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Evaluating Sources in the Age of “Fake News”

Melissa Rothman, Consultantmelissa-r

Alternative facts, fake news, disinformation, propaganda…despite their recent step into the spotlight, none of these concepts are by any means new phenomena. Nonetheless, the recent stir in the media has even caused the Oxford Dictionary to name “Post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. Many have pointed to the ever-increasing availability of information in our digital age as the cause of our current skepticism, but publicity stunts and sensationalized media date back to the early stages of mass publication. In 1809, Washington Irving is perhaps one of the earliest cases for knowingly fabricating “fake news,” placing a fake missing person’s advertisement in several local newspapers for a Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker just prior to releasing his first work published under this pseudonym. Tabloids such as “Star” and the “National Enquirer” have stared back at us from the supermarket lines our whole lives reminding us to question the validity of printed news. Even in academia, the notorious “Sokal Hoax” serves as a cautionary tale illustrating the value of close reading. However, despite the apparent prevalence of misinformation in our world, we should not slide into the nihilistic view that truth is relative. In fact, this recent heightened interest in the validity and soundness of sources has fostered a necessary awareness of misinformation. Likewise, there are several strategies available for evaluating sources.

Melissa Rothman pic 4-10

[CC Image courtesy of The Public Domain Review  on Flickr]

To begin with, there are several research guides available on the web. Ekstrom Library even has a list of strategies for evaluating sources here. It includes questions of context, authorship, and credibility that are useful for evaluating any type of source, but is specifically geared toward academic works. However, sometimes we want to use data from outside scholarly databases.  There are tons of tips online for building digital literacy, but I’ll break down these lists into the cliff notes version that we college students know and love.

Here are some strategies:

  1. Consider the Source. Questioning an author’s motivation should be second nature to every college student by the time they graduate. There is no such thing as an agenda free text. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, this blog post was written with two main goals: 1. To please my wonderful boss (*note the potential motivation of sucking up with my adjective choice). 2. To supply you guys with a handy-dandy tool for evaluating sources. But always be aware that some agendas are a bit more nefarious than others, particularly when you get into the realm of politics.
  2. Look for Evidence. This could be cited explicitly in the article, provided at the bottom of the page, or embedded in hyperlinks. But if the author is stating something as common knowledge, that…well…isn’t common knowledge, approach with caution.
  3. Fact check, Fact check, Fact check. Below I’ve listed some links to some great sites for this, but while they certainly do try, they can’t cover every piece of information available on the web. Luckily, if you have a question, our Reference Assistance and Instruction department is fantastic asset for questions like these.
  4. Pay Attention to Images: By now, pretty much everyone should be aware of the magical abilities of Photoshop. However, did you know that Google has a reverse image search that can help trace where else an image has appeared online? Find the original source can perhaps help identify the reliability of the image. Likewise be aware of charts and graphs. They can also be appropriated to distort truth…even when using real data.
  5. Check the URL. URLs ending in .edu and .gov are inherently trustworthy, but still continue to consider the source to identify possible partisan biases. During my undergrad I was told that .org was more trustworthy than .com. However, while there was a time when getting a .org meant you ran an actual organization, today anyone can get this type of domain. Also, beware of URLs designed to intentionally mislead you by using other organizations’ names. For example, ABC.com.co, is a fake news site mimicking ABC.com.
  6. Be Aware of Your Own Biases: Part of providing a convincing argument is showing that you’ve thoroughly considered all opposing viewpoints. The only way to do this is to read AND consider opinions from other people’s perspectives. They may not change your point of view at all, but in considering them you are enabled to form a stronger argument in support of your viewpoint.

Fact-Checking Sites:

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The Long Haul: A Procrastination-Proof Writing Process

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Rewind about two months.  Your professor has distributed the syllabus, and you notice that the culminating writing project in the course is a long one, we’ll say 8-10 pages.  But it’s not due until December, so you may approach it in an out-of-sight-out-of-mind way.  That kind of thinking may have been appropriate or even necessary then, but as we approach November, you probably need to start thinking about this assignment.

As unlikely as it may seem, we’re at a pretty critical stage of the semester.  Midterms have passed, and finals aren’t for about another month.  A lot can happen in that month, and if you have a couple large writing assignments due around that time like I do, a lot should happen.  What I want to illustrate in this post is how I approach larger writing assignments and the writing process I employ to complete those assignments.  I understand everyone has their own way of jumping into writing projects and their own writing processes.  However, I feel it’s a helpful practice to engage with and think about how others tackle these kinds of projects.

