Recognize sources of meaning.
Apply effective ways to insert quotations.
Develop elements of an Antithesis.
Marvin, a college student at Any University, sits down at his computer.* He logs in to the “Online Professor,” an interactive advice site for students. After setting up a chat, he begins tapping the keys.
Marvin: Hi. I’m a student in the physician assistant program. The major paper for my health and environment class is due in five weeks, and I need some advice. The professor says the paper has to be 6–8 pages, and I have to cite and document my sources.
O-Prof: Congratulations on getting started early! Tell me a bit about your assignment. What’s the purpose? Who’s it intended for?
Marvin: Well, the professor said it should talk about a health problem caused by water pollution and suggest ways to solve it. We’ve read some articles, plus my professor gave us statistics on groundwater contamination in different areas.
O-Prof: What’s been most interesting so far?
Marvin: I’m amazed at how much water pollution there is. It seems like it would be healthier to drink bottled water, but the plastic bottles hurt the environment.
O-Prof: Who else might be interested in this?
Marvin: Lots of people are worried about bad water. I might even get questions about it from my clients once I finish my program.
O-Prof: OK. So what information do you need to make a good recommendation?
Marvin thinks for a moment.
Marvin: I don’t know much about the health problems caused by contaminated drinking water. Whether the tap water is safe depends on where you live, I guess. The professors talked about arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, but what about the water in the U.S.? For my paper, maybe I should focus on a particular location? I also need to find out more about what companies do to make sure bottled water is pure.
O-Prof: Good! Now that you know what you need to learn, you can start looking for sources.
Marvin: When my professors talk about sources, they usually mean books or articles about my topic. Is that what you mean?
O-Prof: Books and articles do make good sources, but you might think about sources more generally as “forms of meaning you use to make new meaning.” It’s like your bottled water. The water exists already in some location but is processed by the company before it goes to the consumer. Similarly, a source provides information and knowledge that you process to produce new meaning, which other people can then use to make their own meaning.
A bit confused, Marvin scratches his head.
Marvin: I thought I knew what a source was, but now I’m not so sure.
O-Prof: Think about it. Sources of meaning are literally every- where—for example, your own observations or experiences, the content of other people’s brains, visuals and graphics, experiment results, TV and radio broadcasts, and written texts. And, there are many ways to make new meaning from sources. You can give an oral presentation, design a web page, paint a picture, or, as in your case, write a paper.
Marvin: I get it. But how do I decide which sources to use for my paper?
O-Prof: It depends on the meaning you want to make, which is why it’s so important to figure out the purpose of your paper and who will read it. You might think about using sources as walking, talking, cooking, and eating. These aren’t the only possible metaphors, but they do capture some important things about using sources.
Marvin: Hey! I thought we were talking about writing!
O-Prof: We are, but these metaphors can shed some light on writing with sources. Let’s start with the first one: walking. To use sources well, you first have to go where they are. What if you were writing an article on student clubs for the school newspaper? Where would you go for information?
Marvin: I’d probably walk down to the Student Activities office and get some brochures about student clubs. Then I’d attend a few club meetings and maybe interview the club leaders and some members about their club activities.
O-Prof: OK, so you’d walk to where you could find relevant information for your article. That’s what I mean by walking. You have to get to the sources you need.
Marvin: Wait a minute. For the article on student clubs, maybe I could save some walking. Maybe the list of clubs and the club descriptions are on the Student Activities web page. That’d save me a trip.
O-Prof: Yes, the Internet has cut down on the amount of physical walking you need to do to find sources. Before the Internet, you had to either travel to a source’s physical location, or bring that source to your location. Think about your project on bottled water. To get information about the quality of a city’s tap water in the 1950’s, you would have had to figure out who’d have that information, then call or write to request a copy or walk to wherever the information was stored. Today, if you type “local water quality” into Google, the Environmental Protection Agency page comes up as one of the first hits. Its home page links to water quality reports for local areas.
Marvin pauses for a second before responding, thinking he’s found a good short cut for his paper.
Marvin: So can I just use Google or Bing to find sources?
O-Prof: Internet search engines can help you find sources, but they aren’t always the best route to getting to a good source. Try entering the search term “bottled water quality” into Google, without quotation marks around the term. How many hits do you get?
Marvin types it in.
Marvin: 5,760,000. That’s pretty much what I get whenever I do an Internet search. Too many results.
O-Prof: Which is one of the drawbacks of using only Internet search engines. The Internet may have cut down on the physical walking needed to find good sources, but it’s made up for the time savings by pointing you to more places than you could possibly go! But there are some ways you can narrow your search to get fewer, more focused results.
Marvin: Yeah, I know. Sometimes I add extra words in and it helps weed down the hits.
O-Prof: By combining search terms with certain words or symbols, you can control what the search engine looks for. If you put more than one term into a Google search box, the search engine will only give you sites that include both terms, since it uses the Boolean operator AND as the default for its search- es. If you put OR between two search terms, you’ll end up getting even more results, because Google will look for all websites containing either of the terms. Using a minus sign in front of a term eliminates things you’re not interested in. It’s the Google equivalent of the Boolean operator NOT. Try entering bottled water quality health -teeth.
Marvin types in the words, remembering suddenly that he has to make an appointment with the dentist.
Marvin: 329,000 hits.
O-Prof: Still a lot. You can also put quotation marks around groups of words and the search engine will look only for sites that contain all of those words in the exact order you’ve given. And you can combine this strategy with the other ways of limiting your search. Try “bottled water quality” (in quota- tion marks) health teeth.
Marvin: Only 333. That’s more like it.
O-Prof: Yes, but you don’t want to narrow it so far that you miss use- ful sources. You have to play around with your search terms to get to what you need. A bigger problem with Internet search engines, though, is that they won’t necessarily lead you to the sources considered most valuable for college writing.
Marvin: My professor said something about using peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals.
O-Prof: Professors will often want you to use such sources. Articles in scholarly journals are written by experts; and if a journal’s peer-reviewed, its articles have been screened by other experts (the authors’ peers) before being published.
Marvin: So that would make peer-reviewed articles pretty reliable.
Where do I find them?
O-Prof: Google’s got a specialized search engine, Google Scholar, that will search for scholarly articles that might be useful (www. googlescholar.com). But often the best place is the college library’s http://www. googlescholar.com bibliographic databases. A database is a collection of related data, usually electronic, set up for easy access to items in the collection. Library bibliographic databases contain ar- ticles from newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and other publications. They can be very large, but they’re a lot smaller than the whole Internet, and they generally contain reliable information. The Internet, on the other hand, con- tains both good and bad information.
Marvin looks down at his feet.
Marvin: Sounds sort of like looking for shoes. When I was buying my running shoes, I went to a specialty running shop instead of a regular shoe store. The specialty shop had all the brands I was looking for, and I didn’t have to weed through sandals and dress shoes. Is that kind of like a library’s bibliographic database?
O-Prof: Exactly. But remember, a database search engine can only find what’s actually in the database. If you’re looking for information on drinking water, you won’t find much in a database full of art history publications. The library has some subject guides that can tell you the best databases to use for your topic.
Marvin: What about books? I did check out the library catalog and found a couple of good books on my topic.
O-Prof: Yes, don’t forget about books. You generally have to walk physically to get information that’s only in print form, or have someone else bring it to you. Even though Google has now scanned many of the world’s books into its database, they won’t give you access to the entire book if the book is still under copyright.
Marvin: So I’m back to real walking again.
O-Prof: Yes. Don’t forget to ask for help when you’re looking around for sources. Reference librarians make very good guides; it’s their job to keep up on where various kinds of knowledge are located and help people find that knowledge. Professors also make good guides, but they’re most familiar with where to find knowledge in their own fields.
Marvin: I could ask my health and environment professor for help, of course, and maybe my geology and chemistry professors. I’m guessing my music teacher would be less helpful.
O-Prof: One last hint about finding sources. If you find an article or book that’s helpful for your paper, look at its reference list. There might be some useful sources listed there.
Marvin: Thanks, Professor. I think I can do some good walking now.
What about that talking metaphor?
O-Prof: Before we move on, there’s an important aspect of walking with sources that you need to be aware of. In college writing, if you use a source in a paper, you’re expected to let the reader know exactly how to find that source as well. Providing this “source address” information for your sources is known as documenting your sources.
Marvin: What do you mean by a “source address”?
