Can I really write a paper with only one reference?
February 10, 2016 5:36 AM   Subscribe

Professor wants the class to only use assigned readings to write papers, assigned readings are basically nonexistent. What do I do?

I'm taking a class in public administration, it's a 400-level class if that means anything. The professor has the oddest requirement (or at least one I've never had before in my whole student career). I can only use the assigned readings as sources for my papers. Since the assigned readings are basically the textbook and a couple articles that aren't relevant to this paper's topic that leaves me with just the textbook.

I had forgotten this fact since reading the syllabus for the first time, and the professor returned my paper yesterday with the notes "Good first try, delete all outside sources and resubmit". I can do that, but a quarter of my paper is now gone, and half of my points are mangled.

Anyway, does this make sense? I feel, academically, really uncomfortable writing whole papers that are basically regurgitating what the author of one book says because I'm not allowed to use other sources to help synthesis and prove my new ideas.

If this is OK, how do I make this work without looking like a plagiarizing idiot?

(This course is all online, there is no face to face classes or meetings)
posted by sharp pointy objects to Education (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This guy is a clown. Oh well. Do as he says, do your best and move on. When you do your evaluation, make a note of it.

You might ask the question, "I have the textbook, but none of the other readings pertain to this subject, shall I only use the textbook?"

Another thing you might do is email other classmates and ask them what they did.

Sometimes the most important thing you learn in school is that some professors/bosses are silly or unreasonable or plain assholes.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:54 AM on February 10, 2016 [14 favorites]

Can you cite to the references included in the assigned readings as secondary sources? For example, researcher X has found blah blah blah (Researcher X, 2004, cited by textbook author).
posted by statsgirl at 5:56 AM on February 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

OK, this is odd (I mean, there can definitely be sound pedagogical reasons for restricting references, but I don't see any here). I wonder if they're trying a hamhanded method of preventing plagiarism. In any event, I would take statsgirl's suggestion and use a lot of "qtd in"s to develop your points.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:02 AM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's hard to say without more info. If the papers are on specific topics and the text is THE authoritative answer, then maybe they want to be sure you are using it.
Is it possible papers later in the semester demand you do your own research?
You could visit during office hours and say, "I tend to be a stickler for finding a variety of sources.. Can you help me understand why you'd like us to only use your readings?"
You'll probably get a better read in person if they have an legit reason or not...
posted by starman at 6:04 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I suppose, since this is an online class and your professor has no face-to-face time with any of you, that he wants you to simply regurgitate so that he can ensure that you're really learning the material. But that seems really foolish and high school to me. Consider this practice for the working world, though. Learning to follow directions, now matter how ridiculous, is a valuable skill.
posted by backwards compatible at 6:06 AM on February 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm a professor.
I spend a huge amount of time deciding what to assign.
I really want you to engage with that material.

Also in my experience, this is a more British way to do things.

Stop fighting this and do the assignment as written to get the most points.
posted by k8t at 6:24 AM on February 10, 2016 [24 favorites]

This doesn't seem odd to me at all. I really don't think you have reason to call him a clown or think of this as ridiculous. Maybe he has no good reason for this requirement, but he very well could. Here are some possibilities:

--Plagiarism. It wouldn't be hamhanded, really. Especially in online classes, plagiarism is a really big problem. A particular problem is when people buy papers from online services. It's really, really easy to find a paper on a specific topic that's built by getting the most readily-available citations online, etc. By limiting you to the text, he is ensuring that the paper can only be written by someone who actually has the text. That can't cut out all plagiarism, no, but it works pretty well.

--Citations are a dime a dozen. If a student comes up with a paper with a bunch of citations, the professor has to go search out all those citations to know if the student actually used them correctly. That can take a lot of time. Your professor probably has a lot of students--if every one did this, the professor would never be finished grading. Limiting citations to the assigned readings means that the professor knows exactly where each claim in the paper comes from. The professor can immediately see if you are right in your interpretation of a cited material or not.

