19 January 2012

Community and Research: The Art of the Invitation

Recent findings from The Citation Project, a multi-institution research project responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism and the teaching of writing, reveal that students focus on the mechanics of citation and on the form for citation but not on research as inquiry calling for genuine curiosity, synthesis, and framing an argument with and from sources. Students, instead of synthesizing and marshaling sources, tend to quote them heavily, often dropping in long quotes, creating what Rebecca Howard calls patchwriting.

These findings might suggest to some that getting students to master mechanics is necessary for the prevention of plagiarism, and that avoiding plagiarism comes first. If students can master the mechanics of the research paper to start, it doesn't matter much that what they write as novices lacks a point of view,  evidence of careful reading, and other habits of mind good learning seeks to promote. In this view, as students become more expert and advance to upper level courses, they'll eventually get to the point where they have something interesting to say.

Yet we also know that plagiarism can come when students get overwhelmed by their sources, when they, in the words of Keith Hjortshoj  fall into theft and fraud because of the loss of their own voices. If they have no voice, the focus on mechanics becomes a tedious struggle, a writing from fear of error, fear of punishment.

Good research writers know how to use sources rhetorically; they choose citation mechanics to fit the purpose a source serves. So a sentence that might name a general consensus on an issue may include a parenthetical citation that list several articles which shape that consensus. The purpose of the citation is to establish context and the writer's ethos. The mechanics of the parenthetical citation fit the purpose. That, in a nutshell, is the rhetoric of citation -- matching a source's purpose to how it is placed and cited in the paper.

And so separating mechanics from argument -- X number of pages, Y number of sources, with Z number source type A, type B -- pushes students into the kind of shallow writing the Citation Project warns us about.

Research assignments that emphasize final draft mechanics heavily, sometimes in bold and all caps, that warn in dire tones about citation style guides and the wages of plagiarism, undermine the joy of research and don't allow for the teaching of the rhetoric of citation.

As Mike Palmquist describes in  The Bedford Researcher, research is about joining a conversation, an academic conversation. It's about using sources to frame a discussion, using sources to discover, using combined sources to create new insights, and most of all to join the conversation the sources and topic create.

Joining a conversation is about entering a community. And it's hard to join a community if you're invitation begins with and focuses on threats of excommunication for breaking major rules. Those rules matter, and they need to be taught and understood. But there a ways of teaching conventions that foster invitation more than warning, allow for the discovery of voice and excitement over newly engaged ideas more so than the fear of a mechanical error.

Hear are some ways to help students find their voices, and thus to use and cite sources rhetorically instead of merely mechanically correctly:

  1. Have students write about an idea before they begin their research. Have them share that writing with classmates to get feedback, to hear questions, to learn of different perspectives. 
  2. Teach students to weave in sources slowly, not all once, to help them avoid the last minute pile of links and/or stack of books the night before a project is due. Ask for a draft with one source considered, where that source is integrated into what students have already written. Then a new draft adds a new source. 
  3. Allow mistakes. Show students how to celebrate and correct mistakes. I say celebrate because mistakes are signs of learning ambition, a stretching beyond comfort. They're necessary. They're not sources of shame, but sources of growth if treated as a learning opportunity instead of a sin.