The Secondary Source Sitting Next to You

Like a lot of people who teach in the humanities, I’ve spent years complaining about the ways my students use secondary sources in their papers. Most often, a choice quotation gets dropped into a paragraph with only quotation marks separating it from the surrounding prose. Slightly better, a student may call out the author of the source—”Smith writes, ‘The Great Gatsby is a scathing critique of the American Dream’”—without showing any awareness of what Smith has to say beyond the single quoted sentence. Students come to my office hours and tell me, “I’m in good shape with this paper—I have a lot of sources that support my point.” When I explain why a writer shouldn’t be citing only those sources which support his or her point, students generally look at me as if I am extolling the virtues of driving on the wrong side of the road. Why cite a source, they seem to think, if not to borrow its authority for my argument?

I had been interested for awhile in moving more of my students’ writing on to the web, but I didn’t have a precise pedagogical rationale until last year, when something clicked: if I could “publish” my students’ writing on the web—and I very easily could, using WordPress—my students could begin to see their peers’ essays as secondary sources. And if I asked them to cite sources written by the very people sitting next to them in the classroom—to see secondary literature as the work of actual peers, rather than of invisible “authorities”—they would see those sources not just as reservoirs of ready-to-use quotations but as the reflections of particular thinkers with particular points of view.

In a first-year seminar devoted to the history and literature of a single year, 1862, I first asked students to conduct primary-source research on the events of a single day in that year. Their reports of that research were posted to a WordPress site, which then became required reading for the class. For a subsequent assignment, the students had to construct an argument about continuity or change over time in 1862. They needed to cite at least three essays written by their peers (about three different days), supplementing that with additional secondary research. These final essays were published online, too, to form a student-authored anthology on America in 1862.

Not every problem with student use of secondary sources was instantly solved. But some of my students did do a notably better job at situating their arguments in the context of a scholarly conversation. Some showed a refreshing sensitivity to nuance when they expressed respect for a peer’s research while disagreeing with the peer’s analysis. And there were some unforeseen ancillary benefits of this web-based assignment, too, in addition to modest progress on the issue I set out to address. One student reported feeling “very motivated to do great work since I knew all my classmates were going to see my work.” Another found that seeing—and reading carefully—other students’ essays “allowed me to get a better grasp for what I was and was not doing right in my own writing.” And several students appreciated the way in which online publication dignified their writing; as one student put it, turning student writing into assigned reading was a way of “giving our hard work the credit it deserves.”

Have you found ways of your own to use web-based assignments to address challenges with student writing? Share your ideas here and at Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning.

Image on front page my mhmarketing and available on Flickr

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