O-Prof: It’s directions for finding the source. A mailing address tells you how to find a person: the house number, street, city, state, and zip code. To help your readers find your sources, it’s customary to give them the name of the author; the title of the book or article or website; and other information such as date, location of publication, publisher, even the data- base in which a source is located. Or, if it’s a website, you might give the name of the site and/or the date on which you accessed it. Source documentation can be complicated, because the necessary source address information differs for different types of sources (e.g., books vs. journal articles, electronic vs. print). Additionally, different disciplines (e.g., history, philosophy, psychology, literature, etc.) use different “address” formats. Eventually, you’ll become familiar with the documentation conventions for your own academic ma- jor, but source documentation takes a lot of practice. In the meantime, your teachers and various writing handbooks can provide instructions on what information you’ll need.
Marvin: Do I really need to include all that information? A lot of times, the sources I use are readings my teachers have assigned, so they already know where to find them.
O-Prof: Your teachers don’t always know where all your sources are from, and they also want you to get into the habit of source documentation. And what about your other readers? If they’re deeply interested in your topic, they may want to find more information than you’ve included in your paper. Your source documentation allows them to find the original source. And there are other reasons for documenting sources. It can help readers understand your own position on a topic, because they can see which authors you agree with and which you don’t. It also shows readers you’ve taken time to investigate your topic and aren’t just writing off the top of your head. If readers see that your ideas are based on trustworthy sources, they’re more likely to trust what you say.
Marvin: Like, if I used a university or government website on bottled water quality, they’d trust me more than if I just used a bot- tled water company website.
O-Prof: Yes. But to dig deeper into the question of trust, let’s move on to a second metaphor: talking. Although the metaphor of walking is useful for understanding how to find and document sources, it can give the impression that sources are separate, inert, and neutral things, waiting to be snatched up like gold nuggets and plugged into your writing. In reality, sources are parts of overlapping knowledge networks that connect meanings and the people that make and use them. Knowledge networks are always in flux, since people are always making new meaning. Let’s go back to your health and environment project. Refresh my memory. What kinds of questions do you need answers to before you can write your paper?
Marvin: Well, I need to know if bottled water is truly healthier, like the beverage companies claim. Or would I be just as well off drinking tap water?
O-Prof: To answer this question, you’ll want to find out who’s talking about these issues. As Kenneth Burke put it, you can think of sources as voices in an ongoing conversation about the world:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
The authors of texts aren’t speaking aloud, of course, but they’re making written statements that others can “listen” and “respond” to. Knowing which texts you can trust means understanding which authors you can trust.
Marvin: How do I figure that out?
O-Prof: It helps to know who the authors are. What they’re saying. Where, when, and to whom they’re saying it. And what their purposes are. Imagine the world as divided into many parlors like the one Kenneth Burke described. You’d want to go to the parlors where people who really know something are talking about the topics you’re interested in. Let’s go back to your initial Google search for a minute. Did any Wikipedia articles come up for bottled water?
Marvin: Yeah, and I took a quick look at one of them. But some of my professors say I shouldn’t use Wikipedia.
O-Prof: That’s because the quality of information in Wikipedia var- ies. It’s monitored by volunteer writers and editors rather than experts, so you should double-check information you find in Wikipedia with other sources. But Wikipedia articles are often good places to get background info and good places to connect with more reliable sources. Did anything in the Wikipedia article seem useful for finding sources on bottled water?
Marvin clicks back to the Wikipedia site.
Marvin: It does mention that the National Resources Defense Council and the Drinking Water Research Foundation have done some studies on the health effects of bottled water (“Bottled Water”).
O-Prof: So, you could go to the websites for these organizations to find out more about the studies. They might even have links to the full reports of these studies, as well as other resources on your topic. Who else might have something to say about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water?
Marvin: Maybe doctors and other health professionals? But I don’t know any I could ask.
O-Prof: You can look in the library’s subject guides or ask the librarian about databases for health professionals. The Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) database is a good one. Are you logged in to the library? Can you try that one?
Marvin logs in, finds the database, and types in “bottled water AND health.”
Marvin: Here’s an article called “Health Risks and Benefits of Bottled Water.” It’s in the journal Primary Care Clinical Office Practice (Napier and Kodner).
O-Prof: If that’s a peer-reviewed journal, it might be a good source for your paper.
Marvin: Here’s another one: “Socio-Demographic Features and Fluoride Technologies Contributing to Higher Fluorosis Scores in Permanent Teeth of Canadian Children” (Maupome et al.). That one sounds pretty technical.
O-Prof: And pretty narrow, too. When you start using sources writ- ten by experts, you move beyond the huge porch of public discourse, where everyone talks about all questions on a general level, into some smaller conversational parlors, where groups of specialists talk about more narrow questions in greater depth. You generally find more detailed and trust- worthy knowledge in these smaller parlors. But sometimes the conversation may be too narrow for your needs and difficult to understand because it’s experts talking to experts.
Way ahead of the professor, Marvin’s already started reading about the health risks and benefits of bottled water.
Marvin: Here’s something confusing. The summary of this article on risks and benefits of bottled water says tap water is fine if you’re in a location where there’s good water. Then it says that you should use bottled water if the purity of your water source is in question. So which is better, tap or bottled?
O-Prof: As you read more sources, you begin to realize there’s not always a simple answer to questions. As the CINAHL article points out, the answer depends on whether your tap water is pure enough to drink. Not everyone agrees on the answers, either. When you’re advising your future clients (or in this case, writing your paper), you’ll need to “listen” to what different people who talk about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water have to say. Then you’ll be equipped to make your own recommendation.
Marvin: Is that when I start writing?
O-Prof: You’ve really been writing all along. Asking questions and gathering ideas from sources is all part of the process. As we think about the actual drafting, though, it’s helpful to move on to that third metaphor: cooking. When you cook with sources, you process them in new ways. Cooking, like writing, involves a lot of decisions. For instance, you might decide to combine ingredients in a way that keeps the full flavor and character of each ingredient.
Marvin: Kind of like chili cheese fries? I can taste the flavor of the chili, the cheese, and the fries separately.
O-Prof: Yes. But other food preparation processes can change the character of the various ingredients. You probably wouldn’t enjoy gobbling down a stick of butter, two raw eggs, a cup of flour, or a cup of sugar (well, maybe the sugar!). But if you mix these ingredients and expose them to a 375-degree tem- perature, chemical reactions transform them into something good to eat, like a cake.
Marvin reaches into his backpack and pulls out a snack.
Marvin: You’re making me hungry. But what do chili cheese fries and cakes have to do with writing?
O-Prof: Sometimes, you might use verbatim quotations from your sources, as if you were throwing walnuts whole into a sal- ad. The reader will definitely “taste” your original source. Other times, you might paraphrase ideas and combine them into an intricate argument. The flavor of the original source might be more subtle in the latter case, with only your source documentation indicating where your ideas came from. In some ways, the writing assignments your professors give you are like recipes. As an apprentice writing cook, you should analyze your assignments to determine what “ingredients” (sources) to use, what “cooking processes” to follow, and what the final “dish” (paper) should look like. Let’s try a few sample assignments. Here’s one:
Assignment 1: Critique (given in a human development course)
We’ve read and studied Freud’s theory of how the human psyche develops; now it’s time to evaluate the theory. Read at least two articles that critique Freud’s theory, chosen from the list I provided in class. Then, write an essay discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory.
Assume you’re a student in this course. Given this assignment, how would you describe the required ingredients, processes, and product?
Marvin thinks for a minute, while chewing and swallowing a mouthful of apple.
Marvin: Let’s see if I can break it down:
• everything we’ve read about Freud’s theory
• our class discussions about the theory
• two articles of my choice taken from the list provided by the instructor
Processes: I have to read those two articles to see their criticisms of Freud’s theory. I can also review my notes from class, since we discussed various critiques. I have to think about what aspects of Freud’s theory explain human development well, and where the theory falls short—like in class, we discussed how Freud’s theory reduces human development to sexuality alone.
Product: The final essay needs to include both strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory. The professor didn’t specifically say this, but it’s also clear I need to incorporate some ideas from the two articles I read—otherwise why would she have assigned those articles?
O-Prof: Good. How about this one?
Assignment 2: Business Plan (given in an entrepreneurship course)
As your major project for this course, your group will develop a business plan for a student-run business that meets some need on this campus. Be sure to include all aspects of a business plan. During the last few weeks of class, each group will present the plan to the class, using appropriate visuals.
Marvin: I’ll give it a try.
Ingredients: Hmm . . . It’s hard to tell the sources I’ll need. Obviously, whatever the teacher teaches us about business plans in the course will be important—hope she goes into detail about this and provides examples. What if she doesn’t? What sources could my group use? Our textbook has a chap- ter on business plans that will probably help, and maybe we can go to the library and look for books about writing business plans. Some sample business plans would be helpful—I wonder if the Center for Small Business Support on our cam- pus would have some?
