Adding to an Ongoing Conversation

Adding to the conversation in academic work means you have an opportunity to say something different from what others have said before. You may extend another writer’s ideas to entirely new territory to examine new evidence; or you may build on a researched premise another other provides to develop your own, revised idea or theory; or you may see the limitations and blindspots of another writer’s work, and take the research into new directions entirely. Most experienced writers discover that all written work engages in a provisional, context-specific conversation, one in which the facts, the theories, and even the voices might change. You may have been conditioned to approach the work of reading and writing with some of these myths in mind:

  1. Everything you read is authorized—it was published, after all— and therefore true.
  2. (Yet, in contradiction to that) Everything written is either right or wrong.
  3. If you write something “original,” it is “just your opinion” and because everyone is entitled to an opinion, you are, too. Therefore, you are always right . . . to yourself.
  4. If you write, it has to at least READ as though you are the unquestionable Expert of All Things.
  5. At the same time, and in contradiction to your role as “Expert of All Things,” you are charged with collecting and synthesizing what authorities have said. At best, you get to take a side that has already been established.
  6. Research is a process of predicting and confirming results.
  7. Citation and documentation inoculate you against suspicious readers.

Like most myths, these propositions have some basis in fact, but those facts (or primary concepts) have gotten lost in a game of authority and skepticism. Here are some counters to the numbered assumptions or myths above:

  1. Academic work—articles and books written by scholars and recognized experts—generally goes through a process of peer review, in which others trained in the area of expertise read the essay to determine whether the work should be published. So, it is “authorized,” but keep in mind that we all have assumptions that guide our work, and those assumptions may make us miss things, gloss over other things. It is extremely difficult to reproduce study results, which makes visible how context-driven studies and results are; as such, the results are provisional, contingent on the factors in play at the time of the study. There is “trustworthy” work, but trustworthiness is rooted in the credibility of the writer and the context of the writing (which includes why the author is writing this; what the writer’s investment [particularly financial] is in the issues, audience, and sponsoring entity; what the writer stands to gain; whom the writer appeals to as trustworthy sources; whether other scholars and experts cite this author’s work; how dated the work is; and, among other things, who has vetted the work).
  2. There’s right, there’s wrong, there’s “partially right” and “partially wrong,” there’s “right in this situation, but not in another,” and so on. In terms of human endeavor, seeing anything as “absolutely and forever right” is wrongheaded.
  3. The assertion “it’s my opinion; that’s just your opinion” can lead to the worst kind of cultural relativism. All too often the words “it’s my opinion” and “everyone is entitled to an opinion” are used as defenses for work that lacks reason and research. It may be one’s opinion that a stereotype is true, but on further examination, reflection, and research, a stereotype reveals itself to be an invested point of view with a clear agenda.
  4. The credible writer acknowledges limitations but seeks to open up conversation rather than to shut down further inquiry.
  5. Rather than taking an already established side in a polemic debate, you’ll spend time in your UConn FYW seminar looking for those places where you can establish your own take on an issue or conversation, or find ways to change the terms of the conversation and open new ways of thinking about the issues.
  6. “Research” that confirms the hypothesis isn’t the stuff of an essay; it’s a demonstration of work you—and others—have already done. An essay explores (“essay” is from the French word “essayer,” which means “to try”). We encourage you to do more in your writing than show us you have read what other people have said.
  7. While citation is usually presented as merely a way to mark the line between your writing and others’ work, and as a hedge against plagiarism or sloppy scholarship, it does far more than offer an assurance of trustworthiness and credibility. In FYW, we use the work of others to do more than validate our assertions or serve as a foil against which to argue; rather, we put the others’ work into use, engaging with other writers’ ideas and words. Put another way, think of citation as an opportunity to demonstrate what you can do with the words of others. To cite sources is to bring other voices, other approaches, and other ideas into your work. It provides the material for you to carry on a conversation with writers whose work you find compelling. While you may have experience using sources as the object of analysis . . . or to supply background information, citation can serve your writing in a variety of other ways. It can contribute key ideas or concepts, provide positions or arguments to grapple with, or shift the direction of the conversation. (Habits of the Creative Mind 119).

See also, Why Quote?


Take 20 minutes to reflect on how you’ve written in the past and how you might begin to develop your own projects for your courses, in FYW and elsewhere.

Write down many of the reasons that you have been asked to write for high school and college classes: What did your instructors ask you to write and how did they ask you to write about it (for example, did you write essays in which you demonstrated what you learned? How did your instructors ask to you demonstrate what you learned? How did they want you to write about topical issues? What do instructors expect you to say through your writing for a course?). How do you know what to say in an essay? Where was the knowledge you wrote about supposed to come from? How are you supposed to convey that knowledge to the reader? What was the reader supposed to do, think, or feel after reading your work? How can you write to keep a conversation going rather than trying to have the last word on a question? What do you want to be able to say in your work?