The Barker Underground

Harvard Writers at Work Presents…


Top Five Reasons to Come to the Writing Center

by Colin Diersing

1. We can help you talk through a bunch of scattered thoughts and turn them into a thesis.

2. You’ll be paired with a trained writing center tutor who knows how to help you understand your professor or TF’s expectations.

3. We’ll help make your argument clear early in your paper.

4. The writing center can offer moral support.

5. A writing center appointment can be a great incentive to stop procrastinating and actually write a draft of your paper.

Comparing Texts: More Than Frenemies

by Maia Silber

When comparing two sources, it’s easy to fall into what I like to call the “friends, enemies, and frenemies” trap. If the two sources present similar perspectives, our first instinct might be to label them “friends”—Source X and Source Y both argue that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers. Alternatively, if the sources clearly contain opposing viewpoints, we cast them as “enemies”—Source X argues that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers, but Source Y argues that it should not.

It might seem like the way to add complexity to such theses would be to define the sources as “frenemies”– Source X and Source Y both argue that standardized tests should be used to evaluate high school teachers, but only Source X argues that student reports should also be used to evaluate high school teachers. The problem with the “frenemies” approach is not that it’s inaccurate—any two writers, like any two people, will agree on some points and disagree on others—but that it does not account for why or how the authors agree and disagree.

A good comparison, someone once told me, finds the like in the unlike and the unlike in the like. To present a more complex account of how two sources relate to one another, it’s helpful to remember that writers can be more than frenemies—they might, for instance, relate to each other in the following ways:

THE SPRINTER AND THE JOGGER: The sprinter and the jogger each have the same goal—the finish line—but they’re going to get there in different ways. Source X and Source Y might be making the same argument—each claims that standardized testing should not be used to evaluate high school teachers—but for different reasons. Source X might argue that standardized testing should not be used to evaluate high school teachers because standardized tests don’t reliably predict students’ academic success. Source Y might claim that standardized tests do a great job of predicting students’ academic success, but still argue that standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because students with high IQs will score well regardless of time spent in class.

TWO COOKS IN THE KITCHEN: Have you ever watched one of those TV cooking challenges, where both chefs get the same ingredients to create their dishes? They each start out with similar combinations of milk, eggs, and flour, but one bakes a pound cake and the other a puff pastry. Source X and Source Y might both be using the same tool—the value of meritocracy, say—and come to entirely different conclusions. Source X argues that standardized test scores provide the most objective way to measure teachers’ performance, but Source Y argues that in-class evaluations provide a larger picture of teachers’ merit.

THE THEORETICIAN AND THE PRACTITIONER: When comparing a secondary source to a primary source, you can imagine discovering a cure in the lab and then testing it on real patients. Does the cure work? What real-life variables not present in the lab might affect it? Did the lab report anticipate its success rate, and if not, why? If Secondary Source X argues that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers, and Primary Source Y charts students’ standardized test scores against teachers’ in-class evaluations at public and private high schools, what might looking at Source X and Source Y together tell us about the real-life situations where standardized test scores accurately do or don’t accurately measure teachers’ performance?

THE DOCTOR AND THE PATIENT: A medical analogy might also be fitting to describe another way that primary and secondary sources interact. Say that a patient comes to a doctor’s office complaining of a problem—he’s been exercising every day and can’t lose weight. The doctor asks him about his eating habits, and finds that he’s been consuming a high-calorie diet. Primary Source X (the patient) finds that standardized test scores don’t reflect teachers’ performance ratings at low-income schools. If Secondary Source Y (the doctor) suggests that standardized test scores are affected by school resources and funding, how might this account for the data in Primary Source X?

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Writing in Different Disciplines

Writing in Different Disciplines

Are you wondering how you the papers you write in one course differ from those you write in another course? Check out our series of Brief Guides to Writing in the Disciplines to learn about the conventions and expectations in different disciplines.

Need some help with your research paper?

Need some help with your research paper?

What am I supposed to do with all these sources?

by Sophia Angelis

It’s research paper season again. We see a lot of students at the Writing Center at this time of year who have questions about how to make sources work in their research papers. The scenario often looks like this:

You’ve picked your topic for your research paper and you’ve collected all your sources. Maybe you have a novel or two, a scholarly article, a book of history, a biography of an author. Now you have to put your paper together, and you’re wondering what you’re supposed to do with all of those sources.

My Expos preceptor gave me some excellent advice that I still remember whenever I write a research paper. She said that writing a research paper is like joining a conversation. Think of your sources as everyone else who is already engaged in the conversation (i.e., Critic X, Historian Y, Statistician Z). Your job, as the person who is now joining this conversation, is to say something that hasn’t been said. Your job is to add to the conversation.

So how do you do that?

Here are five ways you can join the conversation:

Agree: You can agree with what one of your sources has already said. Agreeing, though, is a little boring. Agreeing with all your sources is the equivalent of standing next to someone, nodding while they talk, and interjecting a periodic, “Yeah,” or, “That’s so exactly what I think.” You’ve met people like that. They’re boring. So try to engage with your source in a more interesting way.

Extend: Your second option is to extend an argument that someone has already made.  Perhaps you’re standing next to someone who says, “Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, reveals that Victorian society does not punish men for failing to behave according to its moral standards.” You can jump in and say something like, “You’re right! In fact, I can add to your argument by revealing that while women are judged according to whether they are moral, men are judged according to whether they are charming.”

Complicate: Your third option is to complicate someone else’s argument. That usually involves agreeing with someone’s argument to a point, and then amending it. For instance, the guy on your right says, “The American Revolution drew heavily on French Enlightenment thinking.” You say, “Though the American Revolution did draw on French Enlightenment thinking, my examination of Thomas Jefferson’s letters shows that he amplified Enlightenment philosophies of state, while eliminating Enlightenment philosophies of religion.”

Disagree: This one’s pretty straightforward. Some nice woman says, “I think that George Eliot creates sympathetic Jewish characters in her novel, Daniel Deronda, in order to express her support for the Zionist movement,” and you jump in and say, “I disagree. I believe that though Eliot attempted to support Zionism, her portrayal of Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda is ultimately patronizing and exoticizing.”

Context: The fifth way to use sources is likely the way with which you are most familiar: providing context. This means using other sources in order to situate your primary sources against some larger background. For instance, you might introduce your argument by saying, “In 2001, President Bush introduced an education reform bill that he called, ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Among other things, the legislation required that all public schools take standardized tests in order to chart student achievement and progress. According to these tests, student performance in math has been declining steadily over the past decade. However, as my case study of the Boston area public high schools will show, this decline has been distributed unequally among races.”

Learn from a senior: Talk to a librarian!

by Max Schulman

An excellent staff of research librarians offers just one of the many opportunities Harvard students don’t take full advantage of. In my four years here I met with a librarian only once, to help me find sources for my thesis research. That forty-minute meeting saved me countless hours of muddling through online portals and search interfaces. I would have done myself an even bigger favor by making use of this excellent resource early and often in my Harvard career. A Harvard librarian can give you advice on how to find and evaluate sources for your topic, how to organize your citations, and whom to ask if you need more guidance. Each department has its own library liaison or research contact who can give you advice specific to your discipline, by email or in person.

Harvard’s library collections and online resources present unparalleled research prospects for nearly any paper topic, but it’s not always clear how best to access this wealth of information. HOLLIS, JSTOR, ProQuest—all this can be confusing if you’re not an expert. Harvard librarians are, and they can answer your questions and point you in the right direction. Whether you’re starting research for a senior thesis or an Expos paper, save yourself some time and trouble. Talk to a librarian.