Students are required to write many research papers over the course of their college careers. Typically, these assignments focus on how students select and gather secondary sources and how they arrange their findings without plagiarizing. These practices are fine as far as they go, but they don’t really teach students the art of synthesis and the rhetorical moves for joining an intellectual conversation. Unintentionally, typical research assignments often create the impression that conducting and writing from research is a static process rather than a dynamic engagement on a specific issue within an identifiable community. When students perceive sources as static references to objective and authoritative knowledge, divorced from the conventions, commonplaces, languages, and histories of the community, writing a research paper becomes less an act of engagement and participation and more an act of compiling and sequencing a series of citations.
A common problem with compiling static sources of information is that student writers tend not to examine the strongest arguments from contrasting perspectives but to create straw arguments instead. They tend to ignore negative sources and to seek affirmative advocacy sources without recognizing the interests and purpose of such advocacy. Such filtering limits prematurely their perspective on the issue as a whole.
Though the project employs audio technology, writing remains a significant part of the assignment, both in preparation, written composition, and later reflection; furthermore, invidualized assignment goals and outcomes support composition teachers’ efforts to teach the writing process rather than only the writing product. The students’ dialectical projects are driven by a purpose—the need to answer questions about a topic—and not strictly by the textual concerns of thesis statements and supporting evidence. As an experience in systematic inquiry, the project models the ancient rhetorical canon of invention, a term which refers to the process of finding available arguments. In the process of finding available arguments, students must locate and examine positions held by others; in so doing they make knowledge that allows them to participate in discussions about the topic at hand and to extend those discussions in novel ways. Along the way, they must discover what is truly at issue, that point of stasis in an argument where participants agree to disagree and to focus their attention for the sake of having a more productive argument. This process presents current knowledge as the product of ongoing negotiation within a community, open to continual challenge and revision from antagonistic perspectives.