Throwing the Citation Handbook Away

When I was an undergraduate, I remember struggling with MLA documentation. As a graduate student, I understood it better, though I thought it was tedious and a little overkill. When I became a writing instructor, I tried to teach students how to cite their sources according to MLA format because my department expected it of me. After my first semester of failing to teach students (adequately, at least) how to cite sources in the text and on a Works Cited page and all that stuff, I began deconstructing source documentation for myself and for the benefit of my students.

This isn’t new information, but I’ll rehash it here anyway. The purpose of documenting sources boils down to three main things: to give a reader a way to find more information, to give the writer credibility, and to avoid plagiarism. (There’s also the ethical reason for documentation — to give credit to the creator — but I believe that falls naturally under the umbrella of these three things.)

For years now, I’ve tried to get students to see these while still sticking to a certain format for consistency’s sake. Every semester, I still get question after question about the placement of colons or periods on a Works Cited page. “Is this right?” they say and point to comma. “It doesn’t matter” is what I want to say, but instead I try to be more helpful by reminding them of the three purposes for documenting sources, and then we look it up together or something like that. Part of students’ obsession with these types of details comes from a K-12 public school, Standards of Learning based education that has them learning what will be on the test instead of thinking for themselves. But I digress.

Frankly, I’m tired of these questions and this unnecessary worry. In the fall, I think I’m going to try something different. About a year ago, Kurt Schick published a piece in The Chronicle called “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!” The piece encourages writing instructors to focus less on documentation details and more on other ventures, like evaluating sources and organizing thoughts. Since its publication, I’ve kept coming back to Schick’s piece and also the subsequent responses. So, in the fall, I’m going to throw my MLA handbook out the window. Students will have to use sources because credible sources will assist their logos, pathos, and ethos. They will need to make sure it’s clear what, in a paper, is theirs and what comes from a source, and they will need to include enough publication information from the sources so readers can explore issues further if readers so choose.

What I learned in school — and what I still see from students — was a top-down approach to documentation (learn how to document sources … by the way, here’s why). I’m going to try the opposite without all the clutter of format.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user FeatheredTar.]

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