Processes: Well, maybe we could have each member of the group look for sources about business plans and then meet together to discuss what we need to do, or talk online. Don’t know how we’ll break down the writing—maybe we could divide up the various sections of the plan, or discuss each section together, then someone could write it up?
Product: It’s clear that we have to include all the information that business owners put in a business plan, and we’ll have to follow the organization of a typical plan. But we can’t tell exactly what that organization should be until we’ve done some research.
O-Prof: Here’s one last assignment to try out.
Assignment 3: Research Paper (given in a health and environment course)
Write a 6–8-page paper in which you explain a health prob- lem related to water pollution (e.g., arsenic poisoning, gastrointestinal illness, skin disease, etc.). Recommend a potential way or ways this health problem might be addressed. Be sure to cite and document the sources you use for your paper.
Marvin: Oho, trick question! That one sounds familiar.
Ingredients: No specific guidance here, except that sources have to relate to water pollution and health. I’ve already de- cided I’m interested in how bottled water might help with health where there’s water pollution. I’ll have to pick a health problem and find sources about how water pollution can cause that problem. Gastrointestinal illness sounds promis- ing. I’ll ask the reference librarian where I’d be likely to find good articles about water pollution, bottled water, and gas- trointestinal illness.
Process: There’s not very specific information here about what process to use, but our conversation’s given me some ideas. I’ll use scholarly articles to find the connection be- tween water pollution and gastrointestinal problems, and whether bottled water could prevent those problems.
Product: Obviously, my paper will explain the connection between water and gastrointestinal health. It’ll evaluate whether bottled water provides a good option in places where the water’s polluted, then give a recommendation about what people should do. The professor did say I should address any objections readers might raise—for instance, bottled water may turn out to be a good option, but it’s a lot more expen- sive than tap water. Finally, I’ll need to provide in-text cita- tions and document my sources in a reference list.
O-Prof: You’re on your way. Think for a minute about these three assignments. Did you notice that the “recipes” varied in their specificity?
Marvin: Yeah. The first assignment gave me very specific information about exactly what source “ingredients” to use. But in the second and third assignments, I had to figure it out on my own. And the processes varied, too. For the business plan, the groups will use sources to figure out how to organize the plan, but the actual content will be drawn from their own ideas for their business and any market research they do. But in the third assignment—my own assignment—I’ll have to use content from my sources to support my recommendation.
O-Prof: Different professors provide different levels of specificity in their writing assignments. If you have trouble figuring out the “recipe,” ask the professor for more information.
Marvin: Sometimes it can be really frustrating not to have enough information. Last semester, I sat around being frustrated and put off doing an assignment as long as possible, then rushed to finish it. I didn’t do very well on the rough draft, but then I met with my professor and talked to him. Also, the class read each other’s papers. Getting feedback and looking at what other students had done gave me some new ideas for my final draft.
O-Prof: When it comes to “cooking with sources,” no one expects you to be an executive chef the first day you get to college. Over time, you’ll become more expert at writing with sourc- es, more able to choose and use sources on your own. You’ll probably need less guidance for writing in your senior year than in your freshman year. Which brings me to the last metaphor for using sources.
Marvin: Eating, right?
O-Prof: Good memory. In fact, this last metaphor is about memory, which is how sources become a part of who you are. You’ve probably heard the expression, “you are what you eat.” When you eat sources—that is, think about things, experiment, read, write, talk to others—you yourself change. What you learn stays with you.
Marvin: Not always. It’s hard for me to remember the things I learn in class until the final exam, not to mention after the class is over.
O-Prof: Of course. We all forget a lot of the things we learn, espe- cially those we seldom or never use again; but what you learn and use over a long period of time will affect you deeply and shape the way you see the world. Take a look at this quote from Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, where the narrator’s talking about his apprenticeship as a steamboat pi- lot. When he first began his apprenticeship, the Mississippi River looked the same as any other river. But after he made many long trips up and down it, with the captain and others explaining things along the way, he began to see it in all its complexity.
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. (77–78)
Eventually, the narrator could identify each of the river’s bends, knew how its currents were running, and could estimate how deep it was just by looking at the surface. It was the same river, but he was a different man. Your bottled water project isn’t as involved as learning to pilot a steamship. But once you start reading your sources, your experience of bottled water will shift. It’ll still be the same water you used to drink, but it won’t be the same you.
Marvin: I can sort of see that already. I’ve learned a lot about anatomy and physiology in the physician assistant program. Now, when I see a soccer player, I think about how the shin guard is protecting her tibia, not her shin. If I see someone with yellowish eyeballs, I think about bilirubin levels. And I always read the health section of the newspaper first.
O-Prof: Right. And a journalism major, who takes courses on beat reporting and feature writing, thinks about what will make a good story. A geology major does field work, looks at maps, learns about geological history, and sees rocks everywhere. Over time, through much exposure to a field and practice in it, a person’s identity gradually becomes intertwined with his or her profession. Not entirely, of course. All of us are many things. A doctor may have an interest in calligraphy. A business manager might study poetry in her spare time. In both work and leisure activities, you’ll keep on learning and making meaning from sources like other people, writing, books, websites, videos, articles, and your own experience. College is about learning how to make meaning. Learn how to walk (find the sources you need); talk (converse with source authors); cook (integrate sources to make new meaning); and eat (allow sources to change your life). You won’t ever finish using sources to make meaning—not in your health and environment course, not while you’re in college, not even after you’ve been working and living for a long time.
Marvin glances at his watch.
Marvin: Speaking of time, I should probably grab some dinner before the cafeteria closes. Thanks, Professor, for all your help.
- O-Prof: Good luck with your paper, and with the rest of your writing life.
by Kyle D. Stedman
I hate slow drivers. When I’m driving in the fast lane, maintaining the speed limit exactly, and I find myself behind someone who thinks the fast lane is for people who drive ten miles per hour below the speed limit, I get an annoyed feeling in my chest like hot water filling a heavy bucket. I wave my arms around and yell, “What . . . ? But, hey .
. . oh come on!” There are at least two explanations for why some slow drivers fail to move out of the way:
1. They don’t know that the generally accepted practice of high- way driving in the U.S. is to move to the right if an upcoming car wants to pass. Or,
2. They know the guidelines but don’t care.
But here’s the thing: writers can forget that their readers are sometimes just as annoyed at writing that fails to follow conventions as drivers are when stuck behind a car that fails to move over. In other words, there’s something similar between these two people: the knowledge- able driver who thinks, “I thought all drivers knew that the left lane is for the fastest cars,” and the reader who thinks, “I thought all writers knew that outside sources should be introduced, punctuated, and cited according to a set of standards.”
One day, you may discover that something you’ve written has just been read by a reader who, unfortunately, was annoyed at some of the ways you integrated sources. She was reading along and then suddenly exclaimed, “What . . . ? But, hey . . . oh come on!” If you’re lucky, this reader will try to imagine why you typed things the way you did, giving you the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes you’ll be slotted into positions that might not really be accurate. When this frustrated reader walks away from your work, trying to figure out, say, why you used so many quotations, or why you kept starting and ending paragraphs with them, she may come to the same conclusions I do about slow drivers:
- You don’t know the generally accepted practices of using sources (especially in academic writing) in the U.S. Or,
- You know the guidelines but don’t care.
And it will be a lot harder for readers to take you seriously if they think you’re ignorant or rude.
This judgment, of course, will often be unfair. These readers might completely ignore the merits of your insightful, stylistically beautiful, or revolutionarily important language—just as my anger at another driver makes me fail to admire his custom paint job. But readers and writers don’t always see eye to eye on the same text. In fact, some things I write about in this essay will only bother your pickiest readers (some teachers, some editors, some snobby friends), while many other readers might zoom past how you use sources without blinking. But in my experience, I find that teachers do a disservice when we fail to alert students to the kind of things that some readers might be annoyed at—however illogical these things sometimes seem. People are often unreasonably picky, and writers have to deal with that—which they do by trying to anticipate and preemptively fix whatever might annoy a broad range of readers. Plus, the more effectively you anticipate that pickiness, the more likely it is that readers will interpret your quotations and paraphrases in the way you want them to—critically or acceptingly, depending on your writing context.
