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Source Credibility as a Matter of Social Justice

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Today's featured Bedford New Scholar is Dara Liling, who completed her MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Maryland-College Park, where she also taught First-Year Writing and worked as an administrator in the Writing Center. Her thesis investigated contemporary multilingual activism rhetoric, particularly visual rhetoric including lawn signs and public art, and touched on issues of cultural citizenship, identification, and linguistic landscapes. She now works as an editor at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

 

Most rhetoric and composition instructors are well-acquainted with debates of social justice that intersect with our work. Some main considerations we must grapple with on a daily basis include whether our expectations of good writing align with hegemonic constructs and the latent implications (racial, gendered, linguistic, etc.) that our assessments convey to students. While we may be used to contemplating these issues on societal, institutional, or programmatic levels, it is just as necessary to zoom in on social justice issues in writing pedagogy and assessment for individual writing assignments. For me, teaching and grading the annotated bibliography assignment has brought to light the necessity of paying deep attention to how we discuss and evaluate credibility, as well as the underlying messages about good scholarship that we perpetuate.

 

I suspect that the annotated bibliography assignment first-year writing instructors teach at the University of Maryland–College Park is pretty standard. This assignment is the first in a semester-long series of writing projects that each student completes on a topic of his or her choosing, culminating in a final 8- to 10-page research paper. The annotated bibliography entries are graded based on the degree to which students effectively address four criteria:

  1. summary of the source
  2. source use in upcoming assignments
  3. author bias
  4. credibility

 It is the final criterion that gives me pause when considering whether my assessments are socially just.

 

While credibility may initially seem like a straightforward criterion that a source either has or does not have, scholarship and personal experience complicates this assumption. In this past, I had taught my students (as instructors had taught me) that there are a few qualities a source can display that deem it credible:

  • Is it published in an esteemed, usually peer reviewed, publication?
  • Does it cite other credible sources?
  • Does the author have reputable qualifications, such as an advanced degree in the field or a history of publications and conference presentations?

While I still agree that these are positive qualities for a source to have, and that it is valuable to teach students how to identify these qualities, I have also come to realize that equally valuable resources get lost (or even silenced) when we hold these stipulations as immutable markers of useable works.   

 

Many before me have grappled with these lines of thought, questioning what forms of knowledge are vital for wholistic understandings and where these knowledge forms are present or absent. Much of this contemplation occurs in the realms of feminist rhetoric, public memory studies, and cultural rhetorics (to name a few). For example, Jones Brayboy and Bryan McKinley (2005) propose storytelling as an indispensable method for introducing marginalized experiences into canons of study, while lamenting that its validity is largely dismissed. Clare Hemmings (2005) proclaims that women and people of color have been excluded from big-name journals. And Nana Oesi-Kofi et al. (2010) acknowledge the lack of validity subjugated knowledge generally hold in academia. Together, this scholarship illuminates two premises:

  1. traditionally nonacademic forms of knowledge can be quite valuable to the learning and writing in which our students engage, but
  2. it is quite possible that such sources will not meet hegemonic definitions of credibility.

 

These issues transitioned beyond theoretical considerations for me when I was conferencing with a student during the annotated bibliography unit. He was inspired by personal experiences within his Filipino-American community to center his semester-long research on the lingering effects of colonialism on Filipino-American culture. He planned to investigate debates prevalent within the community about reclaiming traditional, pre-colonial culture versus creating a new culture that may abandon traditional cultural elements. (What an interesting topic!) However, some of his sources strayed beyond the credibility criteria. They appeared in publications that were outside of mainstream academia (and therefore cited in fewer academic articles than other sources); they pulled evidence from personal and community experiences, rather than academic sources. Did this mean, the student wanted to know, that these sources were not credible and unusable for the assignment?

 

Of course not. They capture viewpoints necessary for entering the key debates and responsibly representing multiple sides of the issue. So what could I do moving forward to better communicate these notions to my students? What could be done to improve my first-year writing pedagogy?

 

First, is to examine issues of public memory, situated knowledge, and exclusion early in the annotated bibliography unit. Encourage students to question and redevelop their own notions of credibility. How do they choose when a source they encounter in their personal lives is worthwhile to read or discuss with friends?

 

Second, is to revisit source use and expand on the purpose of this consideration. When is a traditionally credible source most appropriate? When is personal experience or other forms of situated knowledge most appropriate? What are the different effects of using one versus the other?

 

These are just two starting points for this social justice work, but hopefully promising places to push against hegemonic, limiting constructs of credibility. 

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I think Anne-Marie Deitering (Associate University Librarian for Learning Services at Oregon State University) does a good job of conveying the tension between choosing conventional and unconventional sources for use in academic writing. After a fairly lengthy discussion of audience expectations in academic writing and source choice, she ends with this paragraph:

When you know the types of evidence your audience expects to see, you can choose sources that meet those expectations. Sometimes, however, your rhetorical situation will call for another type of source. For example, if a student writing a paper about etiquette in digital environments wanted to make a claim about the differences between Twitter and Tumblr, the best evidence he or she could use might be tweets and Tumblr posts, even though tweets and blog posts are not the type of sources most academic audiences would expect to see. Just be aware that if you are going to go against your audience’s expectations, you should have reasons for doing so, and you should communicate those reasons to your reader. If you think you are really pushing the boundaries, talk to your instructor in advance. Academic audiences respect creative and original thinking. If you give your academic readers a good reason to consider an unfamiliar source — a reason that shows you understand and respect their expectations — they likely will agree that the source is appropriate.

I love this paragraph because it asks students to think like a writer: What kind of evidence will convince my reader? What kind of evidence will help me make my point? How can I present this evidence in a way that will convince my readers to accept it. It gives students the authority to color outside the lines (so to speak) if that's what will help them achieve their vision.

 

From Chapter 7, “Doing Research: Joining the Scholarly Conversation” (by Anne-Marie Deitering, Oregon State University) in Ede, Lisa. The Academic Writer: A Brief Rhetoric, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 210-11.