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“We Are Not a Fact Factory”: Scholarly Sources in the Classroom

Shelves of books

At one of the PWR program meetings I was chatting with Eldon Pei over lunch, and we came to talk about our struggles with teaching scholarly sources to students. How do we teach them to choose sources that are relevant and interesting? How do we teach them to engage with an author’s argument?

Eldon pointed out that academic sources are, by nature, intended “for specialists to communicate between one another,”while students are still building  the contextual and conceptual knowledge of their research objects. The challenge is to help our students, who are rarely specialists in their subject areas, understand the benefits that scholarly sources can bring to the conversations they're exploring, and the value of academic sources in general--since they might not feel necessarily welcomed into those texts initially.

"Cite Your Sources" meme, source unknown

I decided to ask other lecturers for the thoughts, policies, and philosophies that govern how they talk about scholarly sources with their students as part of the research process. I specifically asked them about how they formulate their requirements for scholarly sources in students’ essays and why; what sources excite them personally; what they appreciate about teaching academic/scholarly sources; and how they conceptualize the idea of a “scholarly” source. What do they feel that these sources bring to a research conversation and how do they share that value with students?

What Do PWR Instructors Value in Reading Secondary Sources?

The PWR instructors I spoke with and I each have our own reasons for valuing scholarly sources. In doing research for this article, I realized my own reason felt rather intuitive, and perhaps not sufficiently articulated to students: in my own work I feel excited about sources when they ask questions in unexpected ways or suggest seeing a phenomenon from a new perspective–something I encounter most often in scholarly sources. Several of my PWR colleagues felt similarly when I spoke with them about their choice of sources. Peter Tokofsky enjoys, “those sources that give… new insights, that is, discuss or explain something in a way that I hadn't considered before.”

Lindsey Felt shared with me that the readings she finds transformative are “interdisciplinary in nature that place different fields and methodologies in conversation, and excavate cultural artifacts in a way that introduces a new perspective on them.” For example, the book Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, by Aimi Hamraie, changed Lindsey’s perspective on universal design as inherently beneficial for disabled people. For example, though disabled individuals themselves create designs, such as curb cuts, Hamraie illuminated how these moments of design activism are appropriated by a wider public that later forgets who these innovations belong to.

Kevin Moore expressed a similar excitement from reading secondary sources. Kevin says, “For me a good source is something that speaks to other texts that I am familiar with or complicates them. When it’s filling in some gaps in my knowledge that I didn’t realize I had.” For example, from the book Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking by Pamela Thurschwell, recommended to Kevin by Megan Formato, Kevin gained a new perspective on humans’ interest in mysticism as a predictor of our future interest in technology. “I knew there were these trends in spiritualism… I didn’t realize how entangled it was with technology.” 

How Do We Define ‘Scholarly Sources’ to Ensure a Rich Research Conversation?

All the instructors I spoke with agreed that this kind of methodological excitement–which they experienced and hoped their students would, too–does not only come from reading strictly scholarly texts. Marvin Diogenes, long-time director of the program (honorary rank: admiral and chief bottle washer), recognizes this. He understands scholarly sources as those that identify an existing conversation and complicate it in some way. According to Marvin,

"One of the hallmarks of what I would call scholarly writing is that the writer explicitly locates the writing in a conversation. And sometimes the writer announces this in a kind of formulaic way, with phrasing such as ‘Here's my lit review briefly mentioning everything I’ve ever read about this to show that I’m up to speed on the conversation I want to join.’ But others do it in a much more interesting way, which we encourage our students to do, along the lines of ‘This is my experience of coming into this conversation and how I engaged with the voices already speaking’... So, we try to teach coming to and conversing with scholarly sources with rhetorical sensitivity, not so much focused on the surface text features or the quotable nugget that supports an argument, but focused on the rhetorical stance that a writer takes, how the writer takes part in a conversation, which is part of what makes something scholarly."

How Do We Explain to Students What to Look for in Sources Besides Facts?

