Students’ Researched Writing: Reconfiguring the Teaching Agenda

—fragments from my keynote address at the Coastal Plains conference, University of Houston, April 5, 2013. This won’t read as a linear text, because a bunch of the presentation was delivered extemporaneously, and with visuals. But here are the bits that were written out prior to the presentation:


I’m going to present some research today that is likely to matter to anyone in the room who teaches composition—which, I believe, is practically everyone in the room.

Around this research presentation I want to make two inflammatory statements that I hope you will ponder as you consider the research and think about it later. These two inflammatory statements describe issues that I am wrestling with right now, as a teacher and scholar. If you happen to subscribe to my Twitter feed, you already know what these statements are, as I was chatting about them online this morning.

For the rest of you, I’ll begin with inflammatory statement #1: We—all of us in this room—are victims of a lethal combination of presentism, classism, and technology fear.

By way of explanation, I’d like to ask you to pause a moment here and think about yourself as an academic researcher when you were in your last years of high school and early years of college. How did you DO research? What did you think its purpose was? Please just think about this for a moment. I can tell you about my own process:


My own history as a young academic researcher pushes against the presentism that teachers suffer from, a presentism that disinclines us to connect our students’  behaviors to our own. My own history inclines me to think that we should also resist the widespread discourse of student-hating (a form of classism) that is so prevalent in places like the Chronicle of Higher Education. It inclines me to think that if the internet is damaging literacy (here we have the technology fear I mentioned), that literacy was none too healthy to begin with. I was an A student in English, loved it, but it never occurred to me that anyone expected me to READ those books I was quoting in my research papers. Research papers were a quote-mining game, a stylistic exercise.

With that in mind, I’ll show you the research that I’ve been a part of. As you listen, please work actively to resist the urge to demonize the students whose researched writing we studied; to rail against the internet for its deadly effects on literacy; and to fear that civilization is coming to an end. Resist these urges.

Notes accompanying slides

  1. We see this paragraph, with its carefully cited weaving together of three different sources, and we think, “This is good writing for a first-year college student!” And it is—especially when we note that the student is using brackets and ellipses skillfully and correctly to alter quotations.
  2. When the paragraph is shaded to reveal how much of the material comes from sources, it’s a bit less impressive. There’s actually very little here that isn’t from a source; rather than using the sources to answer a research question and develop an argument, the student is taking up the role of medium, calling the sources to life and ordering selections from them in her text.And the student’s methods of source use are copying and patchwriting. While copying is a legitimate means of source use—all of us, no doubt, quote when we write from sources—it doesn’t actually demonstrate the writer’s relationship to or understanding of the source. Copying indicates only that the writer is able to transcribe. And patchwriting (here indicated in yellow) is what happens when a writer tries to paraphrase but sticks too closely to the language or syntax of the source. Patchwriting happens, we hypothesize, when the writer doesn’t understand the source. That may be because of unsophisticated reading techniques, because of unfamiliarity with the topic, or simply because the writer was working too quickly.It’s worth noting here too that all the citations in this paragraph are to sentences in the source. Did the student read—or understand—the entire source? We don’t know.Finally, note that the quotations all function in place of the student’s voice. They are cited in parenthetical references at the ends of sentences, but there’s no signal phrase to introduce them. Rather, they function as an alternative, and more authoritative, voice for the student. They are “dropped quotations,” with no signal phrase or other material to introduce the source and establish a conversation with it. Instead, the source speaks for the student writer.
  3. Z04 (the pornography paper you just saw a bit of) works with multiple sources within a single paragraph. Although we don’t yet have statistics to back this claim, it is our observation that the mode of these 174 papers is to devote a single paragraph to a single source. Like the pornography paper, this selection from Z05 veers from that typical pattern, instead weaving two sources together in the paragraph.
  4. Like the pornography paper, too, this one is depending on dropped quotations that speak instead of the student writer. Notice, though, that here, unlike the selection from the pornography paper, there’s plenty of student voice in this paragraph, not just a stitching together of source material.
  5. Whereas the pornography and Statute of Anne papers work with multiple sources in a single paragraph, this one follows the more typical pattern of partitioning sources into separate paragraphs. Look at the citations here: the student is apparently determined not to be “nailed” for plagiarism and is thus putting a parenthetical reference at the end of almost every sentence! Another thing to observe here is the use of signal phrases to reference the authors of the source. Despite the incessant parenthetical references, these signal phrases work to make the passage more conversational than what we’ve seen in the pornography and Statute of Anne papers, even though they do no more than name the authors. Why is the student choosing to work with these sources? Why should readers find them authoritative? The paper doesn’t answer such questions. Are we suggesting that instructors (at least those having their students work in MLA style) focus some instruction on signal phrases? Well, yes. —But not as a mechanical technique; rather, as a way of incorporating analysis, evaluation, and synthesis into the use of sources.
  6. In this paragraph the writer is citing two different pages in the source. As the pie chart “Page in Source” shows, this is itself an accomplishment; approximately half of the 1,911 citations in the study are to the first page of the source.
  7. The paragraph begins with summary. Given that under 7% of the 1,911 citations in this study were for summary from the source, this is very good news, indeed, because it demonstrates that the student has engaged the text at something larger than the sentence level.
  8. What follows the summary is patchwriting; what’s shaded in yellow here is very close to the words or syntax of the source.
  9. From patchwriting the student moves to paraphrase, here shaded in green. This phase of the Citation Project research was entirely textual; we don’t know who this student is, and we can’t ask her what was going on as she composed this paragraph. We speculate, though, that she was unaware of any shifts in how she was interacting with her source. To her it was probably entirely “summary” or “paraphrase.” To us researchers, though, it is both varied and significant, showing how easily a student who is trying to summarize or paraphrase can slide into patchwriting, a type of source use that is still classified as academic dishonesty at some institutions. Here we can plainly see that academic integrity is not the issue; reading and writing skills are.Do note, too, that the summary (shaded in pink) at the beginning of this paragraph is of the material that is patchwritten (yellow) and paraphrased (green) in the remainder of the paragraph. We don’t yet know how many of the 83 passages (out of 1,911) that we have coded as summary are actually summarizing material that the student has also incorporated through paraphrase, patchwriting, or copying, as is the case here. But we have certainly seen other cases of it.
  10. Like the writer of the body modification paper, this student seems determined to show that he is not plagiarizing. The source being used is from the scholarly journal Personal Relationships, and it reports the results of grant-sponsored research. The student is using parenthetical references to note the source, but does not include page numbers in those references. Citation Project researchers, studying the student’s paper beside the source text, discover that the paragraph shown here, as well as the paragraph that precedes it and the one that follows, are from page 2 of the Sbarra and Emery article. There are no other references to Sbarra and Emery in the paper.
  11. Here’s the passage marked up according to its source uses. There’s so much to say here, it’s hard to know where to begin. At the most simplistic level, it’s worth noting that this presents another example of extraordinarily heavy source use—particularly when we look at the source.
  12. Here’s the passage from the Sbarra and Emery source, marked up to show where the student drew information. For three consecutive paragraphs, the student is working not only from a single page of the source, but a single paragraph. Here the source is marked up for how it’s being used in the second of the three consecutive Sbarra and Emery paragraphs in the student’s paper. The blue, remember, is for copying; the yellow, for patchwriting; and the green, for paraphrase. And the purple? We’ve used that here as a highlight: something very interesting and encouraging is going on in the purple-shaded text. Let’s look at that in detail.
  13. This side-by-side comparison of bits from the source, and the student’s use of those bits, discourages us from being dismissive of what these 174 first-year composition students are doing in their researched writing. Frankly, we don’t see a lot of THINKING about the sources in the papers we’ve studied. Careful examination and reflection, however, does turn up these subtle indicators that students who may be pretty unsophisticated in their deployment of research sources (they are, after all, first-year college students with lots to learn) may nevertheless be thinking seriously and creatively about those sources. Here the student begins by doing a pretty good paraphrase of the source (the green material). Then the student offers his own example of how that might work; what’s in purple on the right is the student’s illustration and interpretation of what’s in purple on the left.