--What's the point of the papers? "Papers" is a very vague description. Some essays are in fact research papers, where the goal is to see how you can locate good citations and make use of them. But not all essays are intended to showcase researching abilities. There are sound pedagogical reasons to limit the number of sources a student can use on a writing assignment. Some essays are intended to see your reasoning abilities--with a given set of information, what conclusions can you draw? How can you build a case for a thesis, with the evidence available? Another sort of essay is pretty much just an exam with a different formatting: you ask the student to explain the material covered in the class, so that you can determine whether the student actually understands the material. From your limited description, I'd guess that this last is what you're facing. You're in an online class, and a good way to get students in online classes to interact with the text is to make them express the text's contents in their own words. The task is to interact with the material and showcase, to the professor, that you understand that material. Grabbing a ton of different citations from every-which-where doesn't show that you have understood the material in the textbook.

Really, you can ask your professor. You can send an e-mail saying something like, "I'm having some trouble with the papers, because I'm used to writing research papers, where the goal is to find a variety of sources that can help me build a point. I'm not sure I know how to re-draft the paper I recently turned in, without doing that. Can you give me some advice on how to [the specific thing you used outside citations for] just with the assigned readings?"
posted by meese at 6:24 AM on February 10, 2016 [31 favorites]

In my experience, getting good grades is entirely dependent on figuring out what the teacher wants, and meeting those expectations/criteria. You're kind of lucky this teacher has spelled it out for you this clearly.
posted by lizbunny at 6:27 AM on February 10, 2016 [12 favorites]

Think of this as a time to go deep, rather than broad, and as an exercise with a lot of professional analogs.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:44 AM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've had this kind of assignment a few times. It's fine. I mean, it's a weird way to write a paper and obviously youre not going to be pumping out original research here, but your professor likely just wants you to engage with the class material, demonstrate your understanding, and add some comments or questions of your own.
posted by hepta at 6:58 AM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also in my experience, this is a more British way to do things.

What? No it isn't.
posted by tinkletown at 7:29 AM on February 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Is the topic of the paper assigned, as well, or did you choose a topic that didn't touch on any of the non-textbook readings because you forgot about that part of the assignment? If it was the latter situation, you may want to simply switch topics.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:30 AM on February 10, 2016

Perhaps the professor wanted you to make an argument without using additional research.

But really no one can answer this question except your professor. Your best bet: get on the phone and call him and ask him this question directly.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:35 AM on February 10, 2016

Could you email an expert for an interview? One source essays just sit really bad with me...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:38 AM on February 10, 2016

This seems to be a "thing" in online classes. I've had it in a bunch of online classes as well. The paper is really about demonstrating understanding/showing you actually did the readings rather than applying it as you would in a normal research paper (though some of my online classes have had those too)... think of it as a take home exam.
posted by Jahaza at 7:40 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Think of this more as an exam essay than as a research paper.
The professor has created this assignment to see how you have understood and made connections between ideas within the textbook. They want you to immerse yourself in the course material. This is completely legitimate. Some assignments are about mastery of a specific object of study, not about your own originality.
(I'm a professor, and while I have not used this technique myself there is nothing inherently wrong with it from your description.)
posted by flourpot at 7:52 AM on February 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Here is the tip I used to give my students:

Point/Proof/Comment structure - throughout your essay.

make your point, use the proof from your assigned reading, and comment, using your own words and thoughts and ideas, on how the proof relates to your point.

Each paragraph will have a topic sentence, probably 2-3 good points (with accompanying proofs and comments) and then a closing sentence or transition sentence for your next paragraph.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:12 AM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you should just throw out the paper you've already written. You wrote it for a different assignment than the one that really existed. If you rework your topic to something that actually works with more than one of the readings, you'll have a much easier time producing a good paper. You can still get the synthesis you want.
posted by hollyholly at 8:35 AM on February 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for all of the advice and tips. A few more bits of info:

- The last two years of my degree have been entirely online and this is the first class to have this specific requirement. Most classes have had a minimum citation requirement actually.

- I'm 34, this is my last semester before I graduate. I'm not "fighting" the assignment, but have genuine procedural and ethical concerns, that have now been addressed.

- The prompt for this Essay was "Explain strategic planning, describe the first two steps of the strategic planning process, and explain the importance of leaders in the process" no minimum pages or word count.

- It's only week 4 of the class, we've only been assigned a total of 4 chapters of the book to read, so I'm actually only pulling material from those 4 chapters. I'm thinking I'm going to have to read ahead more than I've already been doing.

