Saturday, April 09, 2011

CCCC, Vol. 2: The Citation Project

This is the second of several posts I hope to write over the next few days hitting highlights of my first Conference on College Composition and Communication, which took place a few days ago in Atlanta. Here I'd like to focus on a comprehensive 16-school analysis of students' use of citations in first-year composition (FYC) courses, called by its investigators "The Citation Project."

For this project, Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard worked with faculty at over a dozen institutions to collect data on several hundred FYC students' papers, analyzing the way in which the student authors drew on the sources they cited. Four types of source use were coded and carefully tabulated. In order from least sophisticated to most, these types are as follows:

1. Direct quotation (cited or not): the student pulls a quote from the source.

2. Patchwriting: this occurs when the student "patches" together pieces of the source's text with her own. It may involve rearranging phrases here and there, or replacing some words with synonyms. Jamieson and Howard characterize patchwriting as failed paraphrasing: the student attempts to paraphrase the source author's explanations, but falls back on the original phraseology when she encounter difficult passages.

3. Paraphrase: in paraphrasing, the student expresses isolated ideas from the source in her own words. To do this requires a relatively sophisticated understanding of the source.

4. Summary: summarizing requires deeper understanding still, as the student, in her own words once more, creates a snapshot of the source as a whole, tying together disparate ideas and weaving them into a coherent piece.

Jamieson and Howard pointed out a number of significant findings, and though I hate to reduce this post to a simple series of bullet points, it's the easiest way to highlight a few of the findings I found most interesting.

1. Almost all of the students' uses of sources offered anything but summary. Over 90% of the use of sources fell into one of the other three categories.

2. Most sources students drew upon were short, unreliable, web-based sources. Although the investigators admitted they'd not looked into the matter, they agreed with the claim several audience members made that most of the sources of this type likely rank highly in a simple relevant Google search. (This was the case in my Calc I class last semester, when this source, an essay likely penned by a moderately intelligent high school student, was the most-oft cited by students working on the Newton v. Leibniz project.)

3. Students' citations peaked in the middle of their writing projects, with direct quotations dominating in this area.

4. Most text from sources students pulled from the first pages of whatever source is being used.

Jamieson and Howard raised the question of the extent to which we ourselves our guilty of the same practices in our own work...or whether we're aware of the ways in which we teach our students to make use of sources. They fear that we may have lost the forest in the trees, showing overmuch concern for proper citation and citation style while we fail to see how the sources cited are really being used.

The work of The Citation Project is purely textual analysis, with little rhetorical analysis done yet. I chatted with Jamieson for a bit after their talk, and she confirmed that it was largely the nature of the analysis that's driven the direction of their study, including their choice of source uses. I shared with her the uses for sources Damian, Bella, and Nicola came up with in our rhetorical analyses (to support the author's claims, to contextualize the author's work, to indicate results to be extended or improved, and to find other sources) of REU students' writing. She was interested in learning more, and would like to stay in touch. I would too: The Citation Project is heading in new, and surely exciting, directions.

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