Students tend to like rules that are absolute, especially in English classes (where, I admit, a hard-and-fast rule can be a big relief after all the “it depends” answers I give). That’s why they get so upset when I tell them that beginning a sentence with “But” is okay—or beginning a sentence with “Because,” which they consider even more taboo than “But” or “And.” Those nonce rules from high school are the bedrock of their writerly confidence, and here I go chipping away at them.
Right now in first-year comp my students are reviewing, or learning, research protocols, including such issues as credibility of source and plagiarism. They are happiest when being introduced to the university library’s databases (especially the ones they can use from their dorm rooms), all providing easy search and access for scholarly sources, because they don’t really have to worry on that credibility issue. But, at the other end of the spectrum (or, one of my Horrors, “on the other hand of the spectrum”), they are dismayed to hear that Wikipedia is not considered a definitive or appropriate source for college work, and nearly as dismayed that information found on the Internet should be vetted for academic credibility, not merely copied down and blithely used. This “hand” of the spectrum most easily translates to “ALL UNTRUSTWORTHY,” and I suppose that assumption serves them better than a naïve trust in everything they read.
The quotation that begins this entry expresses this kind of confident overall understanding. But the quotation as a whole expresses the dilemma that faces anyone trying to get information on a new writer, or a new anything: scholarly publication takes time, and achieving the level of importance that attracts scholarly attention also takes time. Someone trying to research something new, then, may have to choose between Internet information and no information. We try to equip them with criteria and procedures that would enable them to navigate the Web and assess the value of what they find; but the “all untrustworthy” is so much easier to stand firm on.
Undaunted, my student found a way to forge ahead:
“Most information on this poet came from Internet sources, which are inherently untrustworthy, but for the sake of this paper I will use under the pretense that they are accurate.”
Did he mean “pretense” or “pretext”? Does that matter? What he chooses to tell his reader is that he knows his information is untrustworthy but is pretending that it is sound. Rather than assess for himself the credibility of what he finds, using legitimate criteria for assessment, he will simply pretend, to himself and to us, that it’s all good.
… for the sake of this paper. Meaning what?—that it works with my very interesting thesis, or that the deadline for the paper is fast approaching and this is all I’ve got?
What’s adorable here, then, is not what he says, but that he says it. “Let me give you the fruits of my research,” he tells his reader; “I don’t think we should believe any of it, but let’s pretend to, for the sake of my finishing my assignment.”