It helps me to remember that the conventions of writing have a fundamentally rhetorical nature. That is, I follow different conventions depending on the purpose and audience of my writing, because I know that I’ll come across differently to different people depending on how well I follow the conventions expected in any particular writing space. In a blog, I cite a source by hyperlinking; in an academic essay, I use a parenthetical citation that refers to a list of references at the end of the essay. One of the fundamental ideas of rhetoric is that speakers/writers/composers shape what they say/write/create based on what they want it to do, where they’re publishing it, and what they know about their audience/readers. And those decisions include nitty gritty things like introducing quotations and citing paraphrases clearly: not everyone in the entire world approaches these things the same way, but when I strategically learn the expectations of my U.S. academic audience, what I really want to say comes across smoothly, without little annoying blips in my readers’ experience. Notice that I’m not saying that there’s a particular right or wrong way to use conventions in my writing—if the modern U.S. academic system had evolved from a primarily African or Asian or Latin American cultural consciousness instead of a European one, conventions for writing would probably be very different. That’s why they’re conventions and not rules.
Because I’m not here to tell you rules, decrees, or laws, it makes sense to call my classifications annoyances. In the examples that follow, I wrote all of the annoying examples myself, but all the examples I use of good writing come from actual student papers in first year composition classes at my university; I have their permission to quote them.
Everyone in the car hears it: buh-BUMP. The driver insists to the passengers, “But that armadillo—I didn’t see it! It just came out of nowhere!”
Dating Spider-Man: starting or ending a para- graph with a quotation
Sadly, a poorly introduced quotation can lead readers to a similar exclamation: “It just came out of nowhere!” And though readers probably won’t experience the same level of grief and regret when surprised by a quotation as opposed to an armadillo, I submit that there’s a kinship between the experiences: both involve a normal, pleasant activity (driving; reading) stopped suddenly short by an unexpected barrier (a sudden armadillo; a sudden quotation).
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
We should all be prepared with a backup plan if a zombie invasion occurs. “Unlike its human counterparts, an army of zombies is completely independent of support” (Brooks 155). Preparations should be made in the following areas. . . .
Did you notice how the quotation is dropped in without any kind of warning? (Buh-BUMP.)
The Fix: The easiest way to effectively massage in quotations is by purposefully returning to each one in your draft to see if you set the stage for your readers—often, by signaling that a quote is about to come, stating who the quote came from, and showing how your readers should interpret it. In the above example, that could be done by introducing the quotation with something like this (new text bolded):
We should all be prepared with a backup plan if a zombie invasion occurs. MaxBrooks suggests a number of ways to prepare for zombies’ particular traits, though he underestimates the ability of humans to survive in harsh environments. For example, he writes, “Unlike its human counterparts, an army of zombies is completely independent of support” (155). Hisshortsightedness could have a number of consequences. . . .
In this version, I know a quotation is coming (“For example”), I know it’s going to be written by Max Brooks, and I know I’m being asked to read the quote rather skeptically (“he underestimates”). The sentence with the quotation itself also now begins with a “tag” that eases us into it (“he writes”).
Here’s an actual example from Alexsandra. Notice the way she builds up to the quotation and then explains it:
In the first two paragraphs, the author takes a defensive position when explaining the perception that the public has about scientists by saying that “there is anxiety that scientists lack both wisdom and social responsibility and are so motivated by ambition . . .” and “scientists are repeatedly referred to as ‘playing God’” (Wolpert 345). With this last sentence especially, his tone seems to demonstrate how he uses the ethos appeal to initially set a tone of someone that is tired of being misunderstood.
Alexsandra prepares us for the quotation, quotes, and then analyzes it. I love it. This isn’t a hard and fast rule—I’ve seen it broken by the best of writers, I admit—but it’s a wise standard to hold yourself to unless you have a reason not to.
Dating Spider-Man: starting or ending a paragraph with a quotation
An annoyance that’s closely connected to Armadillo Roadkill is the tendency writers sometimes have of starting or ending paragraphs with quotations. This isn’t technically wrong, and there are situations when the effect of surprise is what you’re going for. But often, a paragraph-beginning or paragraph-closing quotation feels rushed, unexplained, disjointed.
It’s like dating Spider-Man. You’re walking along with him and he says something remarkably interesting—but then he tilts his head, hearing something far away, and suddenly shoots a web onto the near- est building and zooms away through the air. As if you had just read an interesting quotation dangling at the end of a paragraph, you wanted to hear more of his opinion, but it’s too late—he’s already moved on. Later, he suddenly jumps off a balcony and is by your side again, and he starts talking about something you don’t understand. You’re con- fused because he just dropped in and expected you to understand the context of what was on his mind at that moment, much like when readers step into a paragraph that begins with a quotation. Here’s an example:
[End of a preceding paragraph:] . . . Therefore, the evidence clearly suggests that we should be exceptionally careful about deciding when and where to rest.
“When taking a nap, always rest your elbow on your desk and keep your arm perpendicular to your desktop” (Piven and Borgenicht 98). After all, consider the following scenario. . . .
There’s a perfectly good reason why this feels odd—which should feel familiar after reading about the Armadillo Roadkill annoyance above. When you got to the quotation in the second paragraph, you didn’t know what you were supposed to think about it; there was no guidance.
The Fix is the same: in the majority of situations, readers appreciate being guided to and led away from a quotation by the writer doing the quoting. Readers get a sense of pleasure from the safe flow of hearing how to read an upcoming quotation, reading it, and then being told one way to interpret it. Prepare, quote, analyze.
I mentioned above that there can be situations where starting a paragraph with a quotation can have a strong effect. Personally, I usually enjoy this most at the beginning of essays or the beginning of sections—like in this example from the very beginning of Jennifer’s essay:
“Nothing is ever simple: Racism and nobility can exist in the same man, hate and love in the same woman, fear and loyalty, compromise and idealism, all the yin-yang dichotomies that make the human species so utterly confounding, yet so utterly fascinating” (Hunter). The hypocrisy and complexity that Stephen Hunter from the Washington Post describes is the basis of the movie Crash (2004).
Instantly, her quotation hooks me. It doesn’t feel thoughtless, like it would feel if I continued to be whisked to quotations without preparation throughout the essay. But please don’t overdo it; any quotation that opens an essay or section ought to be integrally related to your topic (as is Jennifer’s), not just a cheap gimmick.
Uncle Barry and His Encyclopedia of Use- less Information
You probably know someone like this: a person (for me, my Uncle Barry) who con-
Uncle Barry and his Encyclopedia of Useless Information: using too many quotations in a row
I might casually bring up something in the news (“Wow, these health care debates are getting really heated, aren’t they?”) and then find myself barraged by all of Uncle Barry’s ideas on government- sponsored health care—which then drifts into a story about how his cousin Maxine died in an underfunded hospice center, which had a parking lot that he could have designed better, which reminds him of how good he is at fixing things, just like the garage door at my parents’ house, which probably only needs a little. . . . You get the idea. I might even think to myself, “Wait, I want to know more about that topic, but you’re zooming on before you contextualize your information at all.”
This is something like reading an essay that relies too much on quotations. Readers get the feeling that they’re moving from one quotation to the next without ever quite getting to hear the real point of what the author wants to say, never getting any time to form an opinion about the claims. In fact, this often makes it sound as if the author has almost no authority at all. You may have been annoyed by paragraphs like this before:
Addressing this issue, David M. Potter comments, “Whether Seward meant this literally or not, it was in fact a singularly accurate forecast for territorial Kansas” (199). Of course, Potter’s view is contested, even though he claims, “Soon, the Missourians began to perceive the advantages of operating without publicity” (200). Interestingly, “The election was bound to be irregular in any case” (201).
Wait—huh? This author feels like Uncle Barry to me: grabbing right and left for topics (or quotes) in an effort to sound authoritative.
The Fix is to return to each quotation and decide why it’s there and then massage it in accordingly. If you just want to use a quote to cite a fact, then consider paraphrasing or summarizing the source material (which I find is usually harder than it sounds but is usually worth it for the smoothness my paragraph gains). But if you quoted because you want to draw attention to the source’s particular phrasing, or if you want to respond to something you agree with or disagree with in the source, then consider taking the time to surround each quotation with guidance to your readers about what you want them to think about that quote.
In the following passage, I think Jessica demonstrates a balance between source and analysis well. Notice that she only uses a single quotation, even though she surely could have chosen more. But in- stead, Jessica relies on her instincts and remains the primary voice of authority in the passage:
Robin Toner’s article, “Feminist Pitch by a Democrat named Obama,” was written a week after the video became public and is partially a response to it. She writes, “The Obama campaign is, in some ways, subtly marketing its candidate as a post-feminist man, a generation beyond the gender conflicts of the boomers.” Subtly is the keyword. Obama is a passive character throughout the video, never directly addressing the camera. Rather, he is shown indirectly through speeches, intimate conversations with supporters and candid interaction with family. This creates a sense of intimacy, which in turn creates a feeling of trust.
Toner’s response to the Obama video is like a diving board that Jessica bounces off of before she gets to the really interesting stuff: the pool (her own observations). A bunch of diving boards lined up without a pool (tons of quotes with no analysis) wouldn’t please anyone—except maybe Uncle Barry.
