When the sources wrestle back

Prompt: It’s now time to confront your sources. You have already drafted through your argument in some detail, but to this point you’ve been avoiding addressing the secondary sources in detail. You have placeholders in the draft, where you know you will quote Richard Miller or discuss Margaret Price, but you have not actually settled on a quotation or written through the discussion of Price’s work.

It is very important that you do not try to rush this section of the project. And don’t expect it to be a simple or linear process.

However, working with your sources will be generative. You may have the same reaction you had last time, discover the same useful insights as before, but you may also come up with new (sometimes better) ideas on this new read through. Maybe it’s because you’ve read more on this topic now, or because you have been developing your own thoughts through writing your argument. Either way, this part of the project—wrestling the sources—will provide surprises aplenty. Embrace it.

If you set out to simply plug your sources into the outline as if they were inanimate things, they will resist. Instead, understand that wrestling the sources is meant to be a productive process, and give it the space it needs.

Process: Create a new document: begin with your works cited page from your outline draft. Put each source on its own page. Begin by choosing your favorite source (or least favorite) and start writing about it. Write about every way you remember finding the source useful to your argument. Once you get through most of these remembered insights, go back to the source itself and hunt for evidence. List key quotations under the musing. When you discover quotable material that does not connect to a remembered insights, write it separately and take some time to muse on it as well.

Depending on the number of sources you are working with, this might be a long process. I have something like fifteen sources I wanted to cite in my article; I imagine this process allowing me to move through something like three hefty sources per day, maybe five if they’re quite short and uncomplicated to work with. This means spending around a week just for writing through the sources. Don’t think you can do it in two days.

* * *

So, I missed my deadline on the CFP I was working toward (this past Friday). It just ended up taking much longer than I could manage in such a short time frame. I’m going to keep working on it, especially when my orals are done–could still find a good home somewhere. Thanks to folks who read and commented on the draft outlines.

I’ve been trying to think through what went wrong with my writing on this project. Wrong isn’t quite it–what I learned by not succeeding to meet my deadline.

I faltered when it came time to work my sources into my argument. In my earlier four drafts, I had been keeping the sources at arms length, trying to figure out my own points. I had left incorporating the sources until pretty late in the process, and I got overwhelmed by the slowness and frustrations of the process: hunting down quotes, figuring out how to summarize things, making new connections. It always catches me by surprise for some reason, and it frustrates me until just give up. I stop writing.

One issue is my patchy familiarity with the texts I want to reference. I’ve read them only once or twice, and then quite quickly as part of my Orals reading lists. After multiple drafts through the argument, I end up misremembering exactly what they said—what I remember is what connection I made when reading their work, my version of their idea: this is the idea I want to use in my paper. Sometimes I can’t track down the exact moment in the text I wanted. And even when I find the moment or idea, there’s the work of explaining how the passage is useful–obvious to me, but not my readers, of course. Integrating sources means big changes and a lot of potentially chaotic revision, especially if I’m tightly tied to the argument as it sits in the last draft.

I think that’s what discourages me in my writing process. As I work through the sources, I discover things that make me feel I need to do major revision, like a whole patch of the landscape is falling into the sea. I get upset that I mis-remembered, or that I didn’t check all my sources more thoroughly before beginning the project – which would have spared me this disappointment. (This is faulty logic, of course.) I get mad it’s not easier.

I remember a particular point—I had recalled an important moment in Donna Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious of Composition Studies in which she provided an expanded definition of the notion of curriculum, expanding it to include the administrative and technical aspects of the students’ experience. She reframed curriculum to include the whole environment of learning.

I thought this would make a useful connection to the ways that comp/rhet disability scholars like Margaret Price and Jay Dolamge (among many others) are paying critical attention to matters outside of individual classrooms (the normal sense of “curriculum”), instead critiquing things like conference accessibility, faculty bias, administrative practices.

I remember this moment so well because it provides such a clear link to disability studies and the social model of disability, which argues that disability is not caused by a person’s impairment, but rather the barriers for access present in the built and social environment. The social and cultural work of disability studies is to address the curriculum of ableism that allows for inaccessible environments, inaccessible professions, and discriminatory beliefs about disabled people.

* * *

In the future, It might be useful as I did here to to work through the sources at a bit of distance from the draft itself. When I allow myself to just muse on the sources, to be a little chaotic and dig for what the sources really mean to me, I produce some good material, including useful exposition that connects the source to my thinking. It doesn’t guarantee that what I come up with will fit the mold I had planned, but it’s something to keep me moving, at least.


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