The university-level study of English is paradoxically both an individual and collaborative effort, with students developing their own analytical skills while simultaneously learning to think in collaborative ways with tutors and fellow students. What this paradox demonstrates, of course, is that communicating with those around you plays a significant role in the development of ideas, including communicating with the critical body of material surrounding the topic (even if the line of communication is, in this case, distinctly one-way).
Academic writing, even at the most introductory level, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, any piece of writing that students produce will be be a conglomeration of voices—some contemporary, some more distant—and their success in that writing will be dependent upon how well they harness this mass.
When introducing the use of secondary source material in introductory modules, I give students the following seven questions and ask them to respond to these in their notes:
- How would your characterise the writer’s tone and style?
- In what way might the writer’s points develop, refine, or refute your own understanding of the subject or text?
- If you could ask the writer one question about his or her argument, what would it be?
- What is one specific direction for your own essay that the article suggests to you?
- Which elements of the writer’s argument do you tend to agree with, or find especially interesting, surprising, or unique?
- Which elements of the writer’s argument do you tend to disagree with, or see in slightly different ways?
- How would you summarise the argument posed by the writer?
I often collect these responses from first-year students and provide written comments, which can provide valuable formative feedback before they submit their first assessed essay. But I continue to remind more advanced students about these questions, and about the need to analyse critical material rather than extracting relevant quotations.
While it is clear that students work with secondary source material in increasingly sophisticated as they progress through undergraduate, and, perhaps, postgraduate study, the objectives for working with research material remains consistent. Through the process of writing, they are:
- learning how to produce clearer and more authentic analysis of written material;
- learning what roles source material can and should play in academic writing;
- using source material to develop increasingly sophisticated modes of thinking.