A Note on Term Papers and Other Writing Assignments for Geography 340

College writing assignments are supposed to help you to accomplish several things. The most obvious accomplishment is learning about the topic. The less obvious (and probably more important) accomplishment is 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.

This note is to remind you of the goals and standards of academic writing, start helping you understand what I expect of you in this class, and to serve as a point of departure for our consideration of writing in this class. (Note that this note is a work in progress; I hope that you will help me improve it this semester.)

Content of Term Papers

The content of term papers should address the assigned or nominated topic. In this case, the course is The Geography of North America, and the topic should be about some aspect of that. Largely, the topic is your choice, but we'll work together, through discussion and a proposal, to define your research topic.

Current issues in energy supply, political movements, natural disasters or the like might make good topics. Thematic notions like "the region", "cites", "transportation" might also be refined to more specific appropriate topics. Something that you are interested in helps a lot. In any of these cases, you'll want to narrow it down, a lot --- try to get at one aspect of such broad topics --- maybe by limiting things regionally, temporally, or thematically.

But, what would make it geography? Asking questions like: "where?", "why there?", "what's associated with it?", or "where else?" can be an indicator. Making comparisons among places or analyzing connections or relationships between places would also be hallmarks of geography. Perhaps the most incisive test is: Can it be mapped? If you can summarize the paper in a map, you can be pretty confident that it is 'geography'.

What makes a term paper compelling to me? Exposing fuzzy thinking on a topic is a great way to frame a term paper and clarify your own understanding of a topic. It is also very compelling. I like analysis. I like identifying and examining alternative explanations for phenomena, or alternative courses of action in the face of a problem. I like the notion of 'strong inference' in which alternatives are enumerated and evidence amassed for and against each, leading to an informed conclusion or choice.

I also like synthesis. Term papers that bring together a mass of material in a new and insightful way can be very compelling. So can those that find inconsistencies among various other sources, especially if they attempt to track-down their sources.

I like research grounded in informed opinions, fact and observation. North America is too far away to expect field-based primary data collection, but you have ready access to considerable scholarly, statistical, news reportage, and even anecdotal data via the library and the web to support well grounded term paper research. With so much data and information available, strive to avoid bare emotion, unsupported assertion, excessively wild conjecture, and willful ignorance. Try to assume an inter-subjective reality, and to adopt an analytic stance.

Geographers sometimes fall back to bare description, but we may still want (maybe especially in undergraduate writing) to aspire to clear and efficient analytic thinking. Term paper season is a great time to practice the habits of asking Platt's (1964) questions: "What observation could disprove this 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 paper.

Include maps, tables, photographs, and figures to help make your presentation. Including them can avoid a lot of dreary writing that would serve only to get facts listed. Using a map, a table, a photograph, or a figure often presents the details more clearly, and allows your text to highlight those that are important to your presentation. Don't assume that the reader will spot the important parts; call their attention to them in your text.

Keep your writing focused on the topic. That most likely excludes writing about your feelings, or the difficulties you had in making time to get the library, or the like --- they may be parts of life, and even of the process of writing your paper --- but they probably are off the topic.

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 (on-the-web) observations. It should be a well finished product, representing careful, thoughtful re-writing, editing, and revision.


A proposal should be brief and should make clear what your paper is about ("the question" or "topic"), why it is interesting / important, what the state of thinking on it is, how you will approach it, and what you expect to find.

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 Guides

There are many good guides to writing term papers. College level writers should have at least one on their bookshelf, and dip into it occasionally for insight and inspiration. If you don't have one, get one. And then use it!

One of the most popular is often referred to simply as "Turabian." Its title, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations pretty much says what it is about. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style is another. The Chicago Manual of Style is a more impressive volume. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing are also worth noting. All of these are available in numerous editions and printings. Used copies are so inexpensive that there is no excuse for not having several on your shelf. Several of these have on-line versions as well.

Stylistically, I have some personal preferences in term papers. I like concrete, direct writing. I like titles and section headings that quickly reveal the topic and organization to the reader. I am not a fan of the first-person in academic writing. But, for your writing in this class, it is better to think of me as more of a coach than a traffic court judge.

Term Paper Grading Criteria

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 hope to see your insights on the topic.

For this 300-level course, the termpaper should end up at about 5,000 words, draw on at least a dozen sources, and probably should include at least one map and one table.

Citations and Plagiarism

Mostly, a term paper should be your response to material that is out-there. This should involve integration and synthesis of material from many sources, but the balance of the text should be your assessment, analysis, response and conclusions.

Give credit where it is due. Use in-line parenthetical citations, i.e. (author year, page) . If you have a preference for footnotes, use them instead. Either way, include a bibliography or reference list at the end of paper.

Extensive quotations should be set off as block quotes, so that it is clear what they are.

Note Bene: If I find plagiarism, including unattributed "cut and paste" copying from the web and the closely related extended "close paraphrase" (a.k.a. "copy and dither"), you will get no points for the assignment, and probably will fail the course. Period.

Human Subjects Concerns

Geographic research often involves gathering observations of and information about people. People have rights (such as to privacy, to know what you are doing with them and with information about them, and to give or withhold their consent to have research done on them before you do it) and you have a responsibility to ensure the protection of their rights.

Much of this can be accomplished by applying common sense and the Golden Rule, but a number of incidents in the past have indicated that common sense is not as common as the name implies. To help researchers better understand accepted standards for behavior, the National Institutes of Health, and other groups, have built on-line training resources which will give you a clearer idea of what your duties and responsibilities as a researcher entail. Look here.


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

Shertzer, Margaret. 1986. The Elements of Grammar . Macmillan. New York, NY.

Strunk, Wm. and White, E.B. 1979. The Elements of Style. Macmillan. New York, NY. [There are several editions and the later ones may be preferred, but any will help.]

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 September 2011