¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 3 Like a lot of people who teach in the humanities, I have 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? 1
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 I had been interested for awhile in moving more of my students’ writing on to the public 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.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 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. 2
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 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.”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Moreover, the class did come to function as a small scholarly community. Near the beginning, I had sought to liven up the assignment by announcing that, at the end, I would measure each class member’s “impact factor”—how many times was each of the first-round essays cited during the second phase?—and award a prize to the most frequently cited author. My first-year students were universally unaware of the role impact factor plays as a metric in academic literature, and they at first only dimly grasped the idea that citations register kinds of influence. But my end-of-term review showed the students to have been astute readers of their secondary sources. Although I feared they might tend to cite essays they found easy to pull quotations from—ones about high-profile topics, for instance—the essay with the highest impact factor turned out to be the one to which I had given the highest grade: a subtle analysis with little topical connection to other students’ essays but with a thoughtful and illuminating perspective.
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- An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Christopher Hager, “The Secondary Source Sitting Next to You,” MediaCommons, May 20, 2013, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-does-use-digital-teaching-tools-look-classroom/response/secondary-source-sitting-next. ↩
- “1862: America Undeceived: A student-authored anthology on Civil War America,” First-Year Seminar with Christopher Hager, Trinity College, Fall 2012, http://commons.trincoll.edu/1862. ↩