Primary and Secondary Sources: It’s Trickier than Your Students Think

Reposted from my blog, and with a tip of the hat to KB for the idea.

 

Definitions and Explanations

primary source is an original object or document from a specific time or event under study. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, interviews, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, survey data, observations, diaries, paintings, works of literature, ancient pieces of pottery unearthed in Iraq, and much more . In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies — research where an experiment was done or a direct observation was made.

secondary source is anything that’s written about a primary source, such as  an essay about a novel, a  newspaper article about AIDS research, a history textbook, a movie review, or subsequent thoughts on The Gettysburg Address.

 

Can a single source ever be both?

Not really, but it can be confusing.  For instance, if I am writing a paper about global warming, a newspaper article that discusses new research on the topic issue is a secondary source.  But if I am writing a paper about the media’s coverage of global warming, then the newspaper article is a primary source.  What you are studying changes your relationship to the material. To further muddy the water, a secondary source may very well INCLUDE primary source materials in the form of pictures, statistics, or quotes, and that MIGHT work for your teacher, but it might not.  Likewise, to ensure accuracy, it is a good practice to track down the primary source if you can just to verify it.

 

Examples

This chart, created by librarians at the Indiana University Bloomington, illustrates kinds of primary and secondary sources by discipline:

 

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Archeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of Neolithic artifacts
Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionists
History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalism interview biography of publisher Randolph Hearst
Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literature novel literary criticism on Desolation Angels
Music score of an opera biography of the composer Mozart
Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

 

The librarians at Princeton also offer a good explanation of this potentially tricky concept.

 

When to Use Each

I think sometimes students view primary sources as “the real” sources, the ones that tell the truth and have not been adulterated by distance, time, or misrepresentation.  And there is some truth to that.  I often get e-mail forwards that say things like, “A new study by Harvard proves _________.”  The author of the email will often include a link to the study, and if you take the time to click on it and read it, you will often find that the original author of the forwarded email is either misunderstanding of misrepresenting what the ACTUAL study reveals.  So obviously in that case, you want the primary source. But finding the primary source has in some ways become trickier in the age of the internet, now that people can video something, heavily edit it, post it online (or on the news), and build a following and a narrative before the truth ever comes out. Consider this and this.  In the cases of Ed Schultz’s misrepresentation of George W. Bush and James O’Keefe’s misrepresentation of ACORN, what were taken as the primary sources were actually secondary sources–edited versions of the raw footage, so caveat emptor!

But keep in mind that there are other times when a secondary source is preferable.  Primary sources are always products of their times, and thus, a political speech from 1960 will not reflect an understanding of the present world, just as the Declaration of Independence won’t tell you who won the American Revolution, and an original research study about living with AIDS written in 1999 won’t explain the current best practices. Also, a distanced summary of a field that reflects all of its ups and downs and points and counterpoints is likely to give you a better understanding of the field than reading a single experiment or research paper. For instance, if you read Andrew Wakefield’s Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, published in Lancet, 1998 (a primary source), you might find it persuasive in its indication that vaccines are linked to autism. However, reading a broader overview of the field, for instance a secondary source such as Good investigative reporting may finally debunk the myth that vaccines cause autism, published in Harvard Health Publications would reveal that the study was ultimately retracted by Lancet in 2010 because the research methods were flawed.

 

Being informed means more than finding the exact article that backs up your thesis; it means understanding how all the articles fit together within the broader structure and knowledge of the discipline. Information literacy demands attention to both primary and secondary sources as well as the critical thinking necessary to evaluate each for timeliness, credibility, and bias.

Singling Out Jenny McCarthy: What Autism, CPS, and Ethos Have in Common

A few weeks back, I was aimlessly reading FB post updates, and I noticed Jenny McCarthy (an actress and comedian) was being skewered, once again, in the media and on Twitter, for her views on vaccinations and immunizations and the autism-vaccination hypothesis. You may recall, years ago, McCarthy using her son as evidence for the validation of this hypothesis. People listened to Jenny McCarthy, which was odd to me.

I remember watching the MTV show, Singled Out. The Nerdist himself, Chris Hardwick, (and current host of Talking Dead) and McCarthy co-hosted the show. It was a dating game, and while I wasn’t interested in dating at the time, I was interested in anything MTV. I remember McCarthy and Hardwick being funny, and in retrospect, I probably didn’t really understand the humor on the show, but they were funny: they were comedians.

