11.1: Theses and Sources
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Everyone knows that a thorough analysis and persuasive argument needs strong evidence. The credibility of sources, addressed in Chapter 4, is one key element of strong evidence, but it also matters how sources are used in the text of the paper. Many students are accustomed to thinking of sources simply as expert corroboration for their own points. As a result, they tend to comb texts to find statements that closely parallel what they want to say and then incorporate quotes as evidence that a published author agrees with them. That’s one way to use sources, but there is a lot more to it.
Recall from prior chapters that writing academic papers is about joining a conversation. You’re contributing your own original thinking to some complex problem, be it interpretive, theoretical, or practical. Citing sources helps situate your ideas within that ongoing conversation. Sometimes you’re citing a research finding that provides strong evidence for your point; at other times you’re summarizing someone else’s ideas in order to explain how your own opinion differs or to note how someone else’s concept applies to a new situation. Graff and Birkenstein1 encourage you to think about writing with sources is a “They Say/I Say” process. You first report what “they” say; “they” being published authors, prevalent ideas in society at large, or maybe participants in some kind of political or social debate. Then you respond by explaining what you think: Do you agree? Disagree? A little of both?
This “They Say/I Say” approach can help student writers find balance in their use of sources. On one extreme, some students think that they aren’t allowed to make any claims without citing one or more expert authors saying the same thing. When their instructors encourage them to bring more original thinking into their writing, they’re confused about how to do it. On the other extreme, some students tend to describe, more or less accurately, what sources say about a topic but then go on to state opinions that seem unrelated to the claims they just summarized. For example, a student writer may draw on expert sources to explain how the prevention and early detection of cancer has saved lives2 but then argue for more funding for curing advanced cancer without making any explicit link to the points about prevention and screening. On one extreme, the sources are allowed to crowd out original thinking; on the other, they have seemingly no impact on the author’s conclusions.
How can you know when you’re avoiding both of these extremes? In other words, what kinds of theses (“I Say”) can count as an original claim and still be grounded in the sources (“They Say”)? Here are five common strategies:
- Combine research findings from multiple sources to make a larger summary argument. You might find that none of the sources you’re working with specifically claim that early 20th century British literature was preoccupied with changing gender roles but that, together, their findings all point to that broader conclusion.
- Combine research findings from multiple sources to make a claim about their implications. You might review papers that explore various factors shaping voting behavior to argue that a particular voting-reform proposal will likely have positive impacts.
- Identify underlying areas of agreement. You may argue that the literature on cancer and the literature on violence both describe the unrecognized importance of prevention and early intervention in order to claim that insights about one set of problems may be useful for the other.
- Identify underlying areas of disagreement. You may find that the controversies surrounding educational reform—and its debates about accountability, curricula, school funding—ultimately stem from different assumptions about the role of schools in society.
- Identify unanswered questions. Perhaps you review studies of the genetic and behavioral contributors to diabetes in order to highlight unknown factors and argue for more in-depth research on the role of the environment.
There are certainly other ways authors use sources to build theses, but these examples illustrate how original thinking in academic writing involves making connections with and between a strategically chosen set of sources.