Beyond “good sources”

It’s been a long time since I’ve given a simple yes or no answer to the question, “would this be a good source for my paper?” but lately I’ve been getting even more nuanced in my answers (and probably the students are getting even more frustrated with my unwillingness to give them a straight answer!) by expanding greatly on my “that depends” answer.

First of all, I’ve been getting the impression for some time now that students conceptualize two kinds of sources: “good” sources and “bad” sources. “Good” sources, of course, are things like peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles. Most of them recognize this, or can learn to recognize it pretty quickly.

“Bad” sources are more complicated; they can generally suss out the random Geocities-esque pink-background-animated-gif kind of kooky web site. Some of them know that hoax websites exist because in high school (or, heaven help them, in college) a teacher or librarian showed them one and used it as an example of What Not To Cite.  But what about a newspaper article? Does it matter if it’s from the Washington Post or the Lafayette (IN) Journal and Courier?

What about a blog post?  Does it matter if it’s some random person’s blog, or the blog of a respected authority — or, for that matter, a blog at the New York Times?

And then there are sources that fall between those cracks: a whitepaper (written by, say, the UN World Food Programme, or the Heritage Foundation, or the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office).  Statistics from various sourcesERIC documents and digests.

So when the student asks me, “is this a good source?” my first response isn’t “yes” or “no,” but rather, “it depends on what you’re using it for.”  Or another way to put it, which is the way I’m trying to get my students to think about writing from sources: “what do you want this source to accomplish for you? What do you need it to do in your paper?  How will it function in your argument?”

Because if what you need the source to do is demonstrate that Methodology A is effective at addressing Problem B, then yes, you probably do want peer-reviewed scholarly literature. If, however, you want to demonstrate that the mainstream media often casts Issue C in terms of Stereotype D and Dichotomy E (when in fact it’s far more complicated than that, etc. etc. etc.) then the New York Times is your go-to source.  (You may also want to throw in, say, the Washington Times and the Village Voice as examples of slightly less-mainstream rhetoric.)  A discussion forum post full of ((((hugs)))) and LOLs and twinkly-angel .gif images might be exactly the right source to illustrate the effects of Illness F on real people, and the impact of online networks of support in mitigating the stigmatization associated with that illness.

So it’s all about the purpose to which you intend to put the source, which is, in my experience, a hard leap for students to make from high-school writing, which from this angle seems to be mostly about marshaling sources that agree with you. It also places me perilously close to the line between teaching research skills and information literacy, and teaching rhetoric and writing.  It might be over that line, actually.  But I can’t help stepping there when helping students, and I wish I had better skills for explaining it and helping students to make that leap.

One Comment