Around the same time, a British physician, Andrew Wakefield et al. (1998), misanalyzed data from an Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) study and misreported findings that included a supposed link of MMR vaccines to autism. His study was reported in The Lancet, and eventually, after severe outcry from the medical community because of a lack of rigor in the analysis among other problems, the article was retracted. The message was clear: Wakefield (and the other authors) were out of line and off the mark: there was no link between MMR and autism. (For a more thorough account, read the Harvard Health article.)

The difference, I think, between McCarthy’s anecdotes and Wakefield’s bad science (and that’s an understatement) is that the audience in Wakefield’s case new better: they knew that in order to continue to build knowledge, they would need to be critical, and they were. So, what is it with celebrities? McCarthy is a comedian and actress, but why was she given so much press, and why did so many people believe her anecdotes? What made McCarthy a better source of information than Wakefield?

I don’t think the answer is simple, but I do think it is ingrained in the culture where we reside here in the U.S. We don’t mind getting advice from celebrities, on the whole, and I think we encounter this each and every day in the classroom. For some reason, our society and our culture of celebrity have merged and confused popularity and fame with ethos (credibility) and value. In fact, in class, when we explicitly discuss logic and reasoning, I show a clip of an interview Matt Lauer conducted with Tom Cruise (2007).

In the video, Cruise discusses Ritalin and post-partum depression with the enthusiasm and the expertise of a professional. But, he’s not an expert; he’s an actor. I usually remark that if Cruise wants to discuss what it’s like to dance around in his underwear while filming Risky Business or being Suri’s dad, he’s more than qualified to do so–he has that expertise and ethos; however, if I want to know about post-partum depression, I’m probably going to talk to an expert (and definitely not Tom Cruise). Discussing an appeal to a false authority (which is what I try to exemplify by showing the clip), is a good reminder for me to beware of where I get my information.

Recently, Adriana Tapanes-Inojosa shared a Sun-Times letter to the editor, “Under Emanuel, principals have no voice.” I read the article, and as an educated reader, I know I intrinsically look for clues to evaluate the credibility (and ethos) of the author. The author is a principal who provides his credentials, including his experience as a teacher and his experience as a principal. While I can’t speak to the experience of being an educator or principal in the CPS system, I can speak to the issue of appealing to false authorities, like Jenny McCarthy and Tom Cruise.

And Troy LaRaviere is an authority. He has the experience, which isn’t anecdotal–he is a professional educator. I encourage you to consider the underlying issues LaRaviere is pointing out, implicitly, in the article: a lack of appreciation and value for those who are in the classroom and a de-valuing or undervaluing of experience and expertise. I am not suggesting to merely accept credentials at face value (remember Wakefield?).

I am strongly suggesting maintaining a critical and thoughtful framework. And I am strongly suggesting valuing the expertise and experiences of educators after they successfully navigate your critical and thoughtful framework.

(NB: The most succinct response to an attempt to de-value or undervalue expertise was on Fox News. You can see it here.)

 

 

 

New Policy?

Anybody have any idea what this email (sent on Monday) is about?

A message from HAROLD WASHINGTON COLLEGE

STARTING APRIL 23RD PERSONS WITHOUT VALID SCHOOL Identification MUST SURRENDER A VALID STATE OR PHOTO IDENTIFICATION TO LOBBY SECURITY

I know we’re all guessing that it has something to do with the incident at Olive Harvey (anyone know anything more about that, by the way?), but this seems like EXACTLY the kind of policy that some of us were concerned about being put in place when those stupid gates went up in the first place…a policy that will keep students out of their classes while not solving any problem–actual or potential. At least none that I can think of. Can anyone enlighten me?

And then what is the meaning of the one we got last night?

A message from HAROLD WASHINGTON COLLEGE

STARTING APRIL 23RD PERSONNEL WITHOUT VALID SCHOOL IDENTIFICATION MUST SURRENDER A VALID STATE OR PHOTO IDENTIFICATION TO LOBBY SECURITY

Is that a revision, limiting this policy to apply only to personnel? Or is it a clarification that the policy extends ALSO to personnel?

What the hell?

