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Learning to Question the Answers

posted: 4.15.11 by archived

We’re about a month from the end of the semester, and in the first-year composition world that means we’re deep into research paper time. I just got a batch of short research assignments back this week, and it has me thinking about how students use research sources.

I’m intrigued by the work that Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson are doing with the Citation Project to collect and analyze student use of sources. Their preliminary findings indicate that “Of the eighteen student research texts we studied, none included summary of a source, raising questions about the students’ critical reading practices. Instead of summary, which is highly valued in academic writing and is promoted in composition textbooks, the students paraphrased, copied from, or patchwrote from individual sentences in their sources.”

This is an enormous research project whose results will undoubtedly have many important, practical implications about how we can best teach research. But my concern right now is much simpler: why do my students have such trouble understanding the concept of in-text citation?

For the short group assignment, each student wrote one paragraph that had to include at least two sources. Despite (or because of?) my incessant chant that they must include in-text citations, approximately 80 percent of the rough drafts did not include parenthetical notation of any sort, and another 10 percent or so used a non-MLA format. So what’s going on?

Tentative explanations. Because of the complications of MLA guidelines, perhaps I put too much emphasis on citation form instead of fully explaining a citation’s purpose. The primary problem wasn’t that citations were formatted incorrectly but rather that they were totally absent. After thinking more about it, I wondered if perhaps the fundamental issue (and one I hadn’t articulated in quite this way or thought about enough) was students’ relationship to texts.

In so much of their earlier education they were trained to see textbooks as the “ultimate authority,” and their writing ofen consisted of feeding back the information they (partially) digested. If any source is considered to have textbook-like validity, students may not see the necessity of indicating where they got information that they too easily accept as accurate. They hadn’t thought much about the distinction between a simple, verifiable fact (e.g., Americans spend $x billion per year on bottled water), a fact-like statement that requires considerable support (Public water supplies are more tightly regulated than water-bottling plants), and an arguable claim (Americans should stop wasting their money on bottled water). To complicate matters, they are often ill equipped to judge the credibility of the sources of such information.

Maybe it boils down to this: learning to negotiate questions of authority is much more complicated than I had realized. In this negotiation between what can be accepted and what requires support, skepticism is the habit of mind I would like students to cultivate (as partner to the curiosity I considered in a previous post). Students need both to develop skepticism toward the texts they read and to imagine a skeptical reader of their own work—that is something I need to make a much more explicit part of my instruction.

Possible remedies?

  • This semester I lectured about in-text citation, of course, and shared with students my examples of the process from research question to finished paragraph, but what I need to do is give more in-class practice in using snippets of facts and statistics as students write their own sentences. (Harper’s Index is a great source of quirky facts for this exercise.)
  • Several years ago I used an assignment that asked students to reconcile differences of opinion on an issue (to what extent are different positions on an issue the result of differences in facts accepted, interpretations offered, or values held?). I think I need to use a shorter assignment: an in-class exercise, perhaps in groups, that would look at several short excerpts of clearly contradictory texts and ask students to use them in brief responses, both as support and something to argue against.

During the month or so we have left (or for next semester), does anyone have suggested strategies for teaching the process of citation or, more generally, the healthy habit of skepticism?

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Working with Sources
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One Response to “Learning to Question the Answers”

  1. Konni Shier, Midlands Technical College Says:

    If I understand correctly what you’re describing, I might have some helpful ideas. I do think that smaller, more frequent assignments would be good. But even better, have your students do this on a discussion board or some kind of message board, at least 2x week, even if this is an on-ground class. Require them to read and respond to their classmates and even to quote them. Publicly praise the ones who do it correctly and deduct points or give lower grades for not doing it correctly. The principle of monkey-see/monkey do is very helpful. When they see one another citing, they will understand and become more competent.