Am I in the Right Movie?
When reading drafts of my writing, this is a common experience: I start to read a sentence that seems interesting
Am I in the Right Movie? failing to integrate a quotation into the grammar of the preceding sentence
and normal, with everything going just the way I expect it to. But then the unexpected happens: a quotation blurts itself into the sentence in a way that doesn’t fit with the grammar that built up to quotation. It feels like sitting in a movie theater, everything going as expected, when suddenly the opening credits start for a movie I didn’t plan to see. Here are two examples of what I’m talking about. Read them out loud, and you’ll see how suddenly wrong they feel.
1. Therefore, the author warns that a zombie’s vision “are no dif- ferent than those of a normal human” (Brooks 6).
2. Sheila Anne Barry advises that “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to walk on a tightrope—many feet up in the air?” (50)
In the first example, the quoter’s build-up to the quotation uses a singular subject—a zombie’s vision—which, when paired with the quotation, is annoyingly matched with the plural verb are. It would be much less jolting to write, “a zombie’s vision is,” which makes the subject and verb agree. In the second example, the quoter builds up to the quotation with a third-person, declarative independent clause: Sheila Anne Barry advises. But then the quotation switches into second person—you—and unexpectedly asks a question—completely different from the expectation that was built up by the first part of the sentence.
The Fix is usually easy: you read your essay out loud to someone else, and if you stumble as you enter a quotation, there’s probably something you can adjust in your lead-in sentence to make the two fit together well. Maybe you’ll need to choose a different subject to make it fit with the quote’s verb (reader instead of readers; each instead of all), or maybe you’ll have to scrap what you first wrote and start over. On occasion you’ll even feel the need to transparently modify the quotation by adding an [s] to one of its verbs, always being certain to use square brackets to show that you adjusted something in the quotation. Maybe you’ll even find a way to quote a shorter part of the quotation and squeeze it into the context of a sentence that is mostly your own, a trick that can have a positive effect on readers, who like smooth water slides more than they like bumpy slip-and-slides. Jennifer does this well in the following sentence, for example:
In Crash, no character was allowed to “escape his own hypocrisy” (Muller), and the film itself emphasized that the reason there is so much racial tension among strangers is because of the personal issues one cannot deal with alone.
She saw a phrase that she liked in Muller’s article, so she found a way to work it in smoothly, without the need for a major break in her thought. Let’s put ourselves in Jennifer’s shoes for a moment: it’s possible that she started drafting this sentence using the plural subject characters, writing “In Crash, no characters were allowed. . . .” But then, imagine she looked back at the quote from Muller and saw that it said “escape his own hypocrisy,” which was a clue that she had to change the first part of her sentence to match the singular construction of the quote.
I Can’t Find the Stupid Link
You’ve been in this situation: you’re on a website that seems like it might be interesting and you want to learn more about it. But the home page doesn’t tell you much, so you look for an “About
I Can’t Find the Stupid Link: no connection between the first letter of a parenthetical citation and the first letter of a works cited entry
Us” or “More Information” or “FAQ” link. But no matter where you search—Top of page? Bottom? Left menu?—you can’t find the stupid link. This is usually the fault of web designers, who don’t always take the time to test their sites as much as they should with actual users.
The communication failure here is simple: you’re used to finding certain kinds of basic information in the places people usually put it. If it’s not there, you’re annoyed.
Similarly, a reader might see a citation and have a quick internal question about it: What journal was this published in? When was it published? Is this an article I could find online to skim myself? This author has a sexy last name—I wonder what his first name is? Just like when you look for a link to more information, this reader has a simple, quick question that he or she expects to answer easily. And the most basic way for readers to answer those questions (when they’re reading a work written in APA or MLA style) is (1) to look at the information in the citation, and (2) skim the references or works cited section alphabeti- cally, looking for the first letter in the citation. There’s an assumption that the first letter of a citation will be the letter to look for in the list of works cited.
In short, the following may annoy readers who want to quickly learn more about the citation:
[Essay Text:] A respected guide on the subject suggests, “If possible, always take the high ground and hold it” (The Zom- bie Survival Guide 135).
[Works Cited Page:] Brooks, Max. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. New York: Three Rivers, 2003. Print.
The reader may wonder when The Zombie Survival Guide was published and flip back to the works cited page, but the parenthetical citation sends her straight to the Z’s in the works cited list (because initial A’s and The’s are ignored when alphabetizing). However, the complete works cited entry is actually with the B’s (where it belongs).
The Fix is to make sure that the first word of the works cited entry is the word you use in your in-text citation, every time. If the works cited entry starts with Brooks, use (Brooks) in the essay text.
Citations not including last names may seem to complicate this advice, but they all follow the same basic concept. For instance, you might have:
A citation that only lists a title. For instance, your citation might read (“Gray Wolf General Information”). In this case, the assumption is that the citation can be found under the G section of the works cited page. Leah cites her paraphrase of a source with no author in the following way, indicating that I should head to the G’s if I want to learn more about her source:
Alaska is the only refuge that is left for the wolves in the United States, and once that is gone, they will more than likely become extinct in this country (“Gray Wolf General Information”).
A citation that only lists a page number. Maybe the citation simply says (25). That implies that somewhere in the surrounding text, the essay writer must have made it stupendously clear what name or title to look up in the works cited list. This happens a lot, since it’s common to introduce a quotation by naming the person it came from, in which case it would be repetitive to name that author again in the citation.
A quotation without a citation at all. This happens when you cite a work that is both A) from a web page that doesn’t number the pages or paragraphs and B) is named in the text surrounding the quotation. Readers will assume that the author is named nearby. Stephanie wisely leaves off any citation in the example below, where it’s already clear that I should head to the O’s on the works cited page to find information about this source, a web page written by Opotow:
To further this point, Opotow notes, “Don’t imagine you’ll be unscathed by the methods you use. The end may justify the means. . . . But there’s a price to pay, and the price does tend to be oneself.”
I Swear I Did Some Research: dropping in a citation without making it clear what information came from that source
Let’s look in depth at this potentially annoying passage from a hypothetical student paper:
It’s possible that a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the universe will open new doors of understanding. If theories from sociology, communication, and philosophy joined with physics, the possibilities would be boundless. This would inspire new research, much like in the 1970s when scientists changed their focus from grand-scale theories of the universe to the small concerns of quantum physics (Hawking 51).
In at least two ways, this is stellar material. First, the author is actually voicing a point of view; she sounds knowledgeable, strong. Second, and more to the point of this chapter, the author includes a citation, showing that she knows that ethical citation standards ask authors to cite paraphrases and summaries—not just quotations.
But on the other hand, which of these three sentences, exactly, came from Hawking’s book? Did Hawking claim that physics experts should join up with folks in other academic disciplines, or is that the student writer? In other words, at which point does the author’s point of view meld into material taken specifically from Hawking?
I recognize that there often aren’t clean answers to a question like that. What we read and what we know sometimes meld together so unnoticeably that we don’t know which ideas and pieces of information are “ours” and which aren’t. Discussing “patchwriting,” a term used to describe writing that blends words and phrases from sources with words and phrases we came up with ourselves, scholar Rebecca Moore Howard writes, “When I believe I am not patchwriting, I am simply doing it so expertly that the seams are no longer visible—or I am doing it so unwittingly that I cannot cite my sources” (91). In other words, all the moves we make when writing came from somewhere else at some point, whether we realize it or not. Yikes. But remember our main purpose here: to not look annoying when using sources. And most of your instructors aren’t going to say, “I understand that I couldn’t tell the difference between your ideas and your source’s because we quite naturally patchwrite all the time. That’s fine with me. Party on!” They’re much more likely to imagine that you plopped in a few extra citations as a way of defensively saying, “I swear I did some research! See? Here’s a citation right here! Doesn’t that prove I worked really hard?”
The Fix: Write the sentences preceding the citation with specific words and phrases that will tell readers what information came from where. Like this (bolded words are new):
It’s possible that a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the universe will open new doors of understanding. I believe that if theories from sociology, communication, and philosophy joined with physics, the possibilities would be boundless. This would inspire new research, much like the changes Stephen Hawking describes happening in the 1970s when scientists changed their focus from grand-scale theories of the universe to the small concerns of quantum physics (51).
Perhaps these additions could still use some stylistic editing for wordiness and flow, but the source-related job is done: readers know exactly which claims the essay writer is making and which ones Hawking made in his book. The last sentence and only the last sentence summarizes the ideas Hawking describes on page 51 of his book.
