Monday, October 24, 2016

Words about words about you

Looking back on the now not so recent Discursive Anomaly on plagiarism, I realized just how much of a multi-stage process source use is. And, moreover, how many stages of knowing what it is about there actually are. It's not as simple as knowing or not knowing, but rather a complex coming into one's own as a reading subject.

Here are some sketches of these stages. To give you something to think about.

The first stage is not being aware at all of the use or purpose of using sources. While I suspect humans are incapable of existing in this state in a more general sense (the phrase "but mom said" is in fact source use), in the context of writing they can and do exist without it. Reporting what someone else has written is not an intuitive concept, and like writing itself it has to be learned.

The next stage is knowing that sources can be used. Even if it is only rudimentary, or mechanically. Or, as in many a case, that there's an expectation to put something like (Foucault 1975) at an appropriate looking spot in the text. The text needs to relate to other texts somehow, or at least go through the motions of doing so.

This might seem like a trivial difference. The step from not being aware of something and being superficially aware of it is not a big step. But, as with many things, you have to start somewhere, and then gradually work through it. Even if the baby steps will look awkward in hindsight.

Next up is knowing that not all sources are good, and that some ought to be avoided. Simply having a source does not a well-grounded text make, and knowing what counts as a good source and what does not count is a skillset all of its own. The ability to look upon different texts and see what they have to offer to the specific context of one's own writing is a skill that takes time, practice and familiarity to grow.

These things are not made easier by different contexts drawing upon different bodies of knowledge. Sometimes, drawing upon Wikipedia is frowned upon, while at other times it is perfectly fine. It all depends, and finding out exactly on what it all depends (genre, tradition, situation, politics, policies, etc) is a slow and wordy process.

Next up is to summarize a line of argument. That is to say, to in some fashion paraphrase a text to give readers some insight into what it has to say. This goes beyond simply invoking the name (Foucault 1975) or saying that someone said something. Giving an account of what someone else has said, and working through the steps of it in a fair fashion, takes more work than it seems. It forces you as a reader to look closely at what the sourced text does, and to understand it well enough to give a fair account in your own words of it.

Texts do more than they seem to at first glance. Reading a text once and getting the gist of it is all well and good. But when read again, you'll find that the text makes all kinds of assumptions and uses a wide range of premises that your first glance didn't catch. Summarizing a text and conveying its core message means sorting through which of its parts are important and which are not. Figuring out what's what can sometimes take more time than might be reasonable to expect.

The point here is to take the strong points of someone else's argument and repurpose them in your own writing. No need to reinvent the wheel when you can borrow the schematics, as it were.

Next up is finding out that you do not have to agree with what you source. You can summarize it (as indicated above), and then go on to explain why you don't agree with it. Of course, simply saying that you do not agree with it is somewhat of a waste of verbiage - the fact that you have given a summary of what the other said means you can go into specific detail of why and how you don't agree. You can get real.

You still have to do the work of summarizing the other's line of argument in a fair and correct way, though. If you get it wrong, then the fact that they got it wrong first is lost upon closer inspection.

Next up is comparing and contrasting. That is to say, to summarize several texts and see how (or if) they relate to each other. The point of this is to put things and texts into context, and to make sure that this context is one of your own making. It is one of the hardest things to do, writing wise, but if you can manage to source several texts in such a way that your own point of view comes across in the process, you have a power that is both immense and beyond comprehension.

Next up is whatever you well damn please. You can take texts and make them dance. Compare a beautiful passage here with a striking argument there, and see what interesting thought children they make.

I suspect they will be beautiful striking and interesting by virtue of being yours. -

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