Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Citation Obsession

I read an article a few days ago that argued that teachers should not emphasize any particular citation style - or at least not really try to get their students to do anything other than use any citation style, as long as the students referred back to the source, in some capacity. The idea has a lot of support, and up to a point, I can support this idea, too. Citation styles are constantly being revised, so it can be difficult to stay current; additionally, there are multiple citation styles, each of which is used in different industries (MLA is used in English, for example; APA is used in psychology). And citation is largely arbitrary; it's understandable why an author and page number or year of article publication might be included in the in-text citation, but why particular punctuation is used, the spacing used in a particular citation, etc., is, as far as I can tell, completely arbirtrary. And I freely tell my students this, too.

But I also work in an open-admissions university that was, until not long ago, a community college, then a college that emphasized vocational-technical programs, and now offers a more liberal arts-based curriculum, as well as a handful of graduate degrees. I get students who do well school, show up to class, and turn in (generally well done) work. I also get students whose absences are so numerous that they won't be passing the class this semester. (I have a limit of four absences before students fail; if students accrue one or two more but pull themselves together or have extenuating circumstances, I overlook the additional absences, but that's hard to do for students whose absences are in the double digits.) I wonder if teachers in highly ranked, and/or small liberal arts schools have these issues to the level that some of us do. 

Some students here are academically mature; many, though, or not. They attempt to submit late work, which I do not accept (ditto with e-mailed work, unless it's an extreme last resort). Details are not paid attention to, no matter how many times we have class discussions about them. (Four to six pages means four to six pages, not two to three pages.) I want my students to become close readers, paying attention to detail, and teaching them the MLA citation format is one of the ways I know how to do that. Yes, I can also teach them how to read texts closely, and I try to do that also. I now have experience teaching at two different colleges that accept students who are often non-traditional, who work full-time, have families,and may or may not have attempted college multiple times before. It's a different type of student who comes here as opposed to Swarthmore or even a state university like the University of Utah. (Not necessarily less intelligent students, but students who have potentially different backgrounds and experiences.)

The comments posted in response "Citation Obsession?" run the gamut; many support the idea that teachers should not put too much emphasis on citation, while others disagree. Still others opine, for example, that only poor teachers focus only on mechanical issues becaus that's what they can teach best. I do agree that at least part of the time, being able to understand those mechanics leads to a better understanding of them. I would also agree that it is not obsessive to try to instill good communication skills to students, whatever form that may take.

I don't think emphasizing a citation style needs to be done at the expense of teaching development of ideas, but part of first year writing courses is teaching students a wide range of communication and rhetoric styles, which includes citation styles. Why should this be ignored in FYC classes and only stressed in upper division or graduate level courses?

I don't nitpick citations most of the time, especially when they're just learning - and I teach them gradually, not expecting them to have the method completely correct the first time around. We do at least two drafts for each paper. (The first draft I read and provide feedback; the second draft we do peer review; however, I also make it abundantly clear that I am always available for help via e-mail, and I encourage visits to the Writing Center as well.) However, I recently had the experience in which I totally nitpicked, and that will the subject of a forthcoming blog post.

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