Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to Use Sources Effectively in Expert Writing

BooksProf. Phil Troutman says, "It's not how many sources you have, but how you USE them that counts!" Read on as Prof. Troutman explains a simple but effective way to think about using sources effectively in expert writing. He also offers sentence templates to help you signal these uses to readers.

Prof. Troutman says: "Having amassed a broad range of sources, emergent research-writers often find themselves a bit confused as to how to use them. I recommend using the I-BEAM (fn1) heuristic of sources to figure out what work you mean each source to do in your piece of writing. I-BEAM stands for Instancing, Background, Exhibit, Argument, & Method."

Instancing is the use of sources to indicate the context and nature of the question, or even its very existence. These might be scholarly articles (e.g., demonstrating an ongoing dispute or consensus you find problematic). Or they might be journalistic or web-based items that simply point to or reflect some specific aspect of the problem. These constitutive sources will probably show up in your introduction, helping define your project in light of what has come before and establishing a context in which your reader can see the importance of your project. (Therefore, if you like, you can substitute the terms Interest or Import here, since these sources are establishing these qualities.)

Background source use is for facts or "objective" information. You expect your reader to simply trust these outright, so they must be widely accepted in your field as credible sources for facts and information. This is the least significant use of sources in a research essay; you might not even cite some of these if the facts are commonly known. But you should cite any kind of specialized encyclopedias or other repositories of knowledge.

Exhibit sources are those you analyze in your essay, ultimately for evidence to help you sustain your claims and deal with counter-claims. Your analysis of these sources—through detailed description, quantitative analysis, or other methods—will likely constitute the bulk of your research essay. These are your most important "primary sources." Their genres will be determined by your central questions.

Argument sources are ones you draw on for key claims, concepts (with stipulated definitions), and theories you are using and responding to in your essay. In many fields, these will be considered your most important "secondary sources." Most of these will be academic sources (academic journal articles, books or book chapters, essays in anthologies, dissertations, master's theses, etc.), though important non-academic theorists may be more relevant to the question or problem you are addressing. Include here any works from which you are borrowing key concepts or theories, including those you are importing from another field or discipline. Your essay might be doing any combination of forwarding (applying, extending, revising) or countering (rebutting, refuting, delineating) these arguments (fn2).

Method sources are those you use for the methods they model, especially in cases where the method itself is unique, innovative, or particularly applicable to your project. For example, you might cite and describe a certain quantitative method, adapting it for your own purposes in your essay. You might also consider as "method" sources those from which you derive your own mode of questioning, way of thinking, or style of writing. Sources influential in these more subtle ways are sometimes noted in acknowledgements or epigraphs rather than citations.

I-BEAM is useful especially in the drafting stage. Ask a peer to mark I, B, E, A, or M next to each source quotation/citation, based on how he or she thinks you are using that source at that moment. See if she or he can tell what you thought you were doing (if you knew yet). Discuss to figure out exactly what role(s) that source is playing in your essay at that moment. This little exercise can help you figure out your own stances as well, e.g., whether you agree or disagree with a particular source's claim.

For example, if you are quoting from an academic article or book, are you are using that source (at that moment) for its Argument (one you plan to extend or respond to)? Or are you using it merely to establish some factual Background information that no one has any reason to question? There is a big difference in how you use the source, and how you signal your usage to readers.

Clearly marking your source uses with rhetorical cues will help your reader see the difference. For example, what differences can you infer about a writer's use of sources framed in these ways?

  • As Z asserts, "......" [Argument]
  • Z claims that "......" [Argument]
  • Z has clearly established that..... [Background fact]
  • Z's concept of ..... is useful here. [Method]
Exhibit use of sources will be marked by language that signals your own interpretive voice:
  • If we look closely, we can see .....
  • While this could mean ....., it seems more likely to mean ....
Instancing is the trickiest. Any time you use a source to help establish the reason for you to write--and this often happens in the introduction--you are instancing. Note that these sources might also be serving another purpose simultaneously, Background fact or Argument, for example.
Along these lines:
  • Conventional wisdom holds that ..... [quoting/citing, say Wikipedia, or journalistic coverage, or a recent survey], but is this really the case? This essay will address.....
  • Scholars tend to fall into two camps on the issue of ..... [quoting/citing academic sources representing these two camps]. But what they seem to be missing is ....., which this essay will explore.
The first Instancing template above is also establishing Background, and the second one is an Argument use. But both cases also work as instancing: establishing the reason for this writer to write, to fill some gap in our knowledge or to take an intellectual path overlooked.
Instancing sources are critical to giving your reader a sense of what motivates you to write this essay in the way that you do, and a sense of why they might want to read it.

(fn1)This heuristic was first articulated in Joseph Bizup, "BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing," Rhetoric Review 27.1 (January 2008): 72-86. Available by searching for Articles on the Gelman Library Website. My colleague Mark Mullen and I have modified it somewhat and added the Instancing category.

(fn2)These moves are explained in Joseph Harris, Rewriting: How To Do Things With Texts (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 2006).

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