Comp 1 applications of Citation Project research

People keep asking me how I teach Comp 1, given the pretty significant findings of the Citation Project. Here’s my first draft of an explanation:

The challenge:

As one of the principal researchers for the Citation Project, I can state briefly the research findings that are described in detail on our website (and that will be described in further detail in our forthcoming book, Struggling with Sources). Our analysis of 174 students’ research papers produced in the required writing course(s) at 16 colleges and universities indicates the following:

  1. Research data strongly suggests that students work hard to avoid plagiarism and to implement the instruction they are receiving in their Writing courses.
  2. Nearly 50% of students’ citations come from page 1 of their research sources. This suggests that when students have found a passage that can be usefully quoted or paraphrased, they quit reading. Only 25% of students’ citations come from page 4 or deeper into the source.
  3. Approximately 50% of students’ citations are to quoted passages from the source. Another 44% are to attempted paraphrase. Thus students are, 94% of the time, working at only the sentence level within their sources; they are not talking about the source as a whole nor trying to summarize significant passages of it.
  4. When students attempt paraphrase of 1-3 sentences, they succeed approximately 66% of the time. The rest of the time, their attempt results in patchwriting, borrowing too heavily from the original phrasing of the source.
  5. The sources referenced in more than 50% of students’ citations are no longer than 5 pages. Many of these are overview reference sources such as WebMD, Wikipedia, and Encyclopedia.com.

These findings pose a significant challenge for first-year writing instruction and for all university courses that ask students to read extensive, complex sources. Our research data makes clear that students are striving to implement what they are taught. The data also make clear that students either do not how to engage with entire sources, or do not know that they should. Instead, the students are doing what the Citation Project researchers call “quote-mining”: linearly reading sources only for quotable or paraphrasable sentences.

I have spent the past three years (Fall 2010, 2011, and 2012) developing a Writing 105 at Syracuse that teaches first-year writers how to engage with complex sources in substantive ways. Each semester’s endeavors have taught me more about how much instruction today’s students need.

My WRT 105 syllabus:

The following sequence of learning objectives aims to help first-semester college writers read sources critically, write about them in depth, and make connections among them:

  1. Differentiating claims from evidence in complex sources. (In the context of my section of WRT 105 at SU, the “complex sources” are articles from publications such as Harper’s, New York Times, and Atlantic.) Students need to be taught this before they’re taught to summarize sources; otherwise, they tend to summarize the evidence rather than the claims.
  2. Evaluating whether a source offers alternative interpretations and multiple viewpoints, and whether it treats these multiple viewpoints as errors to be refuted, or as material for critical thinking. Students quickly become skeptical of one-dimensional arguments.
  3. Identifying key passages in the source and paraphrasing them without patchwriting.
  4. Summarizing the main claims in the source.
  5. Integrating summary into larger discussion of a source.
  6. Learning basic techniques of intrinsic source analysis: recognizing what sorts of evidence are being offered; what type of argument is being made; and what this suggests about the author’s sense of his or her audience.
  7. Learning basic techniques of extrinsic source analysis: identifying the author, publisher, and date of publication in search results from the open Web and library databases; discovering the author’s and publisher’s credentials and agenda; and appreciating the importance of date of publication for appreciating the context in which a source was published, thus avoiding the presentism that would have students read the source as if they, in their present moment, were the source’s only target audience.
  8. Incorporating their source analyses into their written arguments.
  9. Writing extensive evaluations of a single source that include summary and analysis.
  10. Discovering connections between sources, seeing those connections as “conversation,” and seeing themselves as participants in that conversation.
  11. Asking questions as they read sources—questions that they themselves might pursue in small research projects.
  12. Seeing research not as a compilation of basic factual information but as the pursuit of tenable answers to complex questions; and seeing the presentation of research as an opportunity to engage and explain complexity, rather than to “clean it up” and present oversimplifications.
  13. Appreciating the importance of having an argument, advancing a point of view, speaking for themselves with confidence as they write from sources.
  14. Understanding citation not just as a vaccination against charges of plagiarism but as an essential component of a writer’s credibility and authority.

Student reception:

At the beginning of Fall 2012, the students expressed real apprehension about what they were going to be taught. They were candid about the fact that the course would not present them with opportunities to use the writing and reading techniques familiar from high school instruction, and they worried that they would not succeed. Their end-of-semester evaluations, however, express appreciation for the course:

  • “I feel the most significant thing I learned was how to analyze sources and incorporate my own voice. . . .”
  • “We were taught to understand the tone of an article and the word choice. It helped me to learn to speak to my audience better.”
  • The instruction “helped in other courses I took this semester when I wrote papers that required reading and analyzing.”
  • “The level of writing was challenging because it made me rethink my original ideas, and to rewrite my papers to get the best one I could.”
  • “I now have a new writing style that I only obtained from this class.”
  • “With the right technique, I can become a creative, interesting writer.”

I was satisfied with the course, as well. By the end of Fall 2012 I was seeing student writing that I felt had real content and was presented persuasively.

Cross-curricular implications:

Instruction such as this in WRT 105 is only the beginning. If our students are to become skilled at critical, insightful, engaged reading and writing, they need reinforcement throughout the curriculum. Instructors in every discipline, when they give reading assignments, can contribute by taking time to talk about how members of their discipline read (and write) sources. When they give research assignments, they can talk about why and how members of their discipline conduct research, and how research should be presented within that discipline.

Linked sources:

Elder, Cristyn, Ehren Pflugfelder, and Elizabeth Angeli. “Handout: Comparing Policies.” Purdue Online Writing Lab 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/929/15/&gt;.

“Phase I Data.” The Citation Project. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <http://site.citationproject.net/?page_id=224&gt;.

“Researchers.” The Citation Project. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <http://site.citationproject.net/?page_id=11&gt;.

Strauss, Valerie. “A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher.” Washington Post 9 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/02/09/a-warning-to-college-profs-from-a-high-school-teacher/&gt;.