A Note on Term Projects, Papers and Other Writing Assignments

prepared for Geography 104

Matt McGranaghan


This note is to remind you of the standards of academic writing that I expect in this class. You are at university and your writing should reflect that fact.

College writing assignments are supposed to help you to accomplish several things: help you learn about the topic; and give practice in collecting, assessing, organizing, and analyzing information. It is this practice that builds the skills that are the the hallmark of a college education: the abilities to pose questions, formulate strategies for answering them, gather relevant information, analyze it, formulate your conclusions, and present them clearly.

By the way, term projects are supposed to take a while. A term paper is the summary product of a semester-long exploration of a topic. It should reflect that depth by indicating a wide range of sources that have been consulted and integrated, a close and careful reading of those sources, and integration with your own on-the-ground observations. It should be a well finished product, representing careful, thoughtful re-writing, editing, and revision. Get started early and don't try to do a project in finals week; neither of us needs that kind of drama and angst in our lives.

Content of 104 Projects and Papers

The content of papers should address the assigned or nominated topic. It should generally be your observations and the conclusions you draw from them. Hopefully these will be in the realm of things that others could also observe.

Given that this course is Geog 104- Geo-Technology, in which we are building familiarity with vocabulary, concepts, tools and techniques for working with mapping technology, the topic should be about some aspect of that broad domain. It might be an application of the tools, perhaps to produce a map that is used to support another termpaper. It might be a 'deeper than the lecture got' examiniation of a topic we could have covered omore deeply. It might be an in-depth examiniation of a particular historic map. It might be an experiment using some of the technology. There are lots of options. Let's talk about them.

Which leads to... Proposals

To narrow down this 'wide-open' range, we'll do a round of proposals and feedback before we decide on the topic before the middle of semester.

A proposal should be brief and should make clear what your paper is about ("the question"), why it is interesting / important, what the state of thinking on it is, how you will approach it, and what you expect to find. It should include the sources and references that you have already found.

Geography often falls back to its descriptive roots, but we may still want (maybe especially in undergraduate writing) to aspire to clear and efficient thinking, perhaps as Platt (1964) suggested in his paper, "Strong Inference". Term paper season is a great time to practice the habit of asking: What observation could disprove that theory? or What theory would this observation disprove? A little thinking can save a lot of effort on the way to enlightenment, and a deft observation can make for an intellectually compelling and useful paper.

A generic proposal (and term paper) outline looks like this:

 -descriptive accurate title
 -author's name and class inforamtion
 -clear statement of the topic
 -background  (what others think/know/say)
 -what remains to be learned next (the question)
 -how you will answer the question or address the topic 
  or learn what needs to be learned (the approach)
 -sites, resources, tools and techniques you will use 
Results (Expected Results in the proposal)
 -show how you would interpret the various potential, 
  anticipated outcomes of your observations as evidence for 
  answering the question
Conclusions (Possible Conclusions in the proposal)
 -what you (might be able to) conclude from your observations
 -the list of references that you found / used
 -interviews (annonymous person,  personal interview 10 Oct 2007)

Writing Guidelines and Grading Criteria

As a bottom-line benchmark, figure on: (1) 1,500 to 2,000 words, with maps and tables as needed; (2) at least ten sources; (3) staying on an approved topic; and (4) no plagiarism. I will be looking for content, reasoning, organization, structure, mechanics (spelling, grammar, citation), and adherence to our academic/scholastic goals of truthful, clear, original communication. I want to see your insights on the topic.

There are many good guides to writing term papers. College level writers should have at least one on their bookshelf, if you do not, get one today and use it. One of the most popular is often referred to simply as "Turabian" (see the full informaiton in the reference list below) and is available in numerous editions and printings. A used paperback copy is very inexpensive.

Stylistically, I prefer concrete, direct writing. Avoid the first-person voice in academic writing, as it too easily encourages the writer to switch the topic (unless the paper really is about you). Also, this is supposed to be a science report, not a piece of life-style journalism. (The lead sentence should not start with your alarm clock ringing or your tummy telling you it is time for a snack.)

Use citations to give credit where it is due, and to avoid plagiarism and it's consequences. Cite sources for direct quotes as well as for viewpoints, facts and figures that are not common knowledge. Use in-line citations (i.e., "(Author year, page)") or footnotes or even endnotes if you prefer. Fit them into the text at the relevant information or at the end of the sentence. Extensive quotations should be set off as block quotes, so that it is clear what they are.

Include a bibliography or reference list at the end of paper. For this class, I'll take a mix of web and 'print' sources. Be sure to have both.

note bene: Plagiarism, including "cut and paste" copying from the web and the closely related extended "close paraphrase" (a.k.a. "copy and dither"), gets no points for the assignment, may result in a memo to the Dean, and and probably causes failing the course. If in doubt, cite.


Platt, John R. 1964. "Stong Inference". Science 16 October 1964, v146, pp 347-353.

Turabian, Kate L. 1967. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. (Third Edition, Revised.) University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL. [That's the one on my shelf. Yours may be a newer, or even an older edition. They are all good.]

UHM Office of Student Affairs. 1992. Student Conduct Code. University of Hawaii at Manoa.

-Matt McGranaghan December 2011