Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

As the semester winds down, I have been leading classroom discussions with my first-year writing and education foundations students about the elements of writing we have explored over the past few months. Most, if not all, academic writing at the college level requires students to ground their claims in credible evidence.

This last point is something I allow my students to discover over the semester in first-year writing, but as the final drafts of essays loom in their not-so-distant futures with the submission of their final writing portfolio, I stress to them some guiding concepts to carry throughout their undergraduate and graduate experiences: Identify and check all claims made in writing, and then provide strong evidence those claims are valid.

Since satire is often more incisive than the drudgery of writing or grammar texts, I have shared with students two pieces, one from McSweeney’s one from The Onion: Student Essay Checklist and Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.

The former includes two brilliant—and accurate—jokes about student writing:

Misattribution of quotation: “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Broad declaration about the characteristics of all people: “Everyone loves pizza!” “No one likes Minnesota!”

And the latter, broadly, parodies that second habit above in the introduction:

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

Despite my best efforts, college students are drawn to making huge indefensible claims, and then they fail those claims in two ways—the absence of any proof (I assume they believe these claims are so obvious, no proof is needed), or the most rudimentary and inadequate efforts at providing proof (almost always providing one quote from one source).

Here I want to focus on the quote problem and how we can better foster the use of evidence in student writing.

The Quote Problem

It’s 2017, and the president of the United States has spurred a national concern for fake news, often directly stirring that debate through his reckless use of Twitter. After the president Tweeted a discredited video slurring Muslims, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered this response:

“It’s important to talk about national security and national security threats,” Sanders said. “The president sees different things to be a national security threat and he sees having strong borders as being one of the things that helps protect people in this country from some real threats we face.”

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real and that is what the president is talking about, that’s what the president is focused on, is dealing with those real threats and those are real no matter how you’re looking at it,” she said.

For those of us who teach students to write in ethical and credible ways, we witness in this exchange many of the elements parodied above: overstated claims and the careless use of evidence.

While it seems fruitless to confront this habit with our Tweeter in Chief and his staff, I believe there are some important ways we can better address the use of evidence, and the quote problem, with out students at all grade levels.

Similar to the example about the bogus video used to push a baseless ideology, students are in fact often driven to a similar strategy through what they are taught directly and by implication. Simply put, students learn to quote simply to quote.

Consider as one example, Thomas Newkirk in 2005 confronting the problems with the writing section in the SAT:

When I first read this essay, I imagined some free spirit, some rebel, flaunting the ethics of composition and inventing evidence to the point of parody. But when I shared this letter with a teacher from Texas, she assured me that students were coached to invent evidence  [bold added] if they were stuck. In my most cynical moment, I hadn’t expected that cause. And what is to stop these coached students from doing the same on the SAT writing prompt? Who would know?

This corruption of writing linked to high-stakes testing is extreme, but students also are routinely taught in more subtle ways that quoting is somehow the goal itself when writing in school. It is that dynamic I want to confront, and suggest ways around.

The problem is that students tend to write throughout K-12 schooling in English, and by middle and high school, they are mostly writing text-based (literary or historical analysis) essays that require them to quote extensively from the primary text(s) being examined.

As a result, students extrapolate narrow disciplinary conventions of English and history to generic rules for all school-based writing.

Disciplinary Writing: The Solution

I teach first-year writing as a transition from high school to the more complex and demanding expectations of the disciplines.

One technique for that transition is helping students come to see citation and style sheets (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) as discipline-based systems that serve the different and purposeful conventions of the disciplines; in other words, none of those guidelines is universally sacred, and thus, not to be memorized, but applied as appropriate.

But a more powerful technique is helping students step back from their quote problem (Just quote it!) in order to reconsider both the claims they make and how they support those claims with evidence.

First, we discuss why they are so obsessed with quoting by unpacking the conventions of text-based analysis common in the fields of English and history. In those contexts, the exact wording and the content of those passages are often equally important to the analysis in writing.

