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Give me a reason to cite

Last week I stopped by a class for a short visit. The professor was holding a mini-workshop on writing for her upper-level students and thought it would be helpful to have me introduce myself, explain the research help I could offer, and answer any questions the students might have. She was particularly worried about some students’ inability to use resources outside of their class readings to help intellectually beef up their papers and (more surprisingly) their lack of consistent use of bibliographic citation styles in their papers. Part of the time I would spend with these students would be used to address this shortfall in their writing.

Although still a relatively newish librarian, I am not usually surprised by the things professors lament that students can’t do. Assumptions are too often made about things students should know or should have learned in high school, their first year, early college, etc. I was, however, genuinely surprised that upper-level students were still struggling with consistent citation in papers. After talking with students and listening to them air their frustrations, my surprise was, of course, gone, and replaced with something else…understanding? empathy? a sense that the way students are taught about citation is just plain ineffective?

When I asked students to call out the number one reason they’ve been told to cite sources in their research papers, they all replied in unison: “So that we don’t plagiarize.” When I asked if they had any other reasons for citing sources I got a few different variations on “giving credit to original authors” but that was about it. Learning and consistently using citation styles is a chore to these students, a needlessly complicated task with no real purpose attached to it other than to avoid an abstract wrong (you’re being academically dishonest) or a concrete consequence (you’ll end up with a failing grade).

One student asked me point blank: “Why is everything so specific? What difference does it make if I don’t put a period in the right place or capitalize the right word or use italics?” Before I could even open my mouth to answer another student swooped in with an answer that illustrated what a crappy job we’re doing of teaching citation: “You have to be specific so that when your teacher submits your paper to the site will pick up your citation and you won’t get your paper flagged for plagiarism.”

Seriously? Proper citations in papers are just a plagiarism detection software deterrent? I don’t fault the student for this response, but it does hammer home the point that the way we are teaching citation is not working.

Just this year I came across a 2008 on The Pegasus Librarian blog about teaching citation to students: Citation as a Lens for Interdisciplinarity. As usual, Iris Jastram, The Pegasus Librarian, managed to give more food for thought in one blog post than most peer-reviewed journal articles. In her post she talks about how citation not only “shows respect for your community,” but also “helps you communicate with your community, reveals what kind of evidence is most important to a community, and builds context for your argument.” Her reasoning was less punitive and more about students taking part in a scholarly conversation. Brilliant! I must admit I’d never thought about the differences in citation formats for different disciplines revealing the importance of certain aspects of a scholarly work, but it makes so much sense! Of course dates would be more prominent in bibliographic citations in psychology and the sciences since currency is such an important aspect of research.

Inspired by Iris’ post, I decided to try out this case for citation with this class (see my very rudimentary Prezi) and was pleasantly surprised by the results! The students seemed to respond to the idea of using citations to speak the language of their scholarly communities. One student even brought up a GREAT example to help illustrate this point. His freshman year he was in a class where the professor primarily had the students working with classical texts. In this class his citations included folios and verses and had to specifically state which translations were being used. The student thought the professor might be “messing with them” when asking them for all this crazy information in their citations. But when we talked about citation within the context of a scholarly conversation, it made sense that someone working with classical texts would find that kind of information important.

There is one thing I wish I’d had the time to elaborate on further in this class: The specifics of a citation format may seem tedious and unimportant, but it’s all about communication. Trying to read an essay with inconsistent citation is just as difficult trying to read an email from someone who disregards all grammatical conventions.  As someone whose mother used to send emails in ALLCAPS with little punctuation, I can attest to this fact. (Thankfully my mom has since become an expert typist, emailer, and Facebooker.)

I never went into the mechanics of citation in this class, because as far as I’m concerned students can easily look up citation examples online or take advantage of citation generators. I do think it’s important to make these sample reference lists and citation style manuals readily available for students to consult, but I think it’s even more important to give them a reason to do so.

(And yes, I do know that I didn’t actually offer a specifically formatted citation for the blog I consulted, but I’m not writing a scholarly essay. My community includes blog readers and other bloggers who benefit from in-text citations and links to other sources. I’m just speaking the language of my community!)


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