One warning: you’ll find that scholars in some disciplines (especially in the sciences and social sciences) use citations in the way I just warned you to avoid. You might see sentences like this one, from page 64 of Glenn Gordon Smith, Ana T. Torres-Ayala, and Allen J. Heindel’s article in the Journal of Distance Education:
Some researchers have suggested “curriculum” as a key element in the design of web-based courses (Berge, 1998; Driscoll, 1998; Meyen, Tangen, & Lian, 1999; Wiens & Gunter, 1998).
Whoa—that’s a lot of citations. Remember how the writer of my earlier example cited Stephen Hawking because she summarized his ideas? Well, a number of essays describing the results of experiments, like this one, use citations with a different purpose, citing previous studies whose general conclusions support the study described in this new paper, like building blocks. It’s like saying to your potentially skeptical readers, “Look, you might be wondering if I’m a quack. But I can prove I’m not! See, all these other people published in similar areas! Are you going to pick fights with all of them too?” You might have noticed as well that these citations are in APA format, reflecting the standards of the social sciences journal this passage was published in. Well, in this kind of context APA’s requirement to cite the year of a study makes a lot of sense too—after all, the older a study, the less likely it is to still be relevant.
Use Your Turn Signals You may have guessed the biggest weakness in an essay like this: what’s annoying varies from person to person, with some readers happily skimming past awkward introductions to quotations without a blink, while others see a paragraph-opening quotation as something to complain about on Facebook. All I’ve given you here—all I can give you unless I actually get to know you and your various writing contexts—are the basics that will apply in a number of academic writing contexts. Think of these as signals to your readers about your intentions, much as wise drivers rely on their turn signals to communicate their intentions to other drivers. In some cases when driving, signaling is an almost artistic decision, relying on the gut reaction of the driver to interpret what is best in times when the law doesn’t mandate use one way or the other. I hope your writing is full of similar signals. Now if I could only convince the guy driving in front of me to use his blinker. . . .
by Steven D. Krause
You might find yourself quite attached to your topic and your working thesis. Perhaps you are so attached and focused on your topic that you have a hard time imagining why anyone would disagree with you. This attachment is certainly understandable. After you have done so much hunting in the library and on the Internet and thinking about your working thesis, you might have a hard time imaging how anyone could possibly disagree with your position, or why they would want to.
But it is important to remember that not all of your potential readers are going to automatically agree with you. If your topic or take on an issue is particularly controversial, you might have to work hard at convincing almost all of your readers about the validity of your argument.
The process of considering opposing viewpoints is the goal of this exercise, the Antithesis essay. Think about this exercise as a way of exploring the variety of different and opposing views to the main argument you are trying to make with your research project.
Revisiting the working (and inevitably changing) thesis
Here is a quick review of the characteristics of a good thesis:
A thesis answers the two most basic reader questions “What’s your point?” and “Why should I care?”
While it is important that you start your research project with a working thesis that is as clear as you can possibly make it, it is also important to remember that your working thesis is temporary and it will inevitably change as you learn more about your topic and as you conduct more research.
• While some computer hackers are harmless, most of them commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem.
• The international community should enact strict conservation measures to preserve fisheries and save endangered fish species around the world.
• The Great Gatsby’s depiction of the connection between material goods and the American dream is still relevant today.
Chances are, if you started off with a working thesis similar to one of these, your current working thesis has changed a bit. For example, let’s consider the working thesis “While some computer hackers are harmless, most of them commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem.” While the researcher may have begun with this thesis in mind, perhaps she changed it slightly, based on interactions with other students, her instructor, and her research.
Suppose she discovered journal articles and Web sites that suggested that, while many computer hackers are dangerous, many are also helpful in preventing computer crimes. She might be inclined then to shift her emphasis slightly, perhaps to a working thesis like, “While many hackers commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem, they can also help law enforcement officials to solve and prevent crime.” This change is the same topic as the original working thesis (both are still about hackers and computer crime, after all), but it does suggest a different emphasis, from “hackers as threat and problem” to “hackers as potentially helpful.”
Of course, these changes in the working thesis are not the only changes that were possible. The original working thesis could have just as easily stayed the same as it was at the beginning of the process or research. Further, just because the emphasis of the working thesis may be in the process of changing doesn’t mean that other related points won’t find their way into the research project when it is put together. While this research writer might change her emphasis to write about “good” hackers as crime solvers, she still would probably need to discuss the fact that there are “bad” hackers who commit crimes.
The point here is simple: your working thesis is likely to change in small and even large ways based on the research you do, and that’s good. Changing the way you think about your research topic and your working thesis is one of the main ways the process of research writing becomes educational, interesting, and even kind of fun.
One of the key tests of a working thesis is the presence of logical points of disagreement. There’s not much point in researching and writing about how “computer crime is bad” or “fisheries are important” or similar broad arguments because everyone more or less would agree with these assertions. Generating an antithesis essay will help you:
• test how “debatable” your working thesis actually is. If you are able to arrive at and write about the ways in which readers might disagree with your working thesis, then chances are, your working thesis is one that readers need to be persuaded about and need evidence to prove.
• consider ways of addressing the anticipated objections to your thesis. There’s nothing wrong with reasonable readers disagreeing with your point of view on a topic, but if you hope to persuade at least some of them with your research, you will also need to satisfy the objections some of these readers might have.
• revise your working thesis into a stronger position. If you’re having a hard time coming up with any opposition to your working thesis, you probably have to do more work on shaping and forming your working thesis into a more arguable position.
Generating Antithetical Points in Five Easy Steps
Generating potential objections to your working thesis—the points you can use to develop your antithesis essay—is a simple process. In fact, if your working thesis is on a controversial topic and you’ve already done a fair amount of research, you might need very little help generating antithetical points. If you are doing research on gun control, you have undoubtedly found credible research on both sides of the issue, evidence that probably supports or rejects your working thesis.
In addition to those points that seem straight-forward and obvious to you already, consider these five basic steps for generating ideas to consider your antithesis: have a working thesis, think about opposing viewpoints, think about the alternatives, and imagine hostile audiences. Once you have generated some plausible antithetical arguments, you can consider different ways to counter these positions. I offer some ideas on how to do that in the section “Strategies for Answering Antithetical Arguments.”
• Step 1: Have a working thesis you have begun researching and thinking about.
You also need to have at least some preliminary research and thinking about your working thesis done before you consider the antithesis. This research is likely to turn up evidence that will suggest more clearly what the arguments against your working thesis might actually be.
• Step 2: Consider the direct opposite of your working thesis. Assuming you do have a working thesis that you’ve begun to research and think about, the next step in generating ideas for a working thesis is to consider the opposite point of view. Sometimes, this can be as simple as changing the verb or modifying term from positive to negative (or vice-versa).
Consider these working theses and their opposites:
measures to preserve fisheries. conservation measures to preserve fisheries.
This sort of simple change of qualifiers can also be useful in exposing weak working theses because, generally speaking, the opposite of positions that everyone simply accepts as true are ones that everyone accepts as false. If you were to change the qualifying terms in the weak working theses “Drunk driving is bad” or “Teen violence is bad” to their opposites, you end up with theses for positions that are difficult to hold. After all, just as most people in modern America need little convincing that drunk driving or teen violence are “bad” things, few credible people could argue that drunk driving or teen violence are “good” things.
Usually, considering the opposite of a working thesis is more complex than simply changing the verb or modifying term from positive to negative (or vice-versa). For example:
officials to solve and prevent crime. There is little hackers can do to help law enforcement officials solve and prevent computer crime.
Both opposites are examples that counter the working thesis, but each takes a slightly different emphasis. The first one questions the first premise of the working thesis about the “threat” of computer hackers in the first place. The second takes the opposite view of the second premise.
• Step 3: Ask “why” about possible antithetical arguments. Of course, these examples of creating oppositions with simple changes demand more explanation than the simple opposite. You need to dig further than that by asking and then answering– the question of why. For example:
Why should drug companies not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs? Because…
• Unchecked commercial fishing causes pollution and other damage to the oceans’ ecosystems.
Step 4: Examine alternatives to your working thesis. For example, consider the working thesis “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on television because the commercials too often contradict and confuse the advice that doctors give their patients.” This working thesis assumes that drug ads are an important cause of problems between doctors and patients. However, someone could logically argue that there are other more important causes of bad communication between doctors and patients. For example, the number of patients doctors see each day and the shortness of each visit certainly causes communication problems. The billing and bureaucracy of insurance companies also often complicates doctor/patient communication.
