This semester I’m fortunate to be the liaison to a First Year Seminar taught by the director of our college’s Writing Center. One thing that was quite obvious upon reading the syllabus and assignments for the class is that instructors with Rhetoric and Composition Ph.D.s GET IT. And by IT I mean the supreme importance of audience in writing and research. One of the first writing assignments the students will be developing is an essay taking a position on a “debatable hero” or the arguable issues surrounding the roles and responsibilities of heroes in modern society (see American’s Hero Problem as an example). What I loved about this assignment was that students were given extremely clear audience parameters and were asked to write as though the essay would be published as a long-form feature in a newspaper or magazine. In fact, the audience of the paper was the first parameter set by the instructor.
The students were also asked to use additional research resources to back up factual claims, discuss supporting arguments or highlight counterarguments. Here’s where I think that this concept of audience can continue to be useful to students. I’ve written before about the nuances of teaching source evaluation and selection to students, and plugged some fantastic articles on this topic by Joel Burkeholder and Michelle Simmons, but I’ll reiterate the importance of audience in source selection again here. Every piece of written information was created with a particular audience in mind, and as librarians we can teach students how to tease out and determine the audience of different sources so that they can find the ones that are most useful to making their own argument to their particular audience. I think sometimes we shy away from this kind of discussion, especially with first year students, because it seems too nuanced and complicated. I just have to keep reminding myself that research is complicated, and the sooner we teach students that there is a lot more grey area when it comes to using and evaluating sources, the better. I’d hate to see a senior thesis student chucking out a particularly useful source of information because it doesn’t meet a rigid set of criteria.
I’m super-jazzed to work with this class and can’t wait to talk about research source evaluation later in the semester.