Permission to Footnote

It’s been 17 years since my realization that I was hoarding footnotes. I was using plenty of footnotes in my own academic work: I had been doing that since graduate school. But I was withholding footnotes from undergraduates.

Not that I was actively forbidding undergraduate students from inserting footnotes into their essays. But I wasn’t teaching them how to do it either, which meant that their essays included exactly zero footnotes.

I was teaching a senior seminar at the time of the realization. Due to the departmental goals for the seminar, the writing assignments for the entire course built toward a final long seminar paper. I decided to use weekly short written responses to hone two academic skills: incorporating and responding to the arguments of other scholars, and using footnotes effectively. So for these weekly one-page responses to readings, students were required to incorporate two quotes from the readings and at least one footnote.

If students had thought about footnotes at all, most of them considered footnotes a citation device — as they used to be before almost all academic style guidelines moved to parenthetical references. “So then what goes into the footnotes?” students logically asked.

Suddenly, together we were scrutinizing the footnotes of the book chapters and articles we were reading as part of class discussion. We found definitions of terms and justifications for using one term over another, historical background, explanations of more-obscure references, references to additional resources, and sometimes really interesting but somewhat tangential information. Students started to use these models for their own footnotes, and they were hooked.

Why? Because footnotes are useful. For example, sometimes as writers we discover some interesting fact or connection that we really want to share with readers. As we draft the essay or chapter (or whatever it is), we realize at some point that this fact or connection is not fully relevant to the point we are making in a particular paragraph. But we like it too much to lose it entirely. The solution: a footnote.

Undergraduate writers face exactly the same conundrum sometimes, but without access to footnotes they may see only two choices: include this fascinating bit and accept that it makes the paragraph work less well; or omit it and lose the chance to share this potentially engaging piece of knowledge. If students opt for the former, their instructor may then criticize the inclusion of tangential information, no matter how interesting it is.

Or at times a student will spend a lot of space in the main text of an argument-based essay explaining a historical event or providing background on how a piece of technology works. We as instructors may encourage the student not to get bogged down in background and foreground the argument. If the student is concerned readers may need the background or explanation, they are caught between their sense of their audience’s needs and ours. The solution: a footnote.

Why, then, aren’t we teaching first-year undergraduate writers to use footnotes? Why not add this useful device to their writing toolbox as they navigate the transition from high school to college writing?

Microsoft Word and other word-processing programs now make inserting footnotes into a text incredibly easy. And if we’re honest about it, footnotes can make any piece of writing look more academic, more sophisticated — and maybe even smarter? I think that matters. If we’re trying to help undergraduate writers enter the scholarly discourse, let’s allow their writing to look even more like academic writing.

There are other benefits too. In my experience, everything that helps student writers invest in a piece of writing (e.g., giving students choices so that they can write about questions they care about, allowing students to use footnotes so that they are engaged with how the writing looks on the page) makes for better writing. In addition, when any of us as writers sort through what information belongs in the main text and what information belongs in a footnote, as well as what terms or ideas might benefit from a footnote with more explanation, it often encourages us to organize arguments and evidence more effectively.*

I started teaching footnotes with seniors 17 years ago, and I quickly realized that students shouldn’t have had to wait three full years of college for permission to footnote. In my experience, undergraduate writers at all levels appreciate the gift of the footnote as well as detailed discussions about how to use the footnote well (including how not to overuse it). And their writing sometimes jumps in quality as a result.

For all these reasons, I have gone from hoarding to sharing footnotes. There are plenty of footnotes to go around.


* Footnotes also occasionally figure in my revision process — and I talk with students about this as well. When I’m working on a draft and realize that some information is too tangential or minor or otherwise unnecessary in the main text, but I’m too fond of the material to let it go entirely, I will first move it into a footnote. By the next round of revision, I sometimes have managed to get enough distance from the footnote that I can simply cut it; I just needed to let go of the material more slowly than slashing it in the first round. (For the record, this paragraph was in the main text for a while. Then I moved it here. Give me a few more days, and I might delete it entirely.)

[[Image from RRZEicons via Wikimedia Commons]]

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