Now, unlike the direct opposite of your working thesis, the alternatives do not necessarily completely invalidate your working thesis. There’s no reason why a reader couldn’t believe that both drug advertisements on television and the bureaucracy of the insurance companies are the cause of bad doctor/patient communication. But it is important to consider the alternatives within your research project in order to convince your readers that the position that you are advocating in your working thesis is more accurate (see especially the “Weighing Your Position Against the Opposition” strategy on page xx for answering these sorts of antithetical arguments.
• Step 5: Imagine hostile audiences. Whenever you are trying to develop a clearer understanding of the antithesis of your working thesis, you need to think about the kinds of audiences who would disagree with you. By thinking about the opposites and alternatives to your working thesis, you are already starting to do this because the opposites and the alternatives are what a hostile audience might think.
Sometimes, potential readers are hostile to a particular working thesis because of ideals, values, or affiliations they hold that are at odds with the point being advocated by the working thesis. For example, people who identify themselves as being “pro-choice” on the issue of abortion would certainly be hostile to an argument for laws that restrict access to abortion; people who identify themselves as being “pro-life” on the issue of abortion would certainly be hostile to an argument for laws that provide access to abortion.
At other times, audiences are hostile to the arguments of a working thesis because of more crass and transparent reasons. For example, the pharmaceutical industry disagrees with the premise of the working thesis “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” because they stand to lose billions of dollars in lost sales. Advertising companies and television broadcasters would also be against this working thesis because they too would lose money. You can probably easily imagine some potential hostile audience members who have similarly selfish reasons to oppose your point of view.
Of course, some audiences will oppose your working thesis based on a different interpretation of the evidence and research. This sort of difference of opinion is probably most common with research projects that are focused on more abstract and less definitive subjects. A reader might disagree with a thesis like “The Great Gatsby’s depiction of the connection between material goods and the American dream is still relevant today” based on differences about how the book depicts “the American dream,” or about whether or not the novel is still relevant, and so forth.
But there are also different opinions about evidence for topics that you might think would have potentially more concrete “right” and “wrong” interpretations. Different researchers and scholars can look at the same evidence about a subject like conservation of fisheries and arrive at very different conclusions. Some might believe that the evidence indicates that conservation is not necessary and would not be effective, while other researchers and scholars might believe the completely opposite position.
Regardless of the reasons why your audience might be hostile to the argument you are making with your working thesis, it is helpful to try to imagine your audience as clearly as you can. What sort of people are they? What other interests or biases might they have? Are there other political or social factors that you think are influencing their point of view? If you want to persuade at least some members of this hostile audience that your point of view and your interpretation of the research is correct, you need to know as much about your hostile audience as you possibly can. Of course, you’ll never be able to know everything about your hostile audience, and you certainly won’t be able to persuade all of them about your point. But the more you know, the better chance you have of convincing at least some of them.
Finding Antithetical Points on the Internet
The best (and worst!) thing about the Internet is that almost anyone can say almost anything. This makes the Internet fertile territory for finding out what the opposition thinks about the position you are taking in your working thesis.
A search of the Web on almost any topic will point you to web sites that take a wide variety of stances on that topic. When you do a search for “computer hackers” or “computer crime” on the Web, you are just as likely to find links to law enforcement agencies and articles on Internet security as you are to find links to sites that argue computer hackers are good, or even instructions on how to commit various computer crimes.
Usenet newsgroups are also excellent places to find antithetical positions. To search newsgroups, you can browse through the list of the newsgroups that you have access to at your university and read through the ones that have titles related to your topic. You can also search newsgroups using the commercial service “Google Groups,” which is at <http://groups.google.com>.
Hyperlink: For advice on conducting effective Internet searches and using newsgroups, see Chapter Two, “Understanding and Using the Library and the Internet for Research” and the section called “Finding Research on the Internet: An Overview.”
Keep in mind that information you find on the Internet always has to be carefully considered. This is particularly true with newsgroups, which have much more in common with forums like talk radio or “letters to the editor” in the newspaper than they do with academic research. This doesn’t mean this information is automatically unreliable, but you should be cautious about the extent to which you can or should trust the validity of anything you find on the Internet.
Strategies for Answering Antithetical Arguments
It might not seem logical, but directly acknowledging and addressing positions that are different from the one you are holding in your research project can actually make your position stronger. When you take on the antithesis in your research project, it shows you have thought carefully about the issue at hand and you acknowledge that there is no clear and easy “right” answer.
There are many different ways you might incorporate the antithesis into your research project to make your own thesis stronger and to address the concerns of those readers who might oppose your point of view. For now, focus on three basic strategies: directly refuting your opposition, weighing your position against the opposition, and making concessions.
• Directly Refuting Your Opposition. Perhaps the most obvious approach, one way to address those potential readers who might raise objections to your arguments is to simply refute their objections with better evidence and reasoning. To answer the argument that the international community should not enact measures to preserve fisheries, demonstrate with your evidence that it has indeed been effective. Of course, this is an example of yet another reason why it is so important to have good research that supports your position: when the body of evidence and research is on your side, it is usually a lot easier to make a strong point.
Answering antithetical arguments with the research that supports your point of view is also an example of where you as a researcher might need to provide a more detailed evaluation of your evidence. The sort of questions you should answer about your own research–– who wrote it, where was it published, when was it published, etc.–– are important to raise in countering antithetical arguments that you think come from suspicious sources. For example, chances are that an article about the problems of more strict drunk driving laws that appears in a trade journal for the restaurant industry is going to betray a self-interested bias.
Hyperlink: To review the process for evaluating the quality of your research, see Chapter One, “Thinking Critically About Research,” particularly the section called “Evaluating the quality and credibility of your research.”
• Weighing Your Position Against the Opposition. Readers who oppose the argument you are trying to support with your research might do so because they value or “weigh” the implications of your working thesis differently than you do. Those opposed to a working thesis like “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” might think this because they think the advantages of advertising drugs on television—increased sales for pharmaceutical companies, revenue for advertising agencies and television stations, and so forth—are more significant than the disadvantages of advertising drugs on television. Those who would argue against the working thesis “Tougher gun control laws would be of little help in the fight against teen violence” probably think that the advantage of having fewer guns available to teenagers to use for violence is less important than the disadvantageous effects stronger gun control laws might have on lawful gun owners.
Besides recognizing and acknowledging the different ways of comparing the advantages and disadvantages suggested by your working thesis, the best way of answering these antithetical arguments in your own writing is to clearly explain how you weigh and compare the evidence. In other words, even if the readers who oppose your point of view are in some ways correct, the advantages you advocate in your working thesis are much more significant than the disadvantages.
For example, a writer might argue that any of the loss of profit to pharmaceutical companies, advertising agencies, and television stations would be a small price to pay for the advantages of banning prescription drug TV ads. A writer with a working thesis like “Tougher gun control laws would be of little help in the fight against teen violence” might have to defend his arguments against a hostile audience by suggesting that in the long-run, the costs of infringing the right to bear arms and our other liberties would far outweigh the few instances of teen violence that might be stopped with stronger gun control laws.
• Making Concessions. In the course of researching and thinking about the antithesis to your working thesis and its potentially hostile audiences, it may become clear to you that these opposing views have a point. When this is the case, you may want to consider revising your working thesis or your approach to your research to make some concessions to these antithetical arguments.
Sometimes, student researchers “make concessions” to the point of changing sides on their working thesis—that is, in the process of researching, writing, and thinking about their topic, a research moves from arguing a working thesis like “Most computer hackers are criminals and represent a great risk to Internet security” to one like “Most computer hackers are merely curious computer enthusiasts and can help solve problems with Internet security.”
This sort of shift in thought about an issue might seem surprising, but it makes perfect sense when you remember the purpose of research in the first place. When we study the evidence on a particular issue, we often realize that our initial and uninformed impression or feelings on an issue were simply wrong. That’s the role of research: we put more trust in opinions based on research than in things based on “gut instinct” or feelings.
Usually, most concessions to antithetical perspectives on your working thesis are less dramatic and can be accomplished in a variety of ways. You might want to employ some qualifying terms to “hedge” a bit. For example, the working thesis “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” might be qualified to “Drug companies should be closely regulated about what they are allowed to advertise in TV.” The working thesis “The international community should enact strict conservation measures to preserve fisheries and save endangered fish species around the world” might be changed to “The international community should enact stronger conservation measures to preserve fisheries and help endangered fish species around the world.” Both of these are still strong working theses, but they also acknowledge the sort of objections the opposition might have to the original working thesis.
But be careful in using qualifying terms! An over-qualified working thesis can be just as bad as a working thesis about something that everyone accepts as true: it can become so watered-down as to not have any real significance anymore. For example, theses like “Drug company television advertising is sometimes bad and sometimes good for patients” and “While there are good reasons for enacting stronger conversation measures for protecting endangered fish species, there are also good reasons to not make new conservation laws” are both over-qualified to the point of taking no real position at all.
