While I agree that the results of the FYW research paper assignment are not stellar, I do not agree that it is a reason to scrap it. Her advise that we should assign topics the students are interested in of course makes sense. I think most institutions do that by now, no? We did at NJIT. In my class, the students were allowed to chose a brand, product, or issue of interest. We walked through all the steps of the research paper from brainstorming and idea generation, to preliminary research, proposal, annotated bibliography, drafts, writing center visits, revisions, presentations, and final drafts. (Linear in some cases, I know, and recursive in others. But how to teach to 27 freshmen at a time? My best advise: get the administration to cap the class at 18. I digress....)
I agree with Fister about the sillyness of worrying about the details of the citations. It is daunting for them. I review how to do in-text citations, and I explain that there is only one way to do them correctly in MLA format, i.e. parenthesis, name, page, parenthesis, period. When it comes to citing the actual sources in the annotated bibliography and the works cited page of the report, I tell the students to use easybib.com and not worry about trying to write the citation themselves. That seems to take the fear out of it for them, and they do fine.
The research presentations were much better than the actual papers, and gave them each a chance to be the experts in the room, talking about something they not only care about, but also know about. I like the whole project. They are far from expert researchers and writers after their first try, but I wouldn't take this first try away from them.
P.S. Fister's article looked like it was 3 pages, but after following all the links (some of which didn't work) it was much longer and more in-depth. I appreciate the thoroughness of her article which, at first glance, looked flimsy.