Chapter 10: Joining the Conversation: Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, and You
Reflecting on his own considerable and influential body of work, Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” When we reflect upon Newton’s output in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and physics, it rather quickly becomes apparent that Newton was himself a giant whose broad shoulders are forever crowded by thousands gazing into a distance he has made visible. As Newton’s own self-assessment reveals, he became a giant not through some solitary moment of inspiration, but through joining and furthering the ongoing conversation.
Discourse—the respectful reception of other ideas and the reflective response to them—is the lifeblood of all scholarly disciplines, all universities and colleges, and all university and college courses—such as the ones in which you are currently enrolled. Your research essay, like all research essays, is a vital contribution to this discourse. Universities and colleges exist primarily as a space to foster the ideas that the works of others inspire in you, the responses to these works that you develop, and the dialogues between you and others as you consider complementary and contradictory responses.
One of the goals of this text is to prepare you to enter this conversation and make sure your contributions are taken seriously at this level. One of the key components of a meaningful essay at this level is the proper balance of your ideas, the examination of primary evidence, and the elevation of your investigation through the proper use of scholarly sources. You are using secondary sources to elevate and complicate your reading of your primary evidence, not replace it. Use secondary sources to support your claim. Your interpretive claim is always driving your analysis. Your interpretive claim determines how secondary sources are applied to your primary evidence and what inferences you derive from that application.
In creating your research paper you are performing two essential tasks:
- Selecting a primary source for closer examination
- Selecting a particular scholarly discourse to which you would like to contribute meaningfully
You make these selections because discussion of both in the light of each other will result in an elevated understanding of the primary source and a useful extension of the scholarly discourse. You cannot join an ongoing discourse by waving vaguely and making generalizations. You can join an ongoing discourse by examining a specific example in detail and in the light of how it extends and further complicates the scholarly conversation. This is the hope we have when we select and analyze the example we have been working on in Chapters 7 and 9.