Some questions about the Citation Project

If you are not familiar, the Citation Project is a multi-institutional research effort led by Becky Howard and Sandra Jamieson that looks at the research practices of undergraduate writers. It starts as in investigation into plagiarism in first-year composition but has clearly expanded in a variety of ways. In a recent Chronicle article, Howard says ""It's very clear that they don't know how to analyze their sources …They don't understand it and don't know how to do anything but grab a few sentences and go."

Perhaps.

I will be interested to see, as more formal research is published and the project continues to collect data, how one draws a connection between what one identifies in the performance of writing in a classroom and what one concludes about student capacities (i.e. "know how"). Let me be clear. I don't have evidence to doubt Howard's claim. In fact, to the contrary, I would say that my own experience teaching FYC and certainly our programmatic assessment would reflect the struggles with analysis that the project identifies. Of course I think about my experience in composition. I've told this story here, but not in a long time. I got a C+ in FYC at Rutgers. I was pretty much a B/B+ student in the class but I essentially blew off the final paper and got a D on it. 

It wasn't because I was unable to perform analysis.

Now I don't want to make too much of personal experiences, but I do think it is reasonable to suggest that there is a potential disconnect between performance and capacity. And in making this suggestion I do not even mean to dispute, necessarily, Howard's recommendation that we should be focusing more on analysis. Instead, my interest is in understanding analysis as a networked, relational capacity. How can we expand that capacity through pedagogy and curriculum design? And how, perhaps more importantly, can we bring that capacity more fully to bear in the performance of writing? Put more succinctly, what do we mean by analysis when we say we want to improve our students' analytic performance?

On one level, this is fairly straightforward in the Citation Project. It begins with evaluating the validity of a source (i.e. a popular book or magazine or corporate PR vs. a scholarly text or government document). At least for UB students, my sense is that they already have the capacity to do this fairly well. The next step would be the basic rhetorical questions: who is the audience? who is the author? what is the author's purpose? However, then things start to get tricky, especially if a source's audience is especially distant from the student. For example, even if I was able to get some general sense of the argument made in a physics journal article, I wouldn't be in a position to evaluate it. And quite honestly, I think that for our students, even the more erudite mainstream magazines (e.g. New Yorker, Atlantic, Economist etc.) can put students in a similar position, especially if the topic is foreign to them

In other words, analysis isn't simply a skill, separable from knowledge (and to be clear I'm not suggesting that Howard or Jamieson believe that it is). For example, how well could you really evaluate what I am saying here if you were unaware of the connections between a word like "network" and Latour's actor-network theory or a word like "capacity" and DeLanda's assemblage theory? In truth, you probably wouldn't have much sense of what I'm talking about. And maybe it is unfair of me to assume that you do know these things, to assume that you have read other posts here or other work of mine. But who said life was fair? And the fact that I or other authors might not be inclined to address your needs as a reader means very little when you are trying to evaluate an argument for a research paper in a college class. 

However, part of an object-oriented approach to rhetoric, at least as I operate it, is to understand rhetorical practices (including analysis) as not simply internalized to the reader. Our encounters with texts (or any objects) are always a matter of perturbation, an exchange of forces, that play a role in our thinking. So there is an extensive network that supports my analysis of texts, like the Citation Project. Partly that's stored in my memory, but it is also stored all in books, databases, various media, etc. More importantly there is an affective network that supports my composing of this analysis. After all, there are plenty of scholars who have the capacity on some hypothetical level to conduct this analysis (or one that is similar), but I am doing it because I have an affective engagement with the task. What produces that affective engagement? That's a good question, because I think that's one of the key ingredients our students tend to miss in a composition research paper. That is, they may or may not have the capacity to analyze their sources, but they may also lack an affective engagement with the task. If you want to do the research, if you think something important will come of the analysis (for you or for others), if you believe that you are in a position (rhetorically or otherwise) where this work makes sense, then that's a very different place than undergraduate writers often find themselves.

I think that's as significant a problem as anything else.