But You Still Can’t Convince Everyone…
If you are using research to convince an audience about something, then you must understand the opposite side of the argument you are trying to make. That means you need to include antithetical positions in your on-going research, you should think about the opposites and alternatives to the point you are making with your working thesis, you have to imagine your hostile audience as clearly as possible, and you should employ different strategies to answer your hostile audiences’ objections.
But even after all this, you still can’t convince everyone that you’re “right.” You probably already know this. We have all been in conversations with friends or family members where, as certain as we were that we were right about something and as hard as we tried to prove we were right, our friends or family were simply unwilling to budge from their positions. When we find ourselves in these sorts of deadlocks, we often try to smooth over the dispute with phrases like “You’re entitled to your opinion” or “We will have to agree to disagree” and then we change the subject. In polite conversation, this is a good strategy to avoid a fight. But in academic contexts, these deadlocks can be frustrating and difficult to negotiate.
A couple of thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher and rhetorician Aristotle said that all of us respond to arguments based on three basic characteristics or appeals: logos or logic, pathos or emotional character, and ethos, the writer’s or speaker’s perceived character. Academic writing tends to rely most heavily on logos and ethos because academics tend to highly value arguments based on logical research and arguments that come from writers with strong “character-building” qualifications—things like education, experience, previous publications, and the like. But it’s important to remember that pathos is always there, and particularly strong emotions or feelings on a subject can obscure the best research.
Most academic readers have respect for writers when they successfully argue for positions that they might not necessarily agree with. Along these lines, most college writing instructors can certainly respect and give a positive evaluation to a piece of writing they don’t completely agree with as long as it uses sound logic and evidence to support its points. However, all readers—students, instructors, and everyone else—come to your research project with various preconceptions about the point you are trying to make. Some of them will already agree with you and won’t need much convincing. Some of them will never completely agree with you, but will be open to your argument to a point. And some of your readers, because of the nature of the point you are trying to make and their own feelings and thoughts on the matter, will never agree with you, no matter what research evidence you present or what arguments you make. So, while you need to consider the antithetical arguments to your thesis in your research project to convince as many members of your audience as possible that the point you are trying to make is correct, you should remember that you will likely not convince all of your readers all of the time.
Assignment: Writing the Antithesis Essay
Based on the most current and most recently revised version of your working thesis, write a brief essay where you identify, explain, and answer the antithesis to your position. Keep in mind that the main goal of this essay is to think about an audience of readers who might not agree with you and to answer at least some of the questions and complaints they might have about your research project. Be sure to include evidence about both the antithesis and your working thesis, and be sure to answer the objections hostile readers might have.
Questions to consider as you write your first draft
• Have you revisited your working thesis? Based on the research and writing you have done up to this point, how has your working thesis changed?
• Have you done enough research on the antithetical position to have a clear understanding of the objections? (You might want to review the work you’ve done with your annotated bibliography at this point). What does this research suggest about the opposition’s points and your points?
• What sort of brainstorming have you done in considering the antithesis? Have you thought about the “opposite” of your thesis and the reasons why someone might hold that point of view? Have you considered the “alternatives” to your working thesis and why someone might find one or more of these alternative viewpoints more persuasive than your points?
• Have you clearly imagined and considered what your “hostile audience” is like? What sorts of people do you think would object to your working thesis? What kind of motivations would hostile audiences have to disagree with you?
• In considering the objections to your working thesis, do you believe that the evidence is on your side and you can refute hostile audiences’ objections directly with the research you have done?
• When you compare the points raised by the antithesis to the points of your working thesis, do you think that the advantages and values of your working thesis outweigh those of the antithesis?
• Are there some concessions that you’ve made to your working thesis based on the points raised by the antithetical point of view? How have you incorporated these concessions into your revised working thesis?
Revision and Review
During the peer review process, you should encourage your readers to review your rough draft with the same sort of skeptical view that a hostile audience is likely to take toward your points. If your readers already disagree with you, this won’t be difficult. But if they more or less agree with the argument you are trying to make with your research, ask them to imagine for a moment what a hostile reader might think as they examine your essay. You might even want to help them with this a bit by describing for your reviewers the hostile audience you are imagining.
Hyperlink: For guidelines and tips for working with your classmates in peer review sessions, see chapter four “How To Collaborate and Write With Others,” particularly the section “Peer Review as Collaboration.”
• Do your readers clearly understand the antithetical positions you are focusing on in your essay? Do they think that the antithetical positions you are focusing on in your essay are the most important ones? Do they believe you have done enough research on the antithetical positions to adequately discuss them in your essay?
• What other objections to the argument you are trying to make with your working thesis do your readers have? In other words, have they thought of antithetical arguments that you haven’t considered in your essay?
• Do your readers think that you have clearly answered the antithetical arguments to your working thesis? Do they accept the logic of your arguments? Do they believe incorporating more evidence into the essay would make your answer to the antithetical arguments better?
• Imagining themselves as members of the “hostile audience,” do your readers find themselves at least partially persuaded by the answers you have to the antithetical arguments in your essay? Why or why not?
A Student Example:
“Are Casinos Good For Las Vegas? Defending Legalized Gambling,” by Kerry Oaks
For this assignment, the instructor asked students to write a short essay that addressed a few of the main antithetical arguments to each student’s working thesis. Kerry Oaks’ research up to this point had focused almost exclusively on the positive aspects of gambling in Las Vegas. “Researching the other side of this argument was an important step for me,” Oaks said. “I still think that gambling—particularly in a place like Las Vegas—is good for the economy and everything else. But my research for the antithesis assignment also made me think that maybe casinos should spend more money on trying to prevent some of the problems they’re causing.”
Are Casinos Good For Las Vegas? Defending Legalized Gambling
Antithesis Essay Assignment
Few places in this country are as exciting as Las Vegas, Nevada, a city known for its “party” atmosphere and legalized gambling. My working thesis, which is “Casinos and legalized gambling have had a positive economic effect on Las Vegas,” has explored how and why Las Vegas became such a popular tourist destination. Needless to say, there are a lot critics who disagree with my working thesis. While these antithetical positions are important, I believe that they can be answered.
Some critics say that the economic and employment gains offered by legalized gambling are exaggerated. In an excerpt published on the PBS documentary show Frontline website, John Warren Kindt says the economic benefits of legalized gambling have been exaggerated. While gambling initially leads to more jobs, it ultimately is a bad business investment.
However, the same sort of economic problems that Kindt describes happening in other parts of the country haven’t happened in Las Vegas. In fact, Las Vegas remains one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. For example, as Barbara Worcester wrote in her article, “People Flock to Las Vegas for Relocation, Employment,” the unemployment rate in Las Vegas in December 1999 was 3.1 percent, which is the lowest unemployment rate since August 1957, when it was 2 percent. (44).
Another argument is that casinos in the Las Vegas area cause crime, suicide, and murder. According to Jay Tolson’s article “Face of the Future?” “Clark County has almost 70 percent of the population of a state that leads the nation in its rates of suicide, high school dropouts, death by firearms, teenage pregnancies, and death from smoking.” (52).
Clearly, this is a real problem for the area and for the state, but it cannot all be blamed on the casinos. Frank Fahrenkopf, President of the American Gambling Association, said in an interview with the PBS documentary show Frontline that there’s nothing about gambling in itself that creates crime and these problems. As Fahrenkopf was quoted on the Frontline website, “Any enterprise that attracts large numbers of people. The crime rate at Orlando went up. It wasn’t anything that Mickey and Minnie were doing that caused it, it was just that it was a draw of people to a community.”
Even with these negative effects of crime and such, legalized gambling has still greatly improved the lives of people in Las Vegas. As Tolson writes, “there is still a sense that Las Vegas is a place where working people can realize the American Dream” (50) made possible in part by taxes on gambling instead of property or income.
Certainly, Las Vegas has all kinds of problems, but they are the same ones as those associated with any major and rapidly growing city in the United States. But on the whole, I think the benefits of casinos in Las Vegas outweigh the disadvantages of gambling. After all, there wouldn’t be much of anything in Las Vegas if it weren’t for the casinos that thrive there.
sources of meaning
a database search engine
conventions of writing have a fundamentally rhetorical nature
effectively massage in quotations
in the majority of situations, readers appreciate
five basic steps for generating ideas to consider your antithesis
one of the key tests of a working thesis
generating ideas to consider your antithesis
the best (and worst!) thing about the Internet
The sort of questions you should answer about your own research
the best way of answering these antithetical arguments in your own writing
over-qualified working thesis
During the peer review process, you should encourage
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