UPDATE: From your email:

In response to questions raised on the Harold Lounge, Harold Washington College’s Safety and Security team wanted to share information behind the change in procedure…This new policy is in direct response to feedback received from students who have reported unauthorized people entering the College. Discussions with students highlighted their concern with the policy for guests entering the building. This update is to ensure we know who is in the building and when they leave, helping to create a safe and secure campus.
I wish I could say that this kind offer clarified things for me, but it seems to raise more questions–who talked to these students? How many were there? Was SGA involved? Shouldn’t they be? How about faculty council? The Office of Instruction? And what sense is there that these students (and their concerns) are representative of the students (and admins, faculty, staff, and visitors) affected by this policy? Clearly they were taken to be, but on what basis and is it true?
(sigh)
And, of course, there is the remaining question of whether this new policy will really allow security to know who is in the building and when they leave (and, if so, whether that will do anything to create “a safe and secure campus”). The assumptions driving both of these claims are questionable, at least, I would say. Unsurprising, though.

Monday Music

Welcome back to Week 14. Be sure to “verify outside employment before the end of the day Friday. You can do so using the PeopleSoft Self Service link on the left. Returning from a big break is always a drag, but it’s better than not having one!

h/t to Amelia for this suggestion a while back.

HW Reviews on Yelp: Faculty Care or Some Light Spring Break Reading

While I’m putting some finishing touches on an Excel spreadsheet template to calculate interrater reliability for our writing placement test scorers at HWC, I decided to tool around on the Internet a little bit and find out what CCC and HWC tell students before they take the writing placement test. Before I go into what I found, let me tell you about that part of my sabbatical project.

Part of my sabbatical project is to create a guide and template for calculating interrater reliability for HWC’s writing placement test. And, I am almost finished; I submitted a proposal, yesterday, for DWFD in August, and if accepted, I hope to present and show how each campus can very easily calculate (and triangulate the three embedded tests and scores in the spreadsheet template) for their campus’s interrater reliability. Interrater reliability shows that we place students consistently in writing courses, and it sets the groundwork for longitudinal studies that can track students through their writing courses.

So, now that you’re all caught up, let me tell you what I found when I Google’d “hwc writing placement.” I found Yelp reviews of HWC. I didn’t know our college was reviewed on on Yelp, and it has been reviewed 30 times and not anonymously. There are first names and last initials with links to profiles. And our students have had a lot to say. If I were to analyze the results, which I did cursorily, I think one consistent theme throughout all the reviews is that the faculty are fantastic. And, I know spring break starts today and tomorrow for some and Saturday for others.

Here are some quotes that demonstrate how well faculty are doing (and there are some that show, well, that we aren’t), So as an extra boost for the remainder of the spring semester, please read:

I took several advanced math classes there in prep for grad. school and all three teachers I had were pretty good. They genuinely cared about teaching.

Overall the teachers do care a lot and want to help you transfer to a four year university or ear your Associates. The classes are NOT easy and are pretty challenging.

Teachers are excellent. Have had little to no issues in that area.

The instructors here are pretty good though. I’ve been to a big university where it feels like you’re not connected with the instructor at all, but  at harold washington [sic] all my profs at least make an attempt to learn everyone’s name and that means something.

The English and Math teachers I have had so far were smart and up to date on the topics in their area. I have learned a ton at Harold Washington from their teachers.

One of my professors is possibly one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I didn’t expect that at a community college, but I am pleasantly surprised. Another one of my professors also teaches at a university, so I’m basically getting that exact same education for a fraction of the price. I only planned on going to HWC for one semester, but now I am thinking of staying another semester because I am so impressed by my professors.

There are thirty reviews as of today (04.10.14), and some of the reviews are as old as 2006. It’s interesting that some of the complaints about HWC have and haven’t changed. It would be an fascinating study to categorize the reviews and correlate those findings with various CCC/HW initiatives and when those initiatives went into effect. What I find most interesting about these Yelp reviews is that they are not anonymous; students put their names with their reviews, which, I think, may suggest that they should be weighted higher than reviews on websites like RateMyProfessor dot com (but maybe not as interesting as DrawMyProfessor), which are anonymously submitted.

Nonetheless, if while over spring break, you’re in the need for some light reading after eating at the new Big Cheese Poutinerie in Wrigleyville, you might find the Yelp reviews of HWC and the poutinerie worthwhile. I was pleased as a member of the faculty to confirm what I know about my colleagues already via these Yelp reviews.