6.4: Your readers expect you to do interesting things with your sources
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[from "Walk, Talk, Cook, Eat: A Guide to Using Sources" by Cynthia R Haller, in Writing Spaces, Volume 2, CC-BY-NC-SA]
College is about learning how to make meaning. You might think about using sources as walking, talking, cooking, and eating. These metaphors can shed some light on writing with sources. Learn how to walk (find the sources you need); talk (converse with source authors); cook (integrate sources to make new meaning); and eat (allow sources to change your life). You won’t ever finish using sources to make meaning--not while you’re in college, not even after you’ve been working and living for a long time.
Consider the following assignment:
Research Paper (given in a health and environment course) Write a 6–8-page paper in which you explain a health problem related to water pollution (e.g., arsenic poisoning, gastrointestinal illness, skin disease, etc.). Recommend a potential way or ways this health problem might be addressed. Be sure to cite and document the sources you use for your paper.
Walk: Knowing where to go to find sources
Books and articles are good sources. You can also think about sources more generally as “forms of meaning you use to make new meaning.” A source provides information and knowledge that you process to produce new meaning, which other people can then use to make their own meaning. To use sources well, you first have to go where they are. The Internet has cut down on the amount of physical walking you need to do to find sources. Before the Internet, you had to either travel to a source’s physical location, or bring that source to your location. Think about a project on water quality. To get information about the quality of a city’s tap water in the 1950s, you would have had to figure out who’d have that information, then call or write to request a copy or walk to wherever the information was stored. Today, if you type “local water quality” into Google, the Environmental Protection Agency page comes up as one of the first hits. Its home page links to water quality reports for local areas.
Internet search engines can help you find sources, but they aren’t always the best route to getting to a good source. There are some ways you can narrow your search to get fewer, more focused results. You can put quotation marks around groups of words and the search engine will look only for sites that contain all of those words in the exact order you’ve given. And you can combine this strategy with the other ways of limiting your search. Play around with your search terms to get to what you need.
Internet search engines won’t necessarily lead you to the sources considered most valuable for college writing. Professors will often want you to use scholarly (or peer-reviewed) sources. These two terms are often used interchangeably: articles in scholarly journals are written by experts; and if a journal’s peer-reviewed, its articles have been screened by other experts (the authors’ peers) before being published.
Some peer-reviewed articles can be found online. Many peer-reviewed articles are now open-access, meaning that they are freely available online because scholars and researchers want their work to get to as many people as possible. Google has a specialized search engine called Google Scholar, but many of the articles you find there are behind a paywall. The best place to start is your library databases. But remember, a database search engine can only find what’s actually in the database. If you’re looking for information on drinking water, you won’t find much in a database full of art history publications. The library has some subject guides that can tell you the best databases to use for your topic. And don’t forget to ask for help when you’re looking around for sources. Reference librarians make very good guides; it’s their job to keep up on where various kinds of knowledge are located and help people find that knowledge.
One last hint about finding sources. If you find an article or book that’s helpful for your paper, look at its reference list. There might be some useful sources listed there. The references let the reader know exactly how to find that source as well. In research and in college writing, it’s customary to give them the name of the author; the title of the book or article or website; and other information such as date, location of publication, publisher, even the database in which a source is located. Or, if it’s a website, you might give the name of the site and/or the date on which you accessed it. Source documentation can be complicated, because the necessary source address information differs for different types of sources (e.g., books vs. journal articles, electronic vs. print). Additionally, different disciplines (e.g., history, philosophy, psychology, literature, etc.) use different “address” formats. Eventually, you’ll become familiar with the documentation conventions for your own academic major, but source documentation takes a lot of practice. In the meantime, your teachers and various writing handbooks can provide instructions on what information you’ll need.
Talk: Listen to what sources have to say
The authors of texts aren’t speaking aloud, of course, but they’re making written statements that others can “listen” and “respond” to. Knowing which texts you can trust means understanding which authors you can trust. It helps to know who the authors are. What they’re saying. Where, when, and to whom they’re saying it. And what their purposes are.
You also need to recognize that texts are usually part of an existing conversation. Peer-reviewed articles have extensive citation pages to show their awareness of the existing conversation. Really, any form of citation is meant to do the same. Even Wikipedia articles can show you the existing conversations. Wikipedia articles are often good places to get background info and good places to connect with reliable sources. For example, the Wikipedia page on "Bottled Water" tells us that the National Resources Defense Council and the Drinking Water Research Foundation have done some studies on the health effects of bottled water (“Bottled Water”). You could go to the websites for these organizations to find out more about the studies. They might even have links to the full reports of these studies, as well as other resources on your topic.
