Evaluating Sources Part One

This post is meant mainly for my Writing I students, but others can ride along and may get something from it as well. The next two, no–three assignments in my very themed Writing I are all about the sources. The Short Project 2 is an annotated bibliography assignment. The Sources assignment uses Moodle’s blog block like a grocery sack where students tag sources and throw them in. Long Project 1 is an exploratory draft that needs these sources from the other two assignments to be able to ruminate, to carefully consider the ideas associated throughout time with the chosen topic and through that essay, work out what you might have to say about that topic as a part of the “conversation” the sources present. In other words, to do a good exploratory (the LP1), you need to not only list the sources, you must analyze them for what they say and note where they fit in the multiple conversations that exist for the topic. You also need to, hopefully much earlier than the exploratory, evaluate each source for validity, centrality, and usefulness. Once you know the landscape so to speak, it is easier to place yourself on it. The bulk of the LP1 then is a matter of synthesis rather than listing. The other two assignments formed lists or tagged categories. The exploratory….explores and writes its way to some ideas about how the sources “think” about the topic.

Let’s talk about those sources. So, in other classes, maybe in high school, you may have ranked sources by where they are: Print being primary, books better than articles, and print articles better than anything on the internet. This class may seem strange because so much investigation involves sources found through the internet. For example, you may wonder why we are bothering with video clips or even blog posts. Here’s the deal: it’s true that all sources are not equal, but it’s also true that why they are not equal has nothing to do with their genre (i.e., where you find them–book, article, website, film, digital recording, and so on). The source itself holds its value, not where you find it.

Now there is some truth to the idea that some neighborhoods are less likely to hold stellar sources intended to be used for scholarly writing. Since you are intending to do scholarly writing, academic writing, chances are you won’t find the modern equivalent of Derrida hanging out in a chatroom debating  deconstruction and why he thought there was “nothing outside the text.” You may have noticed that the his name here links to a Wikipedia entry, another thing most instructors say is not reliable. In actuality, Wikipedia has a peer review process that is more rigorous and lengthy than that of a print encyclopedia with the added benefit that it has no page limit and can update in a moment rather than waiting three to five years with an annual update volume to tide readers over. No, the fact that it is on the web is not why instructors say “Don’t use Wikipedia in your academic paper.” It is the fact that it is an encyclopedia at all. Encyclopedias are not used for scholarly writing, which prefers to use the most primary sources possible. I used it here though because I wanted you to know who he was but did not need you to have deeper knowledge. Derrida was not the point.

No, the point was that Derrida did not have an Angelfire or Geocities page. He might have done Tumblr, but the authority would be in that it was HIM, not that it was a Tumblr page. Back to the using video clips thing, you can embed them into your papers since they are turned in as PDF. With that in mind, this YouTube of Derrida talking about fear about writing, is a really good source. It is primary, meaning that it is Derrida himself literally saying things.

I have to go now, but I will post Part Two about sources later today.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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