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Format:  APA Formatting Throughout. Please see the help files for support with APA formatting

The purpose of this essay is to inform yourself and to identify what aspects of your topic you will research.  In this exploratory essay you will present background information relating to your proposed (narrowed) topic. You may also think of this as preparation for your more complete literature review.

Remember that you will continue to focus on the same topic, throughout this class although you narrow it and your research question will continue to evolve . 


Required Elements

Introduction:  The first paragraph of your essay should present some context for your narrowed topic and introduce the kinds of information and issues that your paper will present.  Close your introduction with a single sentence that provides an overview of the main subpoints of information that your paper will cover.  (Note that you are including an overview statement rather than a thesis statement since you are not putting forth an argument in this paper.)

Body Paragraphs:  You should have at least five body paragraphs, each with a clear topic sentence, that cover the following types of information.  Note, however, that you are not being asked to write one paragraph per aspect.  For example, you may have more than one paragraph on history, and you discussion of history may include: statistics, historical background, current state of understanding, current research, importance– who is interested in this research (e.g., communities, organizations, groups, agencies) why is the area of research significant, debates and conflicts (what researchers or stakeholders may disagree about and why, but without taking a position in those debates yourself) what areas within this topic are uncertain. Recall that a good research question will address the uncertainties in the current understanding of your topic.

Conclusion:   The concluding paragraph should indicate any important information you were not able to find.  Also, tell us how you intend to narrow your topic further, that is, what aspects of the topic you will continue to research. Next, propose one research question that you would like to answer about your narrowed topic; it should not be merely informational, opinion based, nor a good/bad, either/or, for/against, pro/con, yes/no, etc. type of question; nor should it predict the future or try to solve a problem (your job will not be to solve a problem in the three papers but to contribute to its analysis). Explain what is significant about your research question, that is, why is it important to understand that aspect in particular?  Note that how you’re narrowing your topic and your proposed research question will continue to evolve. Do not use “I” or other forms of first person voice in the three formal essays for this course, including here in the conclusion. 

Required Sources:  A minimum of five substantial and diverse sources are required for this assignment (at least two of which should be no more than two years old).  Do not rely on any one source for the majority of your information; demonstrate that you have synthesized information from multiple sources, especially for your historical accounts.  Experiment with various subject and keyword search terms and combinations.  You should plan to sift through and evaluate numerous sources to finalize the ones that you plan to use.  Your five sources must be scholarly research articles. 

Additional Considerations

Topic Selection and Narrowing:  Before making a final topic selection, be willing to consider and even do preliminary research on more than one topic.  Make sure you are focusing on a social science aspect of your topic rather than a scientific aspect.  For example, do not attempt to write a paper on the effects of psychotropic drugs on brain chemistry, though you might, for example, explore the policies around mental health and medication for prisoners.  Even though you must narrow your topic before getting started so that you are not biting off more than you can chew, you will likely have to provide background info that is more general than just your narrowed topic

Information, Evaluation and Analysis:  You must provide an evaluative summary. This is not a “data dump,” in which you just throw together all the information you can find.  Although there may not be any such thing as objectivity, you should seek to remain neutral.  Remember that in this paper you will not be putting forth an argument about your topic, which in fact you will not develop until later.  Therefore, do not put forth your opinion, take sides in a controversy, or form judgments about what is right and wrong, good or bad.  However, you will still need to exercise and exhibit your own critical thinking, judgment and creativity in narrowing your topic.  You will also need to evaluate sources for credibility as you select, organize and present relevant information in a clear, concise and meaningful way.

Voice and Audience:   Don’t use “I,” “me,” or other forms of first person in the three major essays for this course.  Also don’t use “you” (second person) voice.  Use third person speech, but avoid awkward and unnecessary uses of passive voice.  Contact me in advance if you wish to include brief, relevant personal experience that you will discuss in the context of other non-personal published research.  Never use first person to give your opinion (“I think” or “I believe”) or to narrate the trivial details of your own research experience (“Then I went to the library to find some more sources!”).  For the Background Essay and other writing in this class, your audience is NOT the general public.  Instead think of your audience as fellow researchers, for example, your fellow students in this class. 

References and APA format:  Citations for your five or more sources must appear in your document on a new page entitled References and must follow APA format. 

Paragraph Form:  Make sure each of your body paragraphs has a topic sentence that connects with the overview statement in your introduction.  Pay attention to the transitions between and within paragraphs.  Paragraphs in academic writing are (usually) between 1/3 – 3/4 of a page long.  If they’re shorter than that, you may not be adequately developing your ideas.  If the ideas or information don’t deserve to be developed further, then you might consider combining the content of the short paragraph with another paragraph; in this case, you would need to revise the topic sentence so that it covers the combined materials.  If a paragraph is much longer than 3/4 of a page, you risk losing the attention of your reader as well as losing focus in your paragraph itself.  Of course, there are exceptions to the 1/3-3/4 page guideline.     


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