"I Find Your Lack of Peer Reviewed Sources Disturbing" meme, source unknown

The first-year student’s puzzlement about why they must read lengthy, sometimes seemingly impenetrable texts often comes from their idea of the goal of research as collecting facts about an issue. Mark Gardiner vividly observes, “They have to know, academia is not just a fact factory...” This poses the question of how we can best lead students to a methodology that prioritizes finding interesting, relevant sources, whether they be scholarly or otherwise.

Marvin suggests framing the engagement with texts with a couple of questions:

"Why do you care about this? When you look at sources, what are you looking for? Are you approaching research as just finding factual information or strong assertions to support a single position? Why are you doing it that way? And some students will honestly believe that the only things that matter are facts and assertions… I would try to move the  conversation about engaging with texts into exploring what scholarly conversations do to create a rich complex world in which an issue exists. And if a student just rejects that and says ‘No, I understand the issue and it's really a matter of taking a side’ then a part of our job is to complicate that and say, how did you come to believe that there are these two stark positions and that your task is to marshal facts and choose one of the positions? Is that how the writers of the readings we discussed in class approach writing?"

Further, instructors have varied ways of helping students choose relevant sources. Jennifer Stonaker, for instance, emphasizes the benefit of the BEAM framework to explain to students what they might be paying attention to while looking for sources. Harriett Jernigan has dozens of sources cherry-picked and sorted out by topics on Canvas for students to choose from.

Mark, who teaches a PWR 2 titled “Silicon Valley and the Future of Work: Rhetoric of Labor and Tech,” tells students,  

"You can have a very technical paper, you could be citing scientific works, mixed STEM papers, but I want your question and your paper to be at least informed by a rhetorical or critical stance…At least one of those papers should be from rhetoric or rhetorically minded fields: history, philosophy or sociology of technology and science, something from what I think of as the critical social sciences or humanities, that's relevant to your topic…”

Similarly, Kevin M. recommends some readings or does the search with a student. He says,

"One thing I do is I really like to make sure that every student paper is dealing with at least one text that really stands out to me as something rigorous. I try to either suggest something or help them find something that is really sophisticated… When I think of my own writing, some sources you just kind of nod to."

How Do We Ensure Scholarly Sources Are Accessible for All Our Students?

Most instructors agree that reading scholarly sources is conducive to a certain type of pleasure, an intellectually stimulating experience many of them had as students, and they wouldn’t want to deprive their students of it. Eldon, however, reminded me that the replication of this experience is not guaranteed. Reading complex texts is not just students’ responsibility—it is also a luxury.

As undergraduate students, my friend Anya and I stayed late at the library reading mind-blowing texts. Our families were never rich, but growing up in the ‘90s and early 2000s in St. Petersburg, Russia, we enjoyed the leftovers of state socialism in the form of free education, free housing, and affordable medicine, as well as the deep value assigned to philosophy by a state once permeated with Marxism. It was hard for my mom to provide material goods, but I was free to enjoy abstract ideas. I wondered how this might work with more marginalized student populations on campus. 

Harriett, who works largely “with the student populations [like] first generation, low income, queer, BIPOC, neurodiverse, living with chronic illnesses, living with disabilities,” says, “The more marginalized you are, the more you have to manage in your life, and it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for this other stuff, right? But usually there's a piece of most of those students who want to be a part of this academy.” She enjoys the process of introducing scholarly sources to her students for the first time: “Some kids have never ever seen a scholarly source, never heard of one, right?”  Harriett chooses to teach scholarly sources even if only to “demystify them.” She chooses to recognize the time limitations that make it difficult for students to engage with these sources and give the guidance necessary for the experience. She searches for sources with her students, sharing the computer screen and the responsibility for the result. 


Talking to PWR colleagues, I got excited by the accurate and useful languages formulating their perspectives on teaching scholarly sources. The responses opened up a set of conversations I hope we continue to have in the corridors of PWR and across Stanford. 

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