You can look in the library’s subject guides or ask the librarian about databases for health. There, you might find an article such as “Health Risks and Benefits of Bottled Water” in the journal Primary Care Clinical Office Practice (Napier and Kodner). When you start using sources written by experts, you move beyond the huge porch of public discourse, where everyone talks about all questions on a general level, into some smaller conversational parlors, where groups of specialists talk about more narrow questions in greater depth. You generally find more detailed and trustworthy knowledge in these sources, but sometimes the conversation may be too narrow for your needs and difficult to understand because it’s experts talking to experts. As you read more sources, you begin to realize there’s not always a simple answer to questions. Not everyone agrees on the answers, either. You need to “listen” to what different people who talk about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water have to say. Then you’ll be equipped to make your own recommendation.
Cooking: Process and combine sources in new ways
As we think about the actual drafting, though, it’s helpful to move on to that third metaphor: cooking. When you cook with sources, you process them in new ways. Cooking, like writing, involves a lot of decisions. For instance, you might decide to combine ingredients in a way that keeps the full flavor and character of each ingredient. Consider chili cheese fries? You can taste the flavor of the chili, the cheese, and the fries separately. But other food preparation processes can change the character of the various ingredients. You probably wouldn’t enjoy gobbling down a stick of butter, two raw eggs, a cup of flour, or a cup of sugar. But if you mix these ingredients and expose them to a 375-degree temperature, chemical reactions transform them into something good to eat, like a cake.
Sometimes, you might use verbatim quotations from your sources, as if you were throwing walnuts whole into a salad. The reader will definitely “taste” your original source. Other times, you might paraphrase ideas and combine them into an intricate argument. The flavor of the original source might be more subtle in the latter case, with only your source documentation indicating where your ideas came from. In some ways, the writing assignments your professors give you are like recipes. As an apprentice writing cook, you should analyze your assignments to determine what “ingredients” (sources) to use, what “cooking processes” to follow, and what the final “dish” (paper) should look like.
Let’s try a few sample assignments.
Assignment 1: Critique (given in a human development course) We’ve read and studied Freud’s theory of how the human psyche develops; now it’s time to evaluate the theory. Read at least two articles that critique Freud’s theory, chosen from the list I provided in class. Then, write an essay discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory.
- everything we’ve read about Freud’s theory
- our class discussions about the theory
- two articles of my choice taken from the list provided by the instructor
Processes: I have to read those two articles to see their criticisms of Freud’s theory. I can also review my notes from class, since we discussed various critiques. I have to think about what aspects of Freud’s theory explain human development well, and where the theory falls short—like in class, we discussed how Freud’s theory reduces human development to sexuality alone.
Product: The final essay needs to include both strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory. The professor didn’t specifically say this, but it’s also clear I need to incorporate some ideas from the two articles I read—otherwise why would she have assigned those articles?
Assignment 2: Business Plan (given in an entrepreneurship course) As your major project for this course, your group will develop a business plan for a student-run business that meets some need on this campus. Be sure to include all aspects of a business plan. During the last few weeks of class, each group will present the plan to the class, using appropriate visuals.
Ingredients: Hmm . . . It’s hard to tell the sources I’ll need. Obviously, whatever the teacher teaches us about business plans in the course will be important—hope she goes into detail about this and provides examples. What if she doesn’t? What sources could my group use? Our textbook has a chapter on business plans that will probably help, and maybe we can go to the library and look for books about writing business plans. Some sample business plans would be helpful—I wonder if the Center for Small Business Support on our campus would have some?
Processes: Well, maybe we could have each member of the group look for sources about business plans and then meet together to discuss what we need to do, or talk online. Don’t know how we’ll break down the writing—maybe we could divide up the various sections of the plan, or discuss each section together, then someone could write it up?
Product: It’s clear that we have to include all the information that business owners put in a business plan, and we’ll have to follow the organization of a typical plan. But we can’t tell exactly what that organization should be until we’ve done some research.
Different professors provide different levels of specificity in their writing assignments. If you have trouble figuring out the “recipe,” ask the professor for more information.
When it comes to “cooking with sources,” no one expects you to be an executive chef the first day you get to college. Over time, you’ll become more expert at writing with sources, more able to choose and use sources on your own. You’ll probably need less guidance for writing in your senior year than in your freshman year.
Eating: What you learn stays with you
You’ve probably heard the expression, “you are what you eat.” When you eat sources—that is, think about things, experiment, read, write, talk to others—you yourself change. What you learn stays with you. Of course. We all forget a lot of the things we learn, especially those we seldom or never use again; but what you learn and use over a long period of time will affect you deeply and shape the way you see the world. Take a look at this quote from Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, where the narrator’s talking about his apprenticeship as a steamboat pilot. When he first began his apprenticeship, the Mississippi River looked the same as any other river. But after he made many long trips up and down it, with the captain and others explaining things along the way, he began to see it in all its complexity.
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. (77–78)
Eventually, the narrator could identify each of the river’s bends, knew how its currents were running, and could estimate how deep it was just by looking at the surface. It was the same river, but he was a different man. Your bottled water project isn’t as involved as learning to pilot a steamship. But once you start reading your sources, your experience of bottled water will shift. It’ll still be the same water you used to drink, but it won’t be the same you.