Engaging with Secondary Sources in College Essays

Learn how to engage meaningfully with secondary sources while still preserving your voice and ideas.

Engaging with Secondary Sources in College Essays

In my composition classes, I often ask students to write papers that engage with the ideas of a critic that we’ve read for the course. Oftentimes, students respond by either (a) blindly repeating the ideas and justifications of the critic or (b) attacking the critic without ever allowing their positive ideas to emerge. In both cases, the student-writer ends up conceding too much power to the critic. When writing your essay like essay writers, remember: this is your paper. You define the terms of your argument and the critic should be used as an aid to making your point—he or she shouldn’t become the point.

Taking Control of Your Thesis Statement

Consider the following two thesis statements that engage with Richard Hofstadter’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”:

  • Richard Hofstadter argues, in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that the paranoid style has been a part of American politics from its inception. The enduring presence of paranoia in our contemporary politics shows that Hofstadter is correct that the paranoid style has been part of American politics from the beginning and will always be with us.
  • The Red Scare was largely the result of the deep uncertainty bred by the Cold War. Similarly, our recent paranoid narratives in both fiction and political discourse—from 24 to “birthers”—reflects the uncertainty created by 21st-century terrorism. Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” provides a useful lens for examining the structural similarities of these two cultural moments despite their differing anxieties.

Can you hear the difference? In the first statement, the writer is saying, “Hey, I’m with that guy. He’s right.” You want to be more than a “yes man” in your paper—you want to be a thinker in your own right. In the second thesis statement, the writer starts by presenting his or her argument; importantly, the argument moves beyond Hofstadter’s original point. In this case, Hofstadter is deployed as a tool (a “lens”) for helping to make a point that is the writer’s own. Even the simple fact that Hofstadter is not mentioned until after the writer has made his or her argument helps to emphasize the writer’s voice.

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Beyond “Yes” and “No”

At the heart of the process of engaging substantively with a critic is learning how to not simply answer “yes” or “no” to the question of “Is Critic X right?” You’ll need to think about the “stakes” involved in your answer: So what if Critic X is right/wrong? How does that change things?

This section presents a simple template that I’ve developed for my students to help them think about how to respond to a critic. This template is, in many ways, a decidedly simplified version of the argumentative templates presented in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s well-known book They Say/I Say: The Moves the Matter in Academic Writing.

Here, in short, are the options you have for explaining the stakes of your argument while responding to a critic:

Yes, and . . .

In this type of response, you signal your agreement with the critic, but then you move on to add something of your own. Here’s an example, using Hofstadter again, of what this might look like:

  • Hofstadter speaks of political paranoia as a “style,” which suggests that it is more about how we believe ideas than it is about what ideas we believe. Hofstadter’s model of paranoia as a “style” can also be used to help us understand what modes of readership certain fictional paranoid narratives invite.

According to the cheap reliable essay writing service, the writer has both (a) indicated agreement with Hofstadter and (b) gone one step further by suggesting that we can apply his theory—designed for use in political science—to another field: literary study.

Yes, but . . .

In this type of response, you signal partial agreement with a critic. However, in taking exception to parts of the critic’s argument, you make the argument your own. Here’s an example:

  • Hofstadter convincingly argues that 20th-century modes of political paranoia are based around the idea that one has already been “betrayed” by a triumphant conspiracy. However, his suggestion that this sense of “betrayal” inevitably leads to “the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals” discounts the tremendous gains that many political interests have won through their use of paranoid rhetoric.

This thesis uses Hofstadter as a means for transitioning towards what the writer wants to talk about: the potential gains of paranoid rhetoric.

No, and . . .

In this final type of response, you use your critique of a critic’s position as a launchpad for your argument.

  • Hofstadter argues that paranoid rhetoric in politics is about style rather than about ideas. It is, in short, a possibility present in both liberal and conservative politics. Hofstadter’s attempt to avoid appearing partisan glosses over the essential fact that, while all ideas might have the ability to be presented in a “paranoid style,” some ideas lend themselves to it much more readily than others. The conservative privileging of uniformity and adherence to traditional social norms generate far more “paranoia-ready” ideas than political progressivism that is less threatened by difference. There are, in fact, “paranoid ideas,” and these ideas—not just their style—have very real consequences.

Now, the particular “bent” of this thesis doesn’t matter; the writer could have made a case for the “paranoia-ready” nature of liberalism instead. What makes this thesis strong is the fact that it doesn’t just “beat up” on the critic it’s engaged with; the author makes a point beyond “Hofstadter is just wrong.” Ultimately, the writer is putting forth a new and unique argument, and, just as in the “yes” examples, he or she is using Hofstadter as a tool to help promote that argument.

When you’re first asked to respond to a critic by your instructor, the prospect can be daunting. After all, chances are high that the critic you’ll be engaged with is an expert in the field and has been thinking about the issues for much longer than you have. Part of learning how to work effectively with critical sources is learning how to be brave enough to allow your voice to enter into a pre-existent academic conversation. However, after you’ve had some experience engaging with critics, you’ll find it easier and easier to locate your unique critical voice.


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