The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


The Improbable Source

Submitted by syntaxfactory on May 9, 2013 - 4:44pm

The Improbable Source

Recently I’ve been getting some requests for what I have called The Improbable Source. An improbable source is some source students hope to find that is exactly on the topic of their research essay, especially when that topic is somewhat obscure. The example I used then that still stands out as the top of this category is “scholarly books and articles on email as a form of civic friendship.” You can double check the philosophical literature if you like, or you can take my word for it that nobody has ever published a scholarly book or article on this topic. When I first identified the existence of the improbable source, I suggested that the problem “is that they want sources that already do their work for them.” To some extent, that’s true. Almost always, the improbable source students desire is one that already supports the exact thesis they hope to argue. If they found the source, then they’d have to change their thesis. However, I now think the problem is larger than that. It’s not just about a hunt for improbable sources, but also about a hunt for unlikely conversations.

“Scholarly conversation” is a phrase that librarians and writing instructors often use. It’s an apt metaphor for what scholars do, and most scholarly work is in a conversation of some sort with previous scholarship, whether arguing with it, building upon it, or whatever. There’s nothing controversial about either that claim or the use of the phrase itself as far as I can tell. However, it’s very difficult to teach a first-year student who has never participated in such a conversation or engaged in any actual research to understand what’s going on.

I’ve worked with students who are looking for scholarly conversations on topics that are highly unlikely to be conversed upon by scholars. We can stick with the “email as civic friendship” topic. It’s not just the source that’s improbable. It’s the entire conversation that’s unlikely to exist. And if there weren’t a conversation, there wouldn’t be the improbable source, because the scholarly sources often respond to previous research. Students have been taught that scholarly conversations exist. They are perhaps engaged in class readings that demonstrate a scholarly conversation in action. Then they pick a topic and go out to find the conversation that likely doesn’t exist.

So that’s what is happening. But why is it happening? There could be many reasons, but I suspect the main reason is the backwards approach to research the students are taking. Instead of reading around broadly in an area of scholarship and looking for the conversations that emerge, students are choosing and even narrowing topics at random and then trying to find the scholarly conversation....

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