Points & Length: 200 points; 4-5 pages (1200-1500 words)
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.
Body paragraphs: You should have at least five body paragraphs (125-225 words) that cover the following types of information:
Further guidelines for body paragraphs
Quotations (in-text citations): You must have at least one quotation from each of your five required sources (see next section below).
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):
***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:
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?