CCCC 2014 Reviews

H.01 "Going to the Source: Rhetorical Approaches to Research-Based Writing"

Reviewed by Sarah Marshall (sm13s@my.fsu.edu)

Chair: William FitzGerald, Rutgers University, Camden


William FitzGerald, Rutgers University, Camden, “Rethinking the Annotated Bibliography as a Research Genre”

Binyomin Abrams, Boston University, MA, “Real Research/Real Genres: Integrating Research-Based Writing into an Introductory Analytical Chemistry Sequence for Majors”

Joe Bizup, Boston University, MA, “BEAM Revisited: Mapping Disciplines, Genres, Practices”

In the midst of all the excitement about and creative investigation into multimodal and/or digital composing, research-based writing can seem like a dull topic, an aspect of first-year composition that has been endlessly discussed and debated. After all, research-based writing has been professionally explored at CCCC at least since 1950 when “Workshop No. 3” raised the question, “What is the role of the research paper in the elementary composition course?” (“Objectives and Organization,” p. 12). However, what the speakers at this session offered is anything but a tired rehash.

Although Joe Bizup spoke last at the panel, I will address his contribution first, since the other two speakers drew from the scholarship he was revisiting, his 2008 Rhetoric Review article “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.” Bizup began his presentation with a brief overview of the material covered in his article. His main claim was that our current vocabulary for describing sources (primary, secondary, tertiary) is insufficient primarily because it does not direct students’ attention to how they actually use their sources in their writing. In order to help students understand the different ways in which writers rhetorically use their sources, Bizup proposed a simple, yet descriptive vocabulary:

  • Background – “Materials whose claims a writer accepts as grounding facts”
  • Exhibits – “Materials a writer offers for explication, analysis, or interpretation”
  • Arguments – “Materials whose claims a writer affirms, disputes, refines, or extends in some way”
  • Method (or Theory) – “Materials from which a writer derives a governing concept or a manner of working”

For a fuller description of what these source types are, I must refer you to Bizup’s article.

While I found Bizup’s summary of his article’s claims fascinating, I particularly appreciated three aspects of his presentation:

  1. He positioned his emphasis on rhetorical use of sources as responding to the widespread characterization of research-based writing as “joining a conversation,” drawing on Joseph Harris’ (2006) criticism that “if academic writing is a conversation, then it is one of a curious and asymmetrical sort. For academics rarely write to the persons whose work they are writing about” (p. 36). The characterization of research-based writing as conversation can obscure the very real differences between having an everyday, oral conversation happening at the current moment, and participating in academic, textual conversations that span decades, centuries, and even millennia.
  2. The point he briefly made regarding the potential connections between the vocabulary he is proposing and broader interests in the field, such as transfer and WAC/WID.
  3. Practical suggestions for how this vocabulary can be incorporated in the classroom at multiple levels. One example he gave for their use is as a framework for reading, where students annotate how their readings are using sources rhetorically, and/or as a map where students demonstrate how they will use their sources in their paper and the sources’ intertextual relationships, to name just two assignments/activities.

This final point brings me to William Fitzgerald, the first speaker of the panel. His presentation demonstrated how BEAM can be used to reinvigorate a typical assignment in first year composition: the annotated bibliography. He claimed that the annotated bibliography is a “mediating genre where writers take stock of the sources they may use,” which, he argued, could lend itself to being conceived of as a site for rhetorical invention. Unfortunately, this is not how it is typically perceived or utilized. Too often, he argued, it is an assignment intended to simply gauge whether students have enough sources, or the right kind of sources. Rather, we should be using it as a space for students to explore the potential uses to which they might put their sources in their paper, i.e., how they will interact with them at a more sophisticated level than sorting out which sources support their view and which represent counterviews. By annotating their sources with the BEAM vocabulary, students are encouraged to begin inventing the structure and substance of their composition. However, Fitzgerald admitted, there is a danger in this approach. By categorizing their sources early on, some students may feel compelled or inclined to use their sources as they labeled them without considering that there might be other, perhaps more effective, uses to which they could be put.

The second presentation, by Binyomin Abrams, enriched the second point that I appreciated in Bizup’s presentation: the connection to transfer and WAC/WID research. As a chemistry professor, Abrams’ use and support of the BEAM vocabulary greatly enhanced Bizup’s credibility in claiming that BEAM could potentially provide a research vocabulary that crosses disciplines. Abrams’ discussion of how BEAM and research-based writing gradually became integrated and refined in an “Introductory Analytical Chemistry Sequence for Majors” was fascinating. In the first year of implementation, students were composing about fifty pages of writing; however, by the fourth year of this process, students were creating about seven pages of polished writing, and 20 pages of lower-stakes writing. This reduction in quantity came about because as they proceeded with their implementation, they came to realize they were more interested in the quality of the students’ writing, and students’ ability to write in ways that more closely resemble writing published in their discipline. In order to accomplish this, they primarily focused on teaching students how to prepare, explicate, and analyze their exhibits and explain their methods, since this was the most organically feasible task for students being inducted into the ways of thinking, knowing, and writing particular to chemistry. This conclusion illustrates that while the vocabulary of BEAM may be transferable across disciplines, the emphasis on and relative value of these different ways of using sources will vary somewhat from discipline to discipline, and it will also most likely vary developmentally from year to year for each student.

I personally found this session to be both thought-provoking and practically useful. The main critiques that I would offer to the speakers at this panel are of a very similar and somewhat impossible nature, considering the stringent time constraints of panel presentations. Essentially, I want to know more and to see more specific examples. For Bizup and Fitzgerald, I would have appreciated seeing some examples of student research-based writing and annotated bibliographies that were composed through using the BEAM vocabulary, so that I could better internalize what this approach might actually look like. For Abrams, I am curious to know more specifics about the assessment process used to determine what changes should be made in his disciplinary writing instruction. However, these gaps in knowledge do not prevent me from being eager to see how this vocabulary may be taken up, resisted, explored and expanded in our “curious and asymmetrical” conversations (Harris, 2006, p. 36).


Bizup, Joseph. (2008). BEAM: A rhetorical vocabulary for teaching research-based writing. Rhetoric Review, 27(1), 72-86.

Harris, Joseph. (2006). Rewriting: How to do Things with Texts. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Objectives and organization of the composition course: The report of workshop no. 3. (1950). College Composition and Communication, 1(2), 9-14.

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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