Prewriting or searching for an interest

Sometimes in these longer projects, your professor may provide a very specific, narrowed prompt for you to explore.  Often, though, the prompt will be open-ended and up to you to decide what to write about.  When I find out about a longer assignment toward the beginning of the semester, I personally take a mental note to keep a look out for subjects in the class that resonate with me, regardless of the specificity of the prompt.  I register this mental note in order to approach the assignment with a subject that I know I can commit time to.  I’ve found when I have no attachment or personal connection to a topic, my writing suffers because I’m demotivated to think about it critically.  My writing isn’t the only thing to hurt in this kind of instance: my grade on the assignment is resultantly lower.  So, throughout the first part of the semester, I try to engage with the material in the course that piques my academic interest.

Discovering a general topic

Usually, I try to find several topics that interest me in the first couple of months in a course.  I attempt to find as many as possible for two reasons: to make connections between them and to give myself as many options potentially to write about.  I make notes throughout the semester about which class discussions and which readings are most interesting to me, and from there I catalog questions I can consider answering in the writing assignment.  To give a concrete example, as an undergraduate student I took a senior level Philosophy of Aesthetics course.  I was an English major, and this kind of course was both out of my field of study and my comfort zone.  However, throughout the semester, I found the philosophy of Immanuel Kant on art to be interesting.  Additionally, in that same semester I came to appreciate the film Drive.  Resultantly, I connected the two and completed an admittedly compelling body of writing.  So this example fits in the context of my thinking about writing.  Continuing, once I’ve found a general topic or connection of topics in an academic or social issue, I turn to the next step of the process.

Researching and understanding relevant scholarship

At this point, which typically happens for me about a month before the assignment is due, I’m feeling pretty good.  I very loosely understand what I want to write about, and now it’s time for me to acquaint myself with the scholarship already out there.  The reason I approach this research portion of the process at this time is because I’m not too familiar with my topic yet, and my objective for the assignment is still malleable and subject to change.  Research at this stage is really important to me: my original line of thinking about the topic will either be strengthened or challenged, which I realize are both potential and necessary outcomes.  If I find in this stage that my loose topical interest has either been too thoroughly researched or, conversely, totally neglected in scholarship, I then consider refining the subject I want to write about.  Usually, though, my topic after becoming acquainted with scholarship in the area is bolstered and ready for execution.

Getting my ideas out a.k.a. the rough draft

This stage might be the hardest for me.  I frequently find myself too critical of the execution of my ideas in writing, and as a result the process is slowed tremendously.  To combat this grueling self-criticism, I remind myself that the first and roughest draft can be changed entirely before the submission of the final draft.  In getting my ideas out, I like to draft a loose outline to provide some semblance of a framework for the assignment.  This practice allows me integrate relevant scholarship into my draft, and it also relieves some of the stress of finding a template off which I can direct my ideas.  I understand how confining the outline can be, but I personally see its value in helping me organize my ideas to flow in the form of a draft.  Once my outline is in a position I’m comfortable with, I transport my ideas into the draft.

Proofreading, revision, and the final draft

With arguably the most difficult part of my process complete, the revision stage is a time for polishing and coming to terms with the submission.  Here, I’ll suggest some strategies I employ to engage with creating my final draft.  First and most importantly, I read my writing aloud.  Like Melissa alluded to in last week’s post, speech in writing is hugely important for me.  Not only do I literally write out loud at times, I also find revising out loud to be integral to my writing.  Reading what I’ve written allows me to hear how my ideas are expressed, further affording me the positions as both writer and reader.  I’ll go ahead and plug the Writing Center here.  The Writing Center, though effective for the writer at any stage of the process, is especially beneficial at this part since it offers an external and honest peer-evaluation of the delivery of your ideas.  If something didn’t sound right, or if something could potentially be stated more clearly, the consultants there relish the opportunity to let you know.  Politely, I’ll add.  When I’ve completed these steps regarding the final drafting stage, I usually feel comfortable enough to boldly and confidently submit it.  It’s time to move on and forget.  Right?