Literary analysis tends to address writer technique and message, how they interact. And when a historian claims Thomas Jefferson held certain beliefs in private, quoting extensively from his letters is not only effective but also essential to the credibility of the claims.

Concurrent with students becoming fixated on quotes, students also learn the importance of paraphrasing when many are required to write cited essays using MLA and then grounding their work primarily in published literary analysis, secondary sources.

In both student experiences with literary analysis on the Advanced Placement Literature exam and then writing research papers on literary texts, students have extremely narrow views of evidence as either quoting or paraphrasing one source at a time.

Again, these conventions of writing may often serve students well in English, history or philosophy at the college level, but the same strategies are ineffective in the hard and social sciences.

Since my field is education, I ask my students in first-year writing to use APA citation and style while also guiding them through disciplinary writing outside of the humanities because students as scholars are likely throughout college not ever again to write a literary analysis—are likely to write mostly in disciplines with conventions unlike English and history.

Throughout the semester, I take care to emphasize that any conventions we use must be appropriate to the purpose of the writing, the audience, and the discipline within which the work is framed. We eschew seeing anything as a universal rule.

Our students, then, would be better served at all grade levels in K-12 and then in college if we grounded our teaching of writing in disciplinary conventions beyond the humanities and, for English teachers, beyond literary analysis and MLA citation and style. Here, then, are some ways to do just that:

  • Foster in students a nuanced awareness of making claims in writing. As the parodies above suggest, we must purposefully help students avoid making grand and often unsupportable claims based on what they  believe is true—and seek to make claims based on studying and researching before developing their claims in writing. (Having students draft as discovery instead of requiring students provide introductions with a thesis statement before drafting is also recommended.)
  • Expand student awareness of evidence to include three levels that are driven by disciplinary conventions: quoting, paraphrasing, and synthesizing. Quotes are important if the how (craft) is as important as the what (content) of the passage, but quoting also must be credible and a valid representation of the generalization being made (in other words, students must evaluate the source quality and insure the passage is not an outlier). Paraphrasing serves as evidence in disciplines that value the use of individual secondary sources (when the what is important but the craft of passage isn’t relevant), such as published literary analysis. However, a tremendous array of disciplinary writing in the hard and social sciences prefers synthesis over quoting or paraphrasing; synthesis requires that students express ideas found in several sources that are credible and valid.*
  • Guide students through the different discipline-based expectations for incorporating sources in original writing. Direct references to authors and titles in the flow of discussion are common in literary analysis, but a synthesis of ideas from multiple peer-reviewed studies in psychology places references in parentheses or foot/endnotes, without announcing any author names or titles of those published studies.*

Teachers of writing, then, will serve our students better if we pull back from literary analysis, MLA, and demanding students quote in order to foster in them a more sophisticated sense of making claims and providing evidence within the conventions appropriate to the topic and discipline.

Especially high school English teachers must acknowledge that the majority of our students who attend college will never write another literary analysis and will likely use a citation style other than MLA.

Grounding writing instruction in disciplinary conventions helps our students avoid the quote problem, and  if we are effective, become better equipped to make credible claims and over valid evidence in ways that our political leaders seem unable to accomplish.

* In both cases, two sections from a scholarly essay using APA serve as good examples of synthesis versus paraphrasing:

For this volume on comic books, then, interrogating the medium in the context of race is extremely complex because comic books are a significant subset of popular culture (increasingly so with the rise of superhero films based on comic books throughout the late twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries), which necessarily both reflects and perpetuates all aspects of the culture it serves—including bigotries such as sexism, racism, classism, jingoism, and homophobia (McWilliams, 2009; Rhoades, 2008a, 2008b; Singer, 2002; Thomas, 2010; Wright, 2001).


From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Resources for Integrating Evidence in Writing

(44) Integrate Source Support Smoothly

Using Source Materials Effectively

Purdue OWL: Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing