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It’s Time to Make a Push toward More Primary Research in First-Year Composition

This post was written by NCTE member Sarah E. Carter. 


Across the nation, millions of college students are required to enroll in and successfully complete first-year composition (FYC) courses, in order to be eligible to move on to core courses for their specific concentrations. Currently, a great deal of FYC curriculum is centered on critical thinking, reading, writing, and research; however, the research portion is largely secondary, as most instructors focus on incorporating information literacies into their curricula.

Select programs—for example, Arizona State University, the University of Tennessee, and Georgia State University—have incorporated an entire unit devoted to primary research in their first-year composition courses. These US universities are doing something different from many others, something that more FYC programs could easily begin to mirror. Introducing primary research to students early in their academic careers helps students understand and appreciate the process of developing, conducting, and analyzing research.

It wasn’t until recently that I began encouraging my own students to seek out some form of primary research for their semester-long research papers on a public topic/issue of their choice. After teaching for ten years at universities and community colleges, I felt there was an element that was missing. Now I ask my students to seek out interviews with individuals that specialize in a given field, conduct surveys on campus with other students, and take polls, both online and in person. I basically tell them to get out there—to find something on their own and not base all of their evidence on research others have done. With this approach, I’ve found that students are more likely to create and set individual research goals for themselves and thus enter the conversations other scholars are already having.

Over the past several years, many first-year composition courses have focused their attention on information literacy initiatives and have made library visitations and lectures a mandatory component of the course. Making sure students have the ability to read, process, and analyze secondary research has always been a huge component of FYC courses, while conducting primary research has not.

The CCCC Statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing (updated in 2015), clearly details its recommendation that ethical and effective research methods should include “an understanding of both secondary and primary research methods, as well as a knowledge of plagiarism, copyright law, and human subjects protection.” The position statement states that teachers should understand primary and secondary research methods but does not explicitly state that they should be knowledgeable about how to integrate those research methods within the classroom. Yet isn’t there a huge difference between having an understanding and being able to instruct and integrate the use of primary research in the classroom?

I see two major obstacles to the goal of having more primary research integrated into FYC courses. One such obstacle is the lack of training for instructors. Many first-year composition instructors have a background in something other than rhetoric and composition. These instructors may have a difficult time developing lessons that include primary research, both because they haven’t spent time developing those skills and also because they may not have the confidence or support to integrate more primary research into their curricula and instruction. All faculty would benefit if the integration of primary research into first-year composition became part of the daily conversation in faculty meetings and course development.

Textbooks are the second obstacle instructors face when integrating primary research in first-year composition courses. Many textbooks chosen and implemented by universities include a minimal amount of information on primary research. One very well anthologized FYC textbook, Everything’s an Argument, only gives eight pages to “collecting data on your own”; the rest of the textbook focuses on analyzing and incorporating secondary research in arguments. Another well-known textbook, Everyone’s an Author, gives only 10 pages to “conducting field research.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook provides readers with one sentence defining primary research, and five pages to “Doing Field Research.” Clearly, in order for primary research to receive more attention, the textbooks used for first-year composition courses need to be updated.

Students need to connect more with social, political, and academic topics and issues present today to become more involved in society—this can lead to growth and development throughout their educational careers and beyond. Given the opportunity, I believe many more students can reap benefits from conducting primary research in first-year composition, and that it will help to create a more solid foundation for the research they will continue to do throughout their entire academic experience.



Sarah Carter is a second-year rhetoric and composition PhD student at Georgia State University. She also teaches online for Campbell University and Central Carolina Technical College. During the fall semester, she teaches for University of South Carolina.