Before I start, let me note that I do NOT mean to poke fun of my students in my comments below. My students are the products of their educational backgrounds combined with their individual personalities; pointing to any weaknesses in their work is not meant to suggest that they're stupid, lazy, or bad people.
That said, there are a few things in their papers that I find fascinating.
- A fascination with viability and credibility. An author's argument is viable or it is not. It's the medico-scientific metaphor here that's so interesting to me. The argument, it will grow! and live! ...or maybe not. They're also obsessed with authors' credibility. This makes sense - but it's funny to me how small differences in language really signal big differences in meaning to me, the specialist. I talk a lot about "reliability" in class, but not about "credibility." I don't know, perhaps it's because "credibility" seems to me something associated a priori with a person or thing, like hir/its reputation? It's sort of like saying that The New York Times is a credible news source, whereas Weekly World News is not (unless perhaps you're interested in alien abductions). You know that without reading anything published in either one. Whereas for me, "reliability" is a function of the specific - is this author reliable about this topic in this source? To me, there's a difference, though I can understand how to my students (who in this class are I think universally non-history majors), there isn't. I don't consider this a problem in the way that I consider the use of "bias" a problem - but each time I read students talking about a text's "credibility" it jars on me, slightly.
- The respect for authority. I have had any number of students tell me that because an article is published in a national scholarly journal, that lends credibility to the argument. And I mean, yeah, I understand that perspective, and the point of peer review is to ensure that stuff published in journals is credible. But while being published in a national journal does suggest that your ideas are more "credible" than if you print them in crayon on construction paper and staple them to a telephone pole, what's interesting to me is that by making such a statement, students are implicitly comparing the journal article to all other kinds of discourse out there. Whereas I don't want to know that the article is credible compared to the rest of the written universe - I want to know if it's credible as a published, scholarly work. Since all published scholarly works are, well, published and scholarly, pointing out that it's published in a journal seems a little redundant. It's like if you were reviewing a Formula One racing car, and pointed out that it's faster than a Volkswagen Bus. Well, yes - but wouldn't you kind of hope that would go without saying? If you're reading reviews of Formula One racing cars, don't you really want to know whether one F1 car goes faster than another F1 car? Again, this isn't something I ding students on (not in this first-year gen ed course, certainly); it's just an interesting difference between learning how to write in a particular academic discourse and discipline from a position decidedly outside that discourse/discipline, and not knowing how to write in any other way.
For some reason, this quarter I find myself especially struck by these small differences in word choice and the larger understandings (or misunderstanding) that they reveal of history as an academic discipline. They're the kind of thing that help me think about how best to get across to my students the purpose of the writing assignments I give them, especially now that my understanding of writing is so very different from theirs.