It’s research essay season at my school again. Two years ago, when the pandemic broke out, the research we typically require in our core classes was a casualty. We could barely get our students to show up at Zoom sessions, let alone slog through the research. 

Last year it reappeared, but like everything else, with an asterisk. This year, though whatever “normal” used to mean in schools has been thoroughly revised, we’re back at it. In preparation for that process, I’ve issued the teachers in my department a challenge. I’ll make a similar offer to you now. 

Here’s the challenge: if you get a student to write a research essay that contains a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, I will buy you a T shirt that says “Story First!” on the front and “4QM Teaching” on the back. Who wouldn’t want one of those? But wait — it gets better: if you get a student to write a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, that answers a question *other* than Question Two (What were they thinking?), I will send you a free copy of our book. (The original offer to my department involved beer, which I can’t promise to transfer across state lines.)

Narration Is A Skillful Activity

Nonfiction narration — telling a true story well — is a skillful activity. If your students manage to write a competent narrative that they learned from independent reading (and viewing and listening), then they and you should be proud of their work. That’s challenging enough! 

Unfortunately, many of the student essays that sound like or purport to be arguments supported by evidence simply aren’t. They’re historical narratives, as they should be in most cases. Even the College Board thinks so. They’re just afraid to say so. 

If your students do manage to make a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, my wager is that it will be interpretive, a response to Question Two. That’s because the evidence will be accessible to them in the form of primary sources or meaningful artifacts that can provide a window into the thinking of the historical actor or actors whose minds they’re trying to plumb. 

The other kind of claim we encounter frequently in our students’ research essays is explanatory: this thing caused that thing to happen (ie. Question Three: Why then and there?). In storytelling, we make such claims all the time. Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, so Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. We have no proof that that’s why Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, but it’s bizarre to think we’d need any. There are no other candidate explanations worth considering. So we just tell the story.

Historical Q3 Analysis Requires Evidence That We Usually Don’t Have

On the other hand, in historical analysis, when we say that something caused something else to happen, it typically sounds more like this: the Roman empire was successful because of its roads. Or, alliances caused the Great War. Or, the Civil War was caused by slavery. 

To see what’s wrong with each of these arguments, let’s use our handy Claims-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) tool: 

Claim: Rome’s empire was successful (was pretty big, and functioned pretty well for a good stretch of time) because the Romans built an extensive network of roads. 

Evidence: __________________________

Reasoning: Roads allowed Romans to police the empire and collect taxes efficiently.

Go ahead. Fill in the blank. Or, better, find a student who fills in the blank. A book awaits you.  

Here’s another: 

Claim: Alliances caused the Great War (to break out? to grow larger?)

Evidence: ___________________________

Reasoning: Allies felt bound by their agreements, and so joined a war they would otherwise have avoided. 

Go for it. A T shirt *and* a book for this one. 

By the way, this argument particularly bothers me. We, or at least I, just lived through an era when the great powers militarized at an unprecedented clip, formed extensive alliances, and drew most countries of the world into their spheres of influence. We call this period “The Cold War.” And yet, no world war. Yet, our textbooks tell us that militarism, alliances, and imperialism caused the First World War. For the record, alliances are not dangerous. Ask the Poles. 

Finally, the Civil War. It was, indeed, fought over slavery. That is incontrovertible. But take a look: 

Claim: Slavery caused the Civil War (1861-1865)

Evidence: _____________________________

Reasoning: The antagonists in the American Civil War were very concerned about the institution of slavery, some for it and some against it. 

Now, the reasoning in this case is the tipoff: it’s an interpretation. In other words, it answers Question Two, What were they thinking? For sure, most Americans involved in the Civil War were thinking about slavery, particularly Confederate leaders. We could prove that by reading speeches, as most of us do when we teach US History. 

What we can’t do that way is answer the explanatory question, Why then and there? Slavery as an institution began in North America in 1619. It was accommodated by the US Constitution and compromised over repeatedly. Slavery was as much of a constant in American politics and society as any other institution that society possessed. 

Unfortunately for this claim, a constant can’t explain a change. We can only explain changes with changes (what scientists call ‘variables’). So, the claim is a red herring

Research Paper Ground Rules

Here’s what our students need to know before they set off to write a research essay, and what their teachers need to know before they require one: 

  • Nonfiction storytelling is good. It’s hard to do well. Praise is in order for those who do it well.
  • Arguments are good, if they’re real. They’re bad if they’re not. 
  • If you want an argument, aim at interpretation. 

They’ll be blue with white lettering. Tell me your size when you submit your winner.