagrees with whom and why. 

Problems and Solutions:  While your job is not to solve real-world problems (even in the Final Research Article), you should begin trying to understand those related to your narrowed topic.  Think about the following questions, though you do not have to answer them for the BE:  Why and when did it become a problem? Why hasn’t it been solved?  How has it evolved over time?  What efforts have been to solve the problem?  What has or hasn’t been effective about those proposed solutions?  Who is (most) to blame for the problem or should get the most credit for attempted solutions?  What are the main disagreements about causes and solutions?  Who has the power to do something about the problem?  What is a financial analysis of the problem?  Who gains something from the problem remaining a problem?