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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In response to the question of why we use secondary sources, one of the most overheard statements in my seminars has to be the perennial student response: "to back up your argument". Last week, I formulated a concise way of thinking about this that dispels this argument and also makes it clear where the space for originality lies. I wanted to share this as I think the students really got it. Here's how I explained it:

There are two ways of using secondary material, or critical sources:

1.) as a shortcut, to save yourself words.
2.) as a springboard, off which your ideas can bounce.

To explain:

The first is where the student agrees with the critic. There is no point in outlining an argument that someone else has already made and then backing your argument up by deploying the quotation. Instead, use a formulation such as: "Martin Eve has argued that we can read literature at the intersection of several philosophical perspectives. When seen under this framework, etc. etc."

The second is where the student disagrees and is carving an area of originality for their claim. "Martin Eve has argued that Pynchon's source for the Peter Pinguid society can be found in F.A. Golder's 'The Russian Fleet and the Civil War.' The American Historical Review 20.4 (1915): 801-812. However, I have found fresh evidence to suggest that etc. etc."

This may seem obvious, but I assure you it is not so to students.

In this way, students don't feel paralysed within a critical framework to which they must constantly refer; they make space for their own novelty. Likewise, they don't repeat a critic and then "back it up", but rather use the reference to condense their own (often tight) word budget.

Featured image by uinnsbruck under a CC-BY-NC license.