Making Use of Sources


The most common question college professors ask their students is not “What do you have to say about X?” but rather “What do others have to say about X, and how do you respond to them?”


If there is a single feature that nearly all forms of academic writing have in common it is the use of the work of others, most often explicitly referred to in the academic writer’s text. This makes sense since nearly all academic writing is composed in response to other experiments, other findings, and other arguments and analyses that precede the moment of an academic discourse’s composition. If all disciplinarians share something in common it is the fact that we all make judicious and ethically-sound use of others’ work. Intertextuality is the term linguists use to describe any document that brings two or more discourses together to serve a single purpose. When our students summarize another’s work, they are doing intertextual writing, which they are also doing each time they cite or quote from another’s work in order to enhance their own analytic essay or argument.

Many instructors find that students aren’t very practiced at this skill. They see students quoting indiscriminately from others’ work, sometimes appropriating chunks of material that have the appearance of simply being “dumped” into the writer’s prose, with little or no explanation of its function.  Raiding a source is not the same as reading it.  As it turns out, making fair and effective use of the terms, phrases, passages, and data of others is a complex rhetorical skill that involves sensitivity to context, prudent appropriation, and fairness. The Davidson Writer website explains this skill by using an extended metaphor of “transplanting.” Additionally, you may want to ask students to consult these materials:



They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing
Gerald Graff and Cathie Birkenstein’s now-classic textbook advocates for students internalizing a variety of “templates” that writers employ to respond in various ways to others’ claims, positions, and arguments. Some will recognize these moves as metadiscursive in nature since each signals to the reader how the writer wishes to position her discourse in relation to what another has said. If you don’t wish to assign the textbook, you can offer students a summative list of all of the templates: Templates for Framing One’s Own and Others’ Positions.  And here is a chapter-by-chapter guide to using the textbook: They Say/I Say: A User’s Guide.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say I Say The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing 4th Edition.c2



Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts
Writing Studies scholar Joseph Harris’s Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts begins with the premise that guides our own first-year writing courses: intellectual and academic writing are responsive in nature, and make use of the work of others in substantive ways. His textbook offers an ambitious description of the various “moves” writers make in response to the work of others. Taking his cue from J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, Harris understands several modes of response (summarizing, paraphrasing, extending, and countering) as akin to the performative utterances that solidify social actions. The book includes spot-on examples of intellectual writers’s prose fashioned in service of the various moves he identifies. The Writing Program has fashioned Rewriting: A User’s Guide to help instructors teach the text. If you would like a  print copy of Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts, please ask the Director of the Writing Program.


Framing Quoted Material
We have all seen students plop quoted material somewhat indiscriminately into their discourses, or force quotes into the stream of their own prose without framing them with either lead in or follow up sentences that contextualize the use of another’s terms, phrases, passages or data as they pertain to the point a writer is attempting to convey. Sometimes called a “data dump,” when a writer simply sprinkles quoted material into her work, she is in effect saying little else to the read except “Look at this!” The reader is left to infer why the writer calls attention to the quoted material, what purpose it serves in the larger argument, and exactly what it is that makes the material evidentiary, authoritative, or otherwise remarkable.

To avoid what Graff and Birkenstein call “hit and run quoting,” students can learn to offer contextualizing statements–however brief–that direct the reader to attend to the quoted material in a particular way. Some instructors refer to this combination of discourses: the orienting context + the quoted material + the writer’s analysis as The Quotation SandwichAnother way to teach students the art of framing quoted material is to use the Extract | Transplant | Recontextualize approach, described under the “Ethical Use of Sources” tab of the Davidson Writer.


Academic Writing and the Arts of Response
Though this document (entitled “Academic Writing and the Arts of Response“) was prepared for use in a senior seminar in Art History, it includes each of the techniques that students may use to find and fashion their critical responses to the work of others in many disciplines. If the various forms of academic writing found across the College have one thing in common it is that each makes use of the work of others, either by simply referring to previous findings, prior arguments, and past analyses, or by critically responding to these earlier determinations. Nearly all academic writing makes its response explicit: by acknowledging what relevant work has come before, by adding to and extending earlier findings with new examples or by recommending new applications of ideas or theories, by calling previous conclusions into question in whole or part, or by refuting prior claims or correcting inaccurate, insufficient, or wrong-headed findings. The response techniques gathered here include

  • the use of academic topoi
  • a taxonomy of contradictions to call into question the results of previous research
  • the application of the stases
  •  key “moves” that writers make in response to the work of others

The Writing Program  has prepared this document on how students can use sources while keeping their own agency intact.  The key question is: “Are you using the sources, or are they using you?”

Agency in Using Soures

For a scholarly discussion of intertextuality which examines students’ tendency to patchwrite rather than to paraphrase and thereby demonstrate their command of another writer’s argument or analysis, see Rebecca Moore Howard et al., “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences,” Writing & Pedagogy,” 2.2 (2010): 177-192.