Postwriting and its applications

Though it’s indeed time to move on to other pressing assignments, it’s certainly not time to forget.  At this stage, I’m glad I’ve submitted the project, but I look for ways to think about what went right in this particular process and what could be improved.  I ask myself necessary questions at this stage: did I wait too long or not long enough in formulating my topic?  Was my use of scholarship compelling?  Did I give myself enough time to execute my ideas effectively in the drafting stage?  These are just a few examples of the questions I ask myself in order to improve my writing for the next time I write.

I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful in my writing.  I hope you, too, can find similar success without the headache of waiting until the last minute!

Reasons for Differences in Citation Styles

Deanna Babcock, Consultant

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Before deciding to start on a Master of Arts in English, I had actually gotten my first Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. Switching from social sciences to humanities was harder than I’d expected. One of the most difficult problems I’ve encountered is navigating between two distinct writing styles. Each field has a different set of expectations and values for writers, and these expectations are not immediately easy to recognize or grasp.

The values of each field, however, are identifiable in their chosen citation styles: American Psychological Association (APA) for many social sciences fields; Modern Language Association (MLA) for humanities. These are usually seen just as ways to avoid plagiarism, but the styles reflect the values of the fields that use them. Students are not often given reasons behind why one field uses APA and another uses MLA, or why other fields use additional styles.

While there are several differences between APA and MLA, I have chosen to focus on five of the most significant factors to highlight the expectations of each. Understanding of these differences can help writers identify what a particular field values and why, making writing in said field a less intimidating venture.

  1. Structure

APA is often very structured. Most guides to using APA provide a list or sample of subheadings that are recommended for research reports: Introduction, Methods, Analysis, Results, and Discussion. MLA is less structured and does not suggest using subheadings, though they can be included. This is one reason MLA seems less formal than APA, as the structure and layout are of little importance in the former.

  1. Ideas

In APA, collaboration between authors is important. Researchers build on past work from other scholars to emphasize progress in the field (Dowdey 339). Experiments may be replicated to the very last detail if researchers hope to find new results, or to ensure the results of the first experiment were logical. Original ideas are less important than the methods and results of a study. On the other hand, new ideas are crucial when writing in MLA. The humanities fields value creativity and unique interpretations.

  1. Quotations and Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is more common in APA papers than quotations. The reason is similar to the previous point: in APA, the results and the data are generally more important than a scholar’s exact words (339). Rephrasing the main ideas from a source is usually sufficient. Quotations are more commonly used in MLA, where exact wording is more important. English studies in particular consider a primary source – a book, for instance – to be almost sacred (333). This also leads to page numbers being so important in in-text citations to give readers the opportunity to reference the work. Direct quotations are preferred over paraphrasing in order to respect the author’s words and to avoid potentially misrepresenting ideas by changing the words.

  1. Importance of Years

Many writers are confused about the use of publication years in in-text citations of APA. The reason for putting the years is to show whether sources being used are recent or not (339). In the social sciences, research that is decades old may be outdated, while more recent studies may contain updated information based on further development of knowledge. The year of a work hardly matters in MLA, which deals with books, art, and music that can be centuries old. This also explains why the date in APA is second only to the author on the reference page, and is one of the last things listed in MLA (334).

  1. Evidence and Interpretations

When it comes to providing evidence to support an argument or idea, APA frequently uses data and statistics (338). As the focus is scientific in nature, numbers are crucial for proving a point. In MLA, evidence comes in the forms of quotations, especially from primary texts (332); discussion of a novel, poem, or work of art must include specific references to that work. An author’s individual interpretations and arguments must be backed up in these same ways: data for APA, support from the given text(s) for MLA.

The differences between these two citation styles reflect what is important to the fields that use them. Recognizing the differences and their reasons makes it easier to understand why each style requires certain things, and easier to write for the conventions in a particular style or field.

Dowdey, Diane. “Citation and Documentation Across the Curriculum.” Constructing Rhetorical Education. Ed. Marie Secor and Davida Charney. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. 330-351. Print.

Five Strategies for Citation Management

ElizabethdeanElizabeth Dean, Consultant

Quality academic writing draws from the ideas of others, so giving credit to previous authors is an important part of your writing process. Citation styles such as MLA, APA, and Chicago are designed to place your ideas in conversation with other scholars. Using others’ ideas with effective citation grants you credibility as a researcher and helps you establish your place within your field of study.

However, citation styles may seem complicated and overwhelming. Many students feel stressed by the rules and regulations. Here are some strategies to help you manage your citation during a writing project.

