A precise definition of the research essay would seem to be an important (first?) element in any project that examines the "research essay." After all, the ubiquitous college-level research paper has been described as a "non-form" of writing (Larson), the essay itself appears in need of defense as a genre distinct from the home page or listserv (Hesse), and alternative modes of research writing include such texts as the "argumentative research paper, the personal research paper, the research essay, and the multi-genre/media/disciplineary/cultural research paper" (Davis & Shadle 418).
While this hypertext avoids a sustained attempt to fix meaning in favor of a relatively broad and open-ended notion of the research essay, not all writing that involves research counts as a "research essay."
The research essay is a mode of academic writing in which an author explores a narrowly defined issue, topic, or question and articulates his or her position or point of view on the issue. The author conducts research to learn about the issue or topic, to identify the relevant scholarly conversations around the topic, to locate relevant evidence for her claims, and to contribute meaningfully to that conversation through writing.
This level of specificity may be enough to address at least some of Hesse's concern that including the academic paper, home page, and listserv in the already overly broad category of the essay will overburden it. A home page cannot be a research essay in this sense, even if it is the product of a considerable research effort.
This definition is also sufficient to distinguish the research essay from the "research paper" for which Larson has little use, and against which Davis and Shadle measure the value of their modes of "alternative research writing." At a minimum, Davis and Shadle's research argument, research essay, and "multi-writing" would all fit within this definition of the research essay. And the way Davis and Shadle's call for an "explicitly intellectual and public" (429) approach to the personal essay probably brings it under our broad conception of the research essay.
Can a writer craft a research essay if the reader does not read a text from start to finish? If one of the hallmarks of hypertext nonlinearity through its privileging of reader/user control, can the research essay writer take advantage of the tools available to authors of hypertext?
Michael J. Cripps
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