I apparently will just need to rethink my paper writing process for this one class. Time to delve deeply into the assigned textbook. Yeah it's weird, but it's worth 5% of my grade, and I'm not going to let one class stand between me and a degree, even if I have to kiss my 4.0 gpa goodbye.

Thank you again everyone!!
posted by sharp pointy objects at 8:40 AM on February 10, 2016

Yeah, that's no so much an essay as it is a question which requires a moderately long answer in paragraph form.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:49 AM on February 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

Short answer: yes, of course you can.

Strategic planning is a fairly general concept, and I would expect that a student in a 400-level class would be able to explain it in their own words without needing a plethora of citations to prove their points. Do not read ahead. Just do as your professor asks. The chapters you are assigned cover the first two steps, right?

I am unclear on how this could raise ethical concerns for you.

Rewrite the paper. You'll be fine :)
posted by ananci at 9:10 AM on February 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

no minimum pages or word count
I'm wondering if this was meant to be a short, relatively easy assignment and you are turning it into something much bigger than intended. If the intent is for you to use only the first four chapters of the text and nothing else, then reading the entire book in order to create a great paper may still not be doing what the professor wants.
posted by metahawk at 9:37 AM on February 10, 2016 [11 favorites]

Definitely rethink your paper but I'd suggest reading all of the assigned reading list before you pick a topic. For example your statement, "Professor wants the class to only use assigned readings to write papers, assigned readings are basically nonexistent." makes no sense given the fact that you are supposed to choose a topic fitting the readings. His assignment makes perfect sense. You may want to ask for help on how to create a topic. This is very useful and is what people go to college to learn. It's kind of sad that you have this confusion in your last semester but it is better to learn the lesson now than be forever in the dark.

Writing papers are not about "regurgitating ideas", they are about analyzing ideas. If you are being diligent about analyzing your sources there will never be a question of plagiarism.

Oh yeah, last point. Even though this course is online doesn't mean you can't talk to the teacher. I assume he/she has a phone number or email or Skype? Ask them the questions you are asking us? That is the point of having a professor and I have had none that are not approachable.
posted by JJ86 at 11:04 AM on February 10, 2016

When you're running into this kind of thing, think about the scope of the actual assignment and don't think that you have to go beyond that to produce A-quality work. Writing 5+ pages for a 2 page assignment just makes more work for the person who has to grade it, so more detailed work is not always better work. Look at what was originally asked:
"Explain strategic planning, describe the first two steps of the strategic planning process, and explain the importance of leaders in the process"
It's not asking for original ideas, here. It's written like an exam question. "Explain" and "describe" in this context might as well read "regurgitate". The way it mentions "the first two steps" says that as far as this assignment's concerned, the only strategic planning process in the universe is the one defined in your textbook. Probably not even the whole book. Probably more like one chapter.

If you get a math problem that asks you to calculate how far a car driving on a 65mph highway has traveled in two hours, you're just meant to multiply 65 * 2, even if technically, yes, you could come up with a far more complicated answer involving traffic and weather conditions and bathroom breaks and the amount of speeding done by the average driver. This is basically one of those lessons where the more you know about a particular subject, the harder it is to remember to stay inside the intended scope. But it's also one of the more real-world applicable things you'll ever learn.
posted by Sequence at 11:32 AM on February 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

Lazy prof syndrome.

"Explain strategic planning,

Give the definition and maybe a brief history. 1-2 pp

describe the first two steps of the strategic planning process,

regurg, 2-3 pp

and explain the importance of leaders in the process"

there's a pet theory about this in there, find it & regurg; give a few specific examples from the text (maybe there's one in the extra readings); use the theory to describe how things panned out in those examples . 2-4 pp

conclusion - wrap it up, 1 page
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:03 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

In my profession, I often assign various research projects to student interns. Often, I specify that I just need a brief, concise answer to a specific question. If I get a ten page, in-depth research paper in response, I'm annoyed because that is neither helpful, nor what I asked for.

In other words, assignments like this are good preparation for real-world requests, where the complexity of the final work product should typically match the complexity of the assigned task...

TL;DR: You're way overthinking this.
posted by mingodingo at 3:59 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

it's worth 5% of my grade,

Oh, sorry! Yeah, this is just a check-your-understanding thing (i.e. did you actually read the stuff). The whole thing should probably be no more than 4 pages, probably more like 3.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:56 PM on February 10, 2016

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