Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
AN101: Common Problems in Writing a Term Paper
by NJ Chao
1. The paper should be analytical, rather than just descriptive. Although it is important to contextualize your topic (when, where, who, what), your discussion should be organized around a research question, that is, an analysis of “how” and “why”. In other words, a journalism-like introduction to a cultural phenomenon, however good for Lonely Planet readers, is not a good term paper.
2. Be specific. Here are some typical problematic assertions that will damage the quality of your paper because they are too general and without qualification and context:
2.1 “Cannibalism has existed in the Amazon for hundreds of years.”
2.2 “Chinese women have been oppressed for thousands of years.”
2.3 “While Americans are all individualistic, Japanese are collectivistic.”
Q: Why these assertions are poorly made?
A: Do you have any evidence for these assertions? Do you cite reliable sources to support these assertions? What does such an over-generalized, introductory tone add to your paper? Is it relevant to your argument? To begin with, you have to define what cannibalism is. You can’t just assume that there is a transparent, unproblematic definition known by all of us, or a form of “cannibalism” shared by all the indigenous peoples in the Amazon throughout history.
In the second case, you must define who these “Chinese women” are. Do you mean high-status women during the Tang Dynasty? Do you mean those who are in the elite class today? Do you mean rural peasants who, while they might be spare foot-binding, have other problems? In other words, you have to consider historical period, social class, economic backgrounds, and regional differences. If you really don’t know that much, be modest in making your arguments. Sensationalism and exaggeration do not make good arguments, and usually lower their quality. Find specific cases and explore the issues within these cases, discussing them in your paper.
In the third case, you should focus on teasing out the complexity of the situation, rather than making a highly dichotomous division. Individualism is also a kind of collective culture (shared by those who believe in it), and in different situations Americans can be less individualistic. By contrast, a Japanese middle-class urbanite may be just as individualistic as her American counterpart. It is highly unlikely that all American people think in the same way, while Japanese do just the opposite. Again, you have to consider historical period, social class, economic backgrounds, and regional differences in relation to the particular cultural context you are interested in.
3. Q: How can I be convincing in an analytical way?
A: Remember, a convincing argument in an academic paper is NOT an expression of your personal opinion, belief, or made simply through rhetorical persuasion. Rather, you set up your discussion by analyzing the “evidence” and “research results” based on reliable sources (e.g. articles published in academic journals). Your job is to look at an issue from a number of different perspectives, rather than try to “prove” one point of view. You do this by presenting and evaluating in your paper the data and approaches to the issue you have discovered in your readings. This is a big difference between a college-level paper and a high-school paper.
Citation is extremely important since it shows your understanding and involvement in a certain topic, and it also provides credibility for your argument. However, instead of “cite a lot” unthinkingly, it is better to “cite smart”—ask yourself, what is the basic argument of the article/book that you read? What is the author’s main idea? In terms of answering your research question, how would the author, whether agreeing or disagreeing with your argument, respond in a few sentences? Can you find such sentences in the article/book?—that would be the smart thing to cite.
A typical citation of an entire work consists of the author’s name and the year of publication. If the author is named in the text, only the year is cited, for example:
The anthropologist Jenny White (2003) has been focusing on the continuing
and increasing appeal of Islamic politics in the fabric of Turkish society.
Or just discuss the idea then, at the end of the discussion, put the source in parentheses: (White, 2003)
If you are citing a specific term or using a quotation, you also have to cite the page number: (White, 2003:45).