‘Citation Obsession’? Dream On

Kurt Schick’s recent article about what he perceives as overattention to citation formats in the teaching of undergraduates drew passionate replies on every side of the issue (along with the usual number not really having much to do with the issue).

Some of Mr. Schick’s claims surprise me. At James Madison University, he says, “academic departments and even whole colleges consistently beg the library and writing center for workshops to rehabilitate their worst citation transgressors.” Really? The librarians I know will be envious.

And the university writing center, we are told, “stinks of fear as students struggle to decipher APA, MLA, AP, and Chicago (or is it Turabian?) documentation styles.” Honestly, now—is there that much fear over styles that Mr. Schick later describes as surprisingly “simple” (“typically no more difficult to follow than instructions for programming your DVR”)?

And I’m not convinced that some new obsession with citation formats exists in the first place—other than in what is likely the same minority of teachers who inflate the value of the mechanics because it’s what they do best. I have the privilege of reviewing all the book manuscripts published by the largest American university press on their way to copy editing. I’m confident that if ever there is a sudden obsession with citation formatting, I’ll be among the first to know.

But exaggerations aside, Mr. Schick’s main point is solid: that it is more important to teach students how to locate, read, and analyze sources than to cite them with every hair in place. I even agree that “the intricacies and formalities of citation,” that is, the extrameticulous styling of complicated sources in notes and bibliographies, can be reserved for work that is ready to be published.

The trouble is, how are writers on the verge of publication expected to grapple suddenly with documenting obscure and complex sources, if they are not even familiar with the most basic, indeed “simple,” formats? (Book, journal article, Wikipedia—what more does a student need?)

If you were to stir together all the advice at the foot of Mr. Schick’s article and apply it, you might come out about right: students would learn to find and use sources and credit them in a readable way. Teachers would encourage careful documentation without making it more scary and difficult than it actually is. As scholars mature and encounter more arcane documents, they would improve their skills in citing them.

Then, if we’re lucky, technology will save us. Citation software in the right hands is a small miracle. Digital Object Identifiers or whatever they spawn will soon allow scholars to click a unique and permanent link and be beamed to any source reliably. Another click and the source will expand into a note or bibliography in the format of choice.

Any day now. I’m confident. We’re practically there.


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