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Sources of Confusion
August 17, 2011 - 9:45pm

I’m always interested in what Project Information Literacy is up to. This week they have posted an interview with Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard, the researchers behind the Citation Project, an effort to measure the extent to which first year college writers use various strategies for writing from sources (as previously reported here).

Many readers of college student prose will not be surprised to learn that students don’t summarize sources – that would require reading and understanding them well enough to sum them up in a sentence or two. In fact, when Jamieson and Howard examined the way sources were used in 174 papers, only 6% were summarized; all the rest were paraphrases or quotations of specific sentences. For the most part, students harvest chunks of information from their sources and patch it together. Often they paraphrase too closely. (I suspect many students would define “paraphrase” as “change a few words so you aren’t plagiarizing.” This misunderstanding can get them in trouble.) Perhaps more troubling, but less frequently a source of mass anxiety than plagiarism, is the fact that students often don’t understand the sources they are citing. In many cases, it’s likely they haven’t even read them. They’ve simply found some money quotes they can use.

This leads me to wonder (again) why we ask first year students to make their paper look sort of like a JSTOR article instead of sort of like a story in the New York Times Magazine. When we tell them “in order to write about ideas, you need to find good sources and cite them accurately,” finding and citing becomes the task; ideas are contained in the sources cited and only make an appearance through those sources. By making it sound as if the point of the paper is to find and use sources, we’re practically begging them to patchwrite.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to say something like this:

For this assignment, you're going to write about ideas, but you aren’t going to be doing original research – that would require a lot of time and training - so before you decide what to say about your topic, you’ll need to find out what other people have learned about it. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and deciding who to pay attention to is important. You’ll want to focus on sources that do more than just tell you things about your topic, you want to find the people who are an important part of the story – researchers, public figures, government officials ... people who really know their stuff or have been involved in the issue in some significant way. Since your reader will want to know who those people are, be sure to tell them where your information comes from and make it clear why you believe this source is worth your reader’s attention. Please don’t include a bibliography. Everything the reader needs to know about your sources should be worked into your essay.

That would, at least, make it somewhat clearer that when you say "use five sources" you mean "use five strategically selected sources." Presumably the student will have to do a lot of reading before they can figure out which sources are really important, but that reading needn't be documented. What falls into the category of "common knowledge" is often news to first year college students, yet we tend to frighten them into citing practically everything they've looked at to avoid being accused of plagiarism.

When you get right down to it, we assign the research paper to first year students for a variety of reasons:

  • We want them to learn how to write clearly.
  • We want them to grasp how to organize ideas in writing.
  • We want them to value evidence as an important part of how we know what to believe.
  • We want to help them succeed in college by giving them experience writing in an academic voice and documenting sources using academic rules.

The first three goals are not easy, but are absolutely key to the fourth. Yet the fourth goal almost always undermines the first three because as soon as a new college student is asked to write in an unfamiliar genre while mimicking an unfamiliar voice, clarity and organization become primarily a matter of patching sources together in a sensible order and smoothing out the places where they bump into each other, reserving enough time to pore over the rulebook and code the list of sources correctly. This is not research. I’m not even sure it’s writing. It’s more or less organized transcription. It's kind of like remix, kind of like mashup, only without being transformative.

What’s to stop us from concentrating on the first three goals in the first year and leaving the fourth for later? Only tradition and the expectations of other faculty who want their students trained in a certain kind of college writing and – perhaps? – the fact that teaching students how to quote from and cite a source is a lot easier than teaching them how to draw on sources in their writing to make meaning.

 

 

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