A concluding bit:

I’ll conclude with my second inflammatory statement. As context, I want to postulate that many if not most of the people in this room are focused on English studies with a literary bent. That was the nature of my own graduate studies at West Virginia University. And as I began my early teaching and scholarship, it was the hermeneutic bent of English studies that I brought to the classroom and my writing. I never questioned the universal efficacy of my careful reading of student texts. I made big generalizations based on those readings. For one of those generalizations, I became famous as a scholar. It was the early 1990s, and I said—basing my statement on my careful reading and interpretation of 9 student papers in a class I was teaching—that students patchwrite when they are working in unfamiliar academic discourse. However, the Citation Project’s quantitative analysis of papers produced by 174 students at 16 colleges nationwide suggests that they patch write ALL THE TIME, regardless of how difficult the source is. (I don’t have a pie chart for it yet, but we have done that analysis.) In the Q&A I’ll be glad to talk about how we interpret that finding, but before that, I want to give you my second inflammatory statement: Don’t place too much credence on your own careful reading of your own students’ writing. What you gather from your hermeneutic reading of your students’ texts is undoubtedly valid FOR THOSE STUDENTS. But you are only one reader, however skilled; you bring your own expectations, culture, and biases to your reading; and you should thus not overgeneralize about what you find. Instead, treat it as a form of pilot research. Your hermeneutic reading of your students’ texts raises issues for investigation, but until you are doing that systematically, until others are doing it with you, and until you have tested the replicability of your methods, what you have is a hypothesis, not a finding. I’ve learned that the hard way myself!

This is not to reject hermeneutic interpretation; far from it. This research began with interpretation, and after the data analysis stage, we turn to interpretation again. And here are some of our interpretive recommendations for our fellow teachers.

. . . followed by the list of pedagogical principles that I offer at every opportunity, including this one:

1.Less is more.

2.Work from shared texts.

3.Work from complex texts

4.Focus on intensive engagement with texts.

5.Teach methods for analyzing the rhetorical moves of a source.

6.Teach methods for interpreting and evaluating sources, especially Web pages.

7.Teach both shallow and deep reading—and the rhetorical occasions for both.

8.Teach paraphrase, summary, and methods for integrating them into written arguments and analyses.

9.Focus on rhetoric rather than mechanics of source use.

10.Less is more.