May the source be with you

When I worked as a lecturer in EAP, I taught my students how to structure essays in English, how to do referencing, etc. At that time, I also read a lot of excellent scholarship around related topics such as paraphrasing and plagiarism, yet I noticed that my students’ written work did not always reflect the types of issues discussed in this body of research. Or rather, it did, but not to the extent I expected.

I did see problems like patchwriting or failure to cite when required, but these issues were relatively minor compared to what I saw as bigger concerns in their writing. Specifically, they often seemed to give too much prominence to their sources’ views, marginalising their own. Sometimes it was not clear why they were citing, since the evidence they used did not seem to advance their argument. However, the literature had less to say on these issues, and seemed rather fixated on the avoidance of plagiarism. The problem with this is that avoidance of plagiarism does not necessarily lead to effective deployment of source material. Rather, it may mean that, as I did, markers have the feeling that something is not right about the way source material has been used, but that this was hard to address since referencing was done correctly on the whole and students had implemented what they were taught (which mainly focused on referencing conventions).

For my doctoyodaral research, I decided to investigate the way student writers used source material, but rather than looking only at the surface manifestation of source use in writing, I also investigated the ways in which they engaged with their source material as they read it in preparation for writing. After all, “using” source material begins when one reads and responds to it, not when one decides to reference it.

I observed and interviewed three postgraduate students over the 18-week period during which they wrote their Masters dissertation. They completed a series of “think alouds” while they worked on their dissertations, and I collected their completed assignments at the end. I also collected the feedback they received from their markers in order to see which aspects of source use attracted the markers’ comments.

The results of the study indicated that the students did indeed do most of their analysing and evaluating of source material as they read, and began formulating a position in relation to their sources early in the reading-to-write process. Differences emerged in the ways the students engaged with their sources. For example, some took a more instrumental approach to the dissertation-writing task, making efforts to perform the role of a “good student” by citing frequently in order to display their knowledge. Others engaged on an emotional as well as cognitive level with their material, often making evaluative comments and elaborating on what source authors said.

One of the most interesting findings was that the markers barely commented on the mechanics of citation, and instead praised students when they made meaningful comparisons between their own and their sources’ views. This suggests that the way students demonstrate engagement with the content of their source material might be seen as more important in determining the success of a piece of writing than the extent to which referencing conventions have been followed or information has been paraphrased. Of course, it may be that problems with what might be called “transgressive intertextuality” (Abasi & Akbari, 2008) distract the reader and make it more difficult to evaluate content. It is important, however, that researchers do not also become distracted by the low-hanging fruit of plagiarism at the expense of arguably more substantive issues relating to conceptual engagement with sources.

Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Abasi, A. & Akbari, N. (2008). Are we encouraging patchwriting? Reconsidering the role of the pedagogical context in ESL student writers’ transgressive intertextuality. Journal of English for Specific Purposes 27(3), 267-284.

Vermeer and women’s literacy practices

Back in August my travels in the Netherlands took me to the then newly reopened Mauritshuis and the  Rijksmuseum.  Both hold collections of paintings by Vermeer.  I followed this up by going to the Vermeer Centre in Delft, which aims to explore the artist’s work, but doesn’t actually hold originals (to my memory).

I realise everybody will perceive aspects of an artist’s oeuvre according to their own lenses.  Vermeer’s work strikes me as a tremendous portrayal of women’s literacy practices.  I thought that the commentaries tended to gloss over this, in particular tending to obscure women’s agency.

My images here are of poor quality, being my photographs of the reproductions in the Vermeer Centre.  I realise they won’t do well at conveying the artistic quality of the work, but perhaps I can say a little about the subjects and the ways they are described.  It’s true that the Rijksmuseum does give this good general introduction to such works by Vermeer, including: “His later paintings are meticulous compositions of interiors featuring one or two figures, usually women.  These are intimate genre paintings in which the subject is engaged in some everyday activity, usually in the light of a nearby window.” Their suggestion for categories in which you might seek further examples are: Daily Life paintings, Daily Life and Immoral Women.

Woman reading a letter

Woman reading a letter

My first image then is related to Woman reading a letter.  The Rijksmuseum commentary as others discusses light and colour; aspects I’m not trying to discuss as I’m just focussing on the treatment of the literacy practices.  Here as the Delft Centre commentary, the woman is described as “being absorbed” or as “concentrating”.  The Delft Centre commentary proposes that implicit in the painting is “the absence of a lover.”

In the second image a young woman is writing.  The Delft Centre’s commentary is “Letters are a private matter.  But the lady seems to have no objection to our looking on.  She is clothed richly and with great care, and glimmering light dances over the painting.  Letter writing and vanity go together in the seventeenth century.”  Well, I am sure we can all reach our own opinions about that commentary.  It seems to me contradictory.  How can letter writing be simultaneously private and yet an occasion for vainly displaying oneself?  But leaving that aside, it is to me sad that the act of letter writing is turned into nothing other than a commentary on the subject’s appearance, itself then made the focus of some critical attention.

A lady writing

A lady writing

The third image depicts a group, all busily active.  I wrote the following description before looking for further information:

The concert

The concert

One young woman is doing something with her hands, possibly to the painting in front of her, which is also the focus of attention by the man, although we cannot see at all quite what he is doing.  Another young woman appears to be reading a letter aloud.  She looks very absorbed, and yet communicating to the others at the same time; for example through her hand gesture which actually neither of them are observing. To me, it’s a very intriguing painting.  I like the other signs of activity too, such as the material on the table in the foreground and the various kinds of equipment.  I expect the commentary to give me further information about what’s going on.

On looking online for further elucidation I’m first quite surprised to find out that seemingly my interpretation is way off. The painting, which was stolen in 1990 and is unrecovered, is called “The Concert.”   The first young woman is apparently playing the harpsichord, the second the lute (I still can’t see it, but I have realised that the foreground contains at least two instruments) and the third is singing.  So I seem to have been way off in my interpretation, judging from the helpful Wikipedia entry. It doesn’t discuss the placing of the figures, nor all the stuff in the foreground, which surely would be in the way of any audience?  I suppose the positionings indicate a very informal concert, perhaps to a tiny audience of intimates.

I do recall now, revisiting it, that I was a little shocked by the Delft commentary:  “A harmonious scene. Colour and composition, it all works together, just like a song perfectly sung. And much more virtuously than in The Procuress, on the wall at the right.  Nevertheless you can see an echo: two ladies and one man having pleasure together.”

I am no kind of art historian and perhaps these descriptions, stressing seductive appearances, lovers and so forth have a great deal of merit behind them.  But it does seem sad to me that Vermeer’s women, so active in their occupations, are only described in such ways.

If anyone is interested, I’ve collected more such images and commentaries on Vermeer’s portrayals of women and so could develop this with another posting.