Cite as you research

You may find it helpful to create your citation as you read your sources. As soon as you finish reading your book, article, or other type of source, go ahead and create a bibliographic citation for it. This way, it takes less time to remember the information about your source. Writing your citations one by one is a low-stress way to gradually create your bibliography.

Set aside time specifically for citation

As you approach your final edits of your paper, read through it with a focus on citation. Make sure all direct quotes and paraphrases are marked with an in-text citation, and double-check the form of your bibliographic citations. If you plan ahead to set aside time for this purpose, you will be able to catch possible mistakes at the end of your process.

Take it one source at a time

If you find yourself falling behind with the citations in your draft, catching up can seem like a daunting task. However, you can go through your sources like a checklist and focus on one source and its place within your text. Once you have inserted the in-text citations and placed the source in your bibliography, move on to the next one. This strategy breaks up the task into manageable pieces.

Use online resources

There are several online resources with information about using specific citation styles. The University Writing Center has several video workshops that discuss plagiarism, APA, and MLA style. They also have handouts on citation and documentation. The Purdue OWL has sample papers and bibliographic citations. Citation management software such as Zotero and Endnote are available to help manage your citations over the course of a project. (Zotero is free to all users, and Endnote is available for free through U of L.)

Visit the University Writing Center

At the University Writing Center, our consultants can talk to you about your individual citation needs. We have copies of the official handbooks for many citation styles. We can help you understand the overall goal of citations in your paper and teach you even more strategies to help you enter into an academic conversation.

Strategies for Reading and Writing about Sources

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

February is flying by and we’ve reached that point in our courses where we’re frequently asked to read, respond to, and write about sources. Sometimes, we are required to read and write about sources we’ve been given in class; other times, we must head to the library (or the library database) and find additional sources to read and write about. We encounter assignments that ask us to write both short and longer papers using sources. However, even when writing a short paper with 3 or 4 sources, writing about sources can be tough. As a student and writing center consultant, I’ve experienced and seen how writing with and about sources can, and often does, leave one saying “I’m not sure how all of these sources fit together” and wondering “What should I say about this (or each) source?” Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are strategies that can help you work through such questions!

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Oftentimes, when we are given a writing assignment that asks us to incorporate or respond to sources, our initial impulse is to start writing the paper and read/incorporate our sources as we go—it is a writing assignment after all, right? In my experience as a student, though, this strategy didn’t always work, especially when I was asked to incorporate upwards of 5 sources and make complex arguments in response to said sources. In taking on longer and larger writing projects as an undergraduate junior and senior, I discovered the usefulness of reading and writing about sources before I began writing a paper. By reading all of my sources and writing down my responses to and thoughts about each source, I found that I had a much easier time seeing how one source related to another and organizing all of my information. Also, I found that this strategy helped me spend less time re-reading sources, thus allowing more time for me to focus on the task of writing.

Here are three ways that you can record your responses to and thoughts about your sources:

  • Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is similar to a bibliography (a list of sources in a particular style such as APA, MLA, etc.), except that in an annotated bibliography you write a brief summary and evaluation and/or analysis of each source. Often, instructors will require students to write annotated bibliographies as part of a research paper or project. Even if your instructors do not require an annotated bibliography, writing your responses to and thoughts about sources in this way can be extremely useful and valuable because it will save you time in the long run: not only will you have written a useful summary and analysis of a source that can perhaps be incorporated into your paper, but you will also have your bibliography completed! 
  • Reading Journal: A reading journal is basically a journal in which you track your responses to the readings and sources you encounter and can be either paper or electronic. This style is more laid back and less formal than an annotated bibliography, but you will still want to be doing some summarizing, evaluating, and analyzing for each source. I find reading journals particularly useful for a class in which I will be required to write essays and papers about the assigned readings. By keeping a reading journal, I am able to 1) be prepared to discuss readings in class each day, 2) add useful class notes to my existing notes, and 3) use these notes to pick a topic to write about and compare/contrast sources when it’s paper-writing time.
  • Blog: A blog can be used in a similar way to a reading journal and, again, is less formal and more relaxed than an annotated bibliography. What I find most interesting, useful, and fun about blogs is that they can be shared. For example, in a class concerned with representations of women in media and culture, I was required to keep a blog in which I responded to class readings and sources that I uncovered on my own. We were allowed to make the blog private, but I chose to make mine public. I didn’t anticipate what happened next: people actually responded to my blog posts. This may sound scary, but it was actually incredibly helpful. Readers would often comment on what they liked about my analysis and evaluations, pose questions that I had not thought of, and offer additional sources that proved useful.

