Struggling with (Academic) Sources

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I require students to complete library-based research in all of my history courses. In the past I’ve blogged about a successful project that I assign in US History I and II, which involves historical images and requires students to use a book-length narrative history as well as academic journals to explain historical context (See “Picture This”). Over the years I’ve been very pleased with students’ responses to the project. Based on the students’ submissions I believe that they are learning valuable skills that will be applicable to subsequent college-level research.

This week I’d like to share an assignment that I’ve had less-than-fabulous success with and ask for feedback and suggestions from you, the Macmillan Community. This is an assignment that I use in varying forms in both US Women’s History and in Black History, both of which are 2000-level courses at my college, which means students should have taken at least US I or II before enrolling. For the purpose of this week’s discussion, I will focus on how the project has worked/not worked with students in Black History.

Click here to read my instructions to the students.

I’ll start with the positive. Students have embraced the opportunity to research something of interest in the civil rights movement. Many female students have chosen to study lesser-known female activists. This past semester one of the best submissions was a project on Daisy Bates and her work with the Little Rock Nine. Another student who had briefly visited Selma on a school trip researched the 1965 actions there. Others chose Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party for their topics.

Since they have so many options for their topic choices, all of the students start the project with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We spend seventy-five minutes of class time in the college library getting started with the research by working with a reference librarian. The students are re-introduced to the library’s academic databases (they use the same databases earlier in the semester) and have a refresher demonstration in their use. This time is especially helpful for students who are having a difficult time narrowing down their topic. At the end of this class meeting students commit (in writing) to a topic after which I send them on their way. They have a full month to pull together sources and complete the project on their own, knowing that if they require assistance both myself and our reference librarian are available.

What happens next?

In my experience over the last two years of assigning this project about half of the students meet the general criteria I have set forth for the project with a satisfactory or better result. They understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, make a good effort at proper citations (this assignment is not the first to require citations in this course), and try to make an effective argument about the overall significance of their topic.

The other half, however, fall short of the mark in some significant way. The most profound problem I’ve faced has been the students’ choice of sources. Even with the time in the library and in spite of the instruction that general web materials (Wikipedia and, for example) are not acceptable sources, a handful of students in each class will completely ignore my warnings and use only those unacceptable sources. Even students who have otherwise done well in the course to this point will sacrifice their overall grade by ignoring source requirements.

Next time around, therefore, I’m trying a new approach: I’m requiring students to turn in a draft of their Works Cited page before they write the essay. My hope is that I will catch (and correct) those students using the wrong kinds of sources before they write the research paper. It’s my way of staging an academic intervention. While I’m hopeful that this new requirement will help, I’m also frustrated that so many students are not grasping the value of academic sources.

What are you doing to ensure that all of your students are using appropriate academic sources? Are you experiencing the same kind of struggle I am? Help wanted. Suggestions welcome.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.