Empowering Students to Use Sources Responsibly: One Small, Powerful Book for Students

harvey_wws2_165x260by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Let me begin with a confessional tale: When I was first assigned Gordon Harvey’s Writing with Sources, I was a young graduate student, preparing to teach an undergraduate course.  The book seemed straightforward enough, and there were many things in it I already knew (e.g., the literal definition of plagiarism, the reasons one “shouldn’t” plagiarize, some grammatical approaches to incorporating others’ ideas and words into my own work).  But there were also some things in it I’d never encountered before, things like “dual submission” and “structural plagiarism,” sins I felt sure I had myself committed as an undergraduate writer without even knowing it.

First, I was horrified; I had been a good student, a rule-follower, a praised writer.  Then, I was curious: how could it be that no one in my own undergraduate education had ever talked about the more subtle “misuses” of sources with me?  After almost 20 years of working with student writers and graduate student teachers of writing, I believe the answer has something to do with the assumptions we make about what students know and don’t know about “writing with sources,” and about what others are teaching them about this important topic.

Originally prepared for first-year writing students at Harvard, Harvey’s book is relevant for students in all disciplines, at all levels of study.  It’s a thin book, just 70 pages in length. Paperback. Inexpensive for a course text.  It is also powerful in its brevity.  Harvey begins with a brief treatment of “The Role of Sources” (chapter 1), examining “the why” of using sources in the first place – and the different roles that different types of sources can play in academic work.  He then moves to a consideration of “Integrating Sources” (chapter 2), looking at some of the different methods for bringing sources to bear in one’s own work.  So far, so good.

It’s really in the third chapter, “Misuse of Sources,” that Harvey gets into the subtleties of what can constitute source “misuse” – and where he offers very practical advice to students on how to avoid these misuses.  And it’s here that he makes explicit many of the concepts related to responsible source use that so many of us leave implied.  Finally, in the last chapter, he considers several different “Styles of Citation,” which may seem, on its face, not especially interesting.  However, what’s useful in this chapter is that it gestures toward citation methods as styles, which creates an opening for further dialogue with students about why different fields of study privilege different methods and what might be at stake, disciplinarily, in those differences.

If you’re looking for a quick, manageable resource to help students better understand the subtleties of source use, this book is a good one.  It can begin a general conversation, allowing you to shape its lessons for your particular field.  While it does help students to understand matters of correctness, perhaps its most powerful quality is that it privileges the role of sources in academic writing – and the reasons behind students’ misuse of sources – in ways that are more likely to empower students to use sources in the ways we most hope they will: to expand their own ideas and arguments and thinking, to enter new dialogues and discourses in responsible ways.

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