Sources Into Evidence; or, Rethinking the Research Requirement in R & C Courses

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Leonard von Morzé , English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

Students taking my reading and composition class may be better at uncovering sources than I am. Adept at searching Google Scholar and other online databases of articles, not to mention Wikipedia, my most resourceful student writers continually demonstrate the capacity to plug appropriate and erudite-sounding quotations into their research papers on literature, often at the last minute. Equally impressed and frustrated by these displays of undergraduate ingenuity, I designed my own approach to the second half of the reading and composition requirement, which stipulates that undergraduates must be introduced to research skills. The problem needing to be addressed was that my internet-savvy students thought they already knew what research was. Knowing that finding secondary sources was simple, they believed that the only tough part of the research paper was mastering bibliographic style. It might be useful, I thought, to get them to resist some of the familiarity they believed they already had with the research paper.

I approached the problem by moving our attention away from search techniques, focusing instead on one authoritative source that we could share and examine together. First I distributed a handout defining several ways in which literary scholars commonly turn their sources into evidence: statistical, biographical, historical, sociological, and formal. I clarified that these five categories constituted five distinct practices, or ways of making claims from evidence, rather than five distinct types of sources. In order to make this lesson concrete, I used a transparency projector to show two pages that I had copied from Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel, a highly regarded book on the literary period we were examining in the course. I initially covered up Watt’s main text so that students could see only the seven bibliographical footnotes at the bottom of the two pages. I asked students to tell me something about each footnoted work, basing their deductions solely on the titles. (In cases where the book’s subject was not obvious from its title, I aided students by passing around library copies of a few of the books.) Students readily identified Watt’s sources as works of biography, history, social theory, literary criticism, and so on.

When it came time to uncover and read the main text of Watt’s two pages, the lesson of the exercise became clear. Asked to identify how Watt was using each source to help his argument, students quickly recognized that the type of source did not necessarily correspond to the type of claim being made based on that evidence. For instance, Watt was citing a work of philosophy to make biographical speculations about the novelist’s state of mind while she was writing; he was relying on anthropologists’ conclusions about patterns of human behavior in order to make a historical point about social development in the early eighteenth century. Some of Watt’s ways of constructing evidence struck students as original and valid, while others seemed more questionable. Students’ willingness to vocalize critiques of Watt’s construction of his evidence was refreshing. Students grasped the dual point of the exercise: while even the most authoritative critics’ arguments from evidence should be scrutinized, no evidence carries instructions about its most effective use. Citations in humanities work do not find their strength in numbers, but in the way the scholar strategically positions them in relation to his or her argument. In order to hammer home this point, I followed up on the in-class workshop by asking students to hand in annotated bibliographies on their research topics two weeks later. I required that they locate sources which they could use in at least three of the five different ways I had discussed. When I looked at the bibliographies, I was pleased to see that their annotations did not try to summarize the entirety of the five works, but described instead how each citation could be used to refine their argument. The benefits of this lesson were still palpable in their final papers, where students continued to use sources in contentious and unexpected ways. They had, in other words, begun to conceptualize secondary sources as evidence, rather than as mere filler.