Writing a Research Paper
Lionel Menasche (1997)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. x + 148
US $16.95; UK £13.95
Part of the Pitt Series in ESL, Lionel Menasche's Writing a Research Paper is the second edition of a 1984 guide aimed at the non-native student at American universities. The objective of the text, as stated in the forward, is to make the writing of a research paper manageable through a series of appropriate tasks. That objective is comprehensively achieved. Although the reviewer is not familiar with the original edition, it is clear that the second edition has undergone considerable adaptation in order to reflect the use of computerised library databases and far more widespread student access to word processors.
The text takes a practical hands-on approach to writing a research paper--indeed, 12 of the 18 units begin with a specific assignment to be handed in to the teacher by the end of the unit. This has the effect of demystifying what to non-native students may seem like the intimidating task of writing a research paper. Students in most undergraduate courses in Italy, for example, will usually have done no written work at all before suddenly embarking on their degree thesis, and even then only the fortunate few will be closely followed by teaching staff once this stage has been reached. This text would therefore be particularly useful for anyone from a university culture with a similar oral bias when continuing their studies in America. Most students taking this course will presumably complete a research paper while doing so.
The simplicity of Menasche's style and the direct language he uses to explain the essential concepts of writing a research paper are much appreciated. Such matters as the differences between a report and a critique, or an introduction to library call numbers, are dealt with thoroughly, both within the main units themselves and in the excellent Frequent Student Questions section and comprehensive Glossary at the back of the book. While at first sight alphabetisation exercises such as those in unit 3 (p.12) may appear condescending, my students from a monocultural background were taken aback to discover what difficulties they came up against, especially when deciding how to deal with Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic names. Students from countries that use different alphabets will of course benefit all the more from further practice with the Roman alphabet.
Not that clarity should be confused with oversimplicity, though--there are also some tough exercises for a distracted class, [-1-] including the exercise on p. 42 in which students must find errors in citations, a notably complex area in academic writing.
The author also explicitly aims to avoid oversimplifying any concepts while maintaining clarity of language. This is exemplified in unit 9, on the topic of plagiarism, probably the most stimulating unit in the whole text. Terrified as they are of making elementary English errors in their articles, many scientists from Italy and other nations brazenly copy other authors' sentences word for word without even using quotation marks or citations, a practice the author makes clear is unacceptable (not to mention illegal) in the English-speaking world. He achieves this without trying to take an overly black-and-white stance on this most thorny of issues.
The clarity of the language of this text makes it highly suitable for ESL students to follow; the author is to be congratulated for refusing to fall into the all-too-common trap of sacrificing clarity in favour of succinctness. While this does make the text at times somewhat repetitive to the native speaker, the target user will find it that much easier to assimilate the concepts. It is an unwritten rule of mine that the number of words used to describe a phenomenon in English should aim to be inversely proportional to the student's level of English.
Another masterstroke is to use examples from the work of ESL peer models as they are seen to struggle successfully with similarly daunting processes. This provides an authenticity and human interest in topics that might otherwise have seemed dull or inappropriate to the student, as well as providing a sort of sub-plot throughout the text. There is a website maintained by Menasche at the University of Pittsburgh, http://www.linguistics.pitt.edu/~lion/wrp.html, which contains further exercises, though the interactivity is not as straightforward as it might be.
One note of criticism that could be sounded regards the page layout, which occasionally falls down. For example, on pp. 59-60 there is an exercise that forces the student to keep turning the pages back and forth in order to complete it, with consequent distraction from the task at hand. With a little more imagination and no extra cost, the publisher could have found a solution (such as requesting a further plagiarism example from the author to fill out p. 59, or shifting the original text from p. 57 to p. 58 thus leaving part of p. 57 blank).
Both from the few exercises I have tried out myself and from a general overview, I would heartily recommend this text to all ESL students at American universities. Working as I do within the context of a scientific department in an Italian university, in which there is an almost total lack of written exchange between teaching staff and students, I feel this text could help in broadening perspectives and even boosting students' scientific [-2-] career chances. Such an introduction would, however, probably be regarded as being too revolutionary to be acceptable, and could be one reason why Menasche's text may well be used only on American campuses. If so, more's the pity!
Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Bari, Italy
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.