Cynthia Haller


Teaching “Source Use”: What Does It Mean?

by Cynthia Haller

York College, The City University of New York


“Source use” is a catch-all term that describes how students’ writing incorporates others’ writing, information, and ideas. To describe appropriate source use in the academy, one might (and many have) used the metaphor of conversation. It’s an odd metaphor, really, since “conversation” in the academy is often carried out using written (and, more recently, visual and digital) texts rather than spoken voice; however, the metaphor of conversation gets at an essential quality of writing in the academy, which might be described as communicative participation in a joint intellectual endeavor. In this context, appropriate “source use” is not an end in itself but a means, a way for students to position themselves as active participants in ongoing knowledge construction rather than passive receivers of existing knowledge.

In a passage often cited to describe the ongoing generation of both academic and other forms of discourse, Kenneth Burke writes of how ideas unfold within an “unending conversation”:

“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.” (Burke 110-111)


Burke’s description points toward at least four aspects of source use pertinent to freshman composition courses. Students need to be able to:

  • understand sources (and well enough to (re)present them appropriately);
  • respond to sources;
  • analyze and synthesize sources; and
  • become sources


Understanding sources

Taking part in a conversation requires understanding what is being discussed and how it is being discussed. As Burke puts it, “you listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument.” Hence, a prerequisite of source use is the ability to recapitulate the work of others, which is accomplished, in written text, through paraphrase, summary, and quotation.


“Say it in your own words” is the mantra students generally hear from elementary school through college years. Social theories of language such as Vygotsky’s and Bakhtin’s, however, cast into doubt whether there is really such a thing as one’s “own” words. We learn language by internalizing the language of others; and “our own words” are but dialogic echoes of things that have already been said. Hence, we might better change the mantra to “say it in other words,” asking students to perform an act of re-representation, which indicates a reading has been comprehended well enough that it can be translated into language that differs from yet conveys a similar meaning to the original.


Summary differs from paraphrase in that summaries usually contain some element of condensation or economy. Typical questions used to elicit summary contain some reference to an author’s “main point”: in other words, summaries identify the core idea or ideas toward which a source points in its entirety.


Quotation is the verbatim replication of the others’ words. Students need to be aware of the academy’s formatting guidelines for this replication, such as the use of quotation marks and source attribution conventions.


Responding to sources

A “pure” summary, paraphrase, or quotation simply represents a source in a way that demonstrates understanding and comprehension. In this sense, these capabilities are better considered to be prerequisites of source use rather than forms of source use. “Pure” summary, paraphrase and quotation are ultimately limiting and intellectually unsatisfying, like watching a conversation in which one is not allowed to participate. As Burke notes, after you catch the “tenor of the argument” in the parlor, you quite naturally want to “put in your oar.”

When students respond to a source or sources, they comment in some way on the source (critique it, corroborate it, evaluate it, agree with it, disagree with it, etc.) A student who is responding to a source is “speaking up” and positioning him or herself in relation to the source. In conversation, the proximate presence of the interlocuters ensures that all conversants know what has been said in the conversation. In writing, however, what an “initial” speaker has said may be absent from the situation; in this case it must be supplied by the person wishing to respond, so that other “conversants” (readers, really) are aware of what has previously been said.

Additionally, unlike the parlor conversation described by Burke, the reader to whom a piece of writing is addressed is not necessarily the actual person or persons who “said something first,” nor another person who was in the room overhearing what was said; and therefore, in order to address “what has been said” in the conversation of the academy, the responder often needs first to summarize, paraphrase, or quote it.


Analyzing and synthesizing sources

Responding to a source in many cases privileges the source material rather than the writer, in that the source being responded to sets the terms of the conversation. Students who can cite a variety of sources in the course of an argument or discussion of a topic, however, have learned to situate their own ideas and the ideas of others more deeply within the web of “unending conversation” described by Burke. By analyzing and synthesizing two or more sources, students can place the things they have read in relationship to one another, finding themes of commonality and difference. Students who are able to draw from and respond to multiple sources in a variety of ways have understood the art of fully participating in a conversation and can position themselves successfully in relation to what they read and learn.


Becoming sources

The term “source use” is somewhat problematic because it neglects an important aspect of participation in academic discourse. Burke describes the “unending conversation” as a give-and-take process: what one says (or writes) in a conversation has the capability of being taken up by others. In other words, those who use sources can ultimately become sources. “Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance.” To experience full participation in academic discourse, then, students must not only be able to use sources, but also to become sources that others can (and do) use.

Work Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.


  1. In the “conversation” of writing, summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting are not ends in themselves but means to a larger end: participation in the conversation. In light of this eventual object, is it ever appropriate to give students assignments that simply provide practice in these capabilities? Is doing so comparable to piano exercises and drills? Or do simple recapitulation assignments produce in students a truncated sense of themselves as observers of the conversation rather than participants? How can we design assignments that give students practice in these capabilities and at the same time point them toward the eventual use of sources for presenting their own ideas?
  2. When academic practitioners present a conference paper or publish an article, they move from using sources to becoming sources. What kinds of assignments might give students the experience of having their writing become a source that another writer might use?
  3. For other potential points of discussion, see “Related Modules from Teaching Composition.” It is my hope that making connections to these other modules might encourage a further spinning out of the “unending conversation” on the Teaching Composition website.


Related Modules from Teaching Composition

Teaching Composition

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