Now that you have some strategies for recording your responses to and thoughts about your sources, here are some questions to get you writing about your sources:

  • What is the purpose of this source? What is the main argument?
  • How does the author achieve this purpose or support his/her argument?
  • What types of evidence is the author using?
  • Has anything been left out, overlooked, or neglected in this source?
  • Do I find this source persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Is this source credible? Why or why not?
  • How does this source compare to my other sources?
  • How does this source contribute to my argument?

All of these questions will not always be necessarily relevant or apply to your sources, and there are many other great questions that you can ask about sources. The important thing is to ask the same questions of each source and write down your answers: this strategy will provide a solid foundation on which to write your paper.

Happy writing, friends!

We’re Always Learning About Writing: The Importance of the University Writing Center as a Site of Research

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The obvious work of the University Writing Center takes place during the writing consultations. If you walk in and see the room filled with people in conversation about writing project, it might be easy to think about the individual teaching as all that happens here. Yet another important aspect of our work in the Writing Center is not immediately visible during consultations, but is vital to helping us engage in effective teaching with the writers with whom we work. In addition to being a place where people can get support for their writing projects, the University Writing Center is an active research site into the theory and practice of Writing Center work. DSCN1706By learning more about writing and how writers learn, we improve our work and contribute to the scholarly conversations in the the field of Writing Studies. For example, many of the graduate students who work as consultants in the Writing Center also engage in research on everything from how international students work in online consultations, to how to teach ideas about genre in writing, to how Writing Centers work in community colleges. Such research can form the core of a graduate students’ dissertation or MA project, or result in publication in the scholarly journals and books in our field. You can find a list of some of the research projects that have emerged from the Writing Center on our webpage.

Engaging in research is vital to the work we do in the Writing Center. Writing doesn’t stand still. By that I mean that writing is a complex social endeavor that we are constantly having to study to understand. It’s widely accepted in our field that writing is more than just making or deciphering marks on a page. The way we write, the way we learn to write, and what we write are all shaped by the social world that surrounds us. Everything from technology to language to changes in the culture around us influence how reading and writing happens. For example, the rapid changes in digital technology have changed the writing and reading practices of everyone in the University (as is obvious if you’re reading this blog). If you ask twenty people at the University how changes in technology have influenced student writing, you might get twenty different answers, some of which might be accurate and others wildly wrong. Our research, like all research at the University, is intended to help us move beyond our initial opinions and gut instincts to gain a clearer understanding of the complex nature of student writing and student writers today. With such an understanding we can work more effectively with writers to help their work communicate their ideas in creative and critical ways, and to teach them skills and approaches that will help them be better writers in the future.

In addition to working to understand more about how people write and how we can teach them to be better writers, we work to conduct research in an ethical and participatory manner. We do our best not to regard the writers involved in our research as lab rats that we can observe with detachment and analyze at our pleasure. Instead we want to conduct research that is collaborative and participatory in nature. We want to do more than simply comply with University ethics guidelines (which we do, of course). We want to model research with writers in the Writing Center as something that they learn from, and benefits them directly, even as we learn more for ourselves. One of the core values of Writing DSCN1772Center work is a dialogic approach to teaching and learning. We work in conversation with students and faculty who come to the Writing Center. We start from where they are, and respond to their concerns as we also discuss with them the ideas and questions we find in their work. This same kind of participatory and dialogic approach helps shape our research ethics and practices and is part of our identity. We believe in a model of research that is reciprocal and engages everyone involved in learning and creating knowledge.

Tomorrow, we’re taking some of our research on the road. Along with Adam Robinson, Associate Director of the Writing Center, and Ashly Bender and Jessica Winck, two of our Assistant Directors, I will be attending the annual conference of the national Council of Writing Program Administrators. The CWPA is an organization that discusses both the practice of administering writing programs, as well as pedagogical approaches to teaching writing. At the conference, we’ll be presenting on a panel titled, Writing Centers as Enclaves: Creating Spaces for Pedagogical and Political Change. After the conference, I’ll be writing more about this idea next week. As with any academic conference, we’re looking forward not just to presenting our ideas, but in learning from the conversation from the people there. It is all part of  connecting research and teaching in order to improve all of our practices in the Writing Center.

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