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Why Teach Citation?

April 9, 2015
Stairway to Heathens Photo by Nicolas Raymond

A couple months ago, I encountered Michael Stephens’ Sept. 2014 opinion piece “Citation Fixation” while working reference at HACC Libraries, Lancaster campus. At the time, I embraced his assertion (supported by other scholars and practitioners) that higher education instructors’ focus should be on the content of students’ writing, not on whether or not they can create a technically correct works cited page. It felt right to stand on this pedagogical pedestal.

Then one day last week, at course instructors’ requests, I taught three, practically back-to-back, instruction sessions on MLA style and citation. I have also handled numerous reference questions dealing with both MLA and APA citation. In these circumstances, I feel compelled to be technically/mechanically accurate, which is simultaneously empowering (“Yes, I know this!”) and disheartening (“Am I getting too hung up on this?”). It is an ongoing internal struggle.

As a librarian who doesn’t teach credit-bearing information literacy courses, I appreciate the instances in which course instructors look to me as an expert in using information and welcome me to meet with their classes. Since I have been invited, I feel obliged to do what course instructors ask me to do. A few of my librarian colleagues have heard me complain (not too much, I hope) about spending instructional time on walking students step-by-step through setting up their papers in MLA format, including margins, font style and size, header, etc. I enjoy instruction and will take on most teaching situations, especially when they present opportunities to address weaknesses instructors see in the work their students submit; but these mechanized style instruction sessions are the ones I approach with trepidation.

When I ask students “why” questions during a class, I try to push them past the “because we have to” response, so I will press myself to go beyond saying I teach citation “because I have to” and consider the possible greater impact of doing so. First, because I am a community college librarian, I work with a potentially large percentage of first-generation college students and other students who come from various educational backgrounds. Many of these students have had limited, or perhaps no exposure to academic writing. To them, following a specific document format and citation style is like learning a foreign language or code cyphering. Giving them models to look at and then saying, “Go to it,” isn’t always effective. In addition to talking with them about why writers cite their sources, I also try to address the value of doing this correctly.

During MLA and APA instruction sessions, I have begun telling students that I am giving them an entry point into the scholarly conversations about their topic going on in the discipline. To participate in the discourse requires meeting some basic formatting and work-attributing standards. I argue that meeting the basic technical standards gives them (the students) a better chance of having their ideas seen/read/heard. It is analogous to the reason why, when applying for jobs, it is important to have a resume that applies a consistent format and correct spelling. We have all heard the warning that a sloppy resume will be discarded by a potential employer even if the applicant’s experience fits the position opening. A scholar is less likely to pay close attention to the content of a carelessly prepared paper.

In the community college setting, I think librarians (and course instructors) feel significant pressure to prepare our students for what will be expected of them if they transfer to a four-year school. In my current position on two relatively small campuses, I see advantage in being able to scaffold  skill-based instruction to a greater degree  than I have been afforded in other environments. While tedious at times, I try to keep my mind on the end goals of students’ fuller participation and success in their future educational and professional endeavors. When students are able to demonstrate that they can successfully incorporate in-text citations and generate a correctly-formatted works cited page plus articulate the relationship between the two citation elements, that feels like an accomplishment. I make an effort to praise students who achieve this. Yes, problem solving, quantitative literacy, and creativity are all worthy learning goals, and I don’t intend to discount them; however there are students for whom there are many small steps involved in ascending to learning outcomes in these areas. I believe that some of the more mechanical skills, like citation, do play a role in putting them on the path to success.

Image credit: “Stairway to Heathens” by Nicolas Raymond, July 26, 2011 on Flickr. CC License

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2015 3:30 pm

    This was a timely article for me, having just jumped back into general instruction after years away. Questions about proper citation are frequent at our reference desk, and also during instruction sessions (when I am hoping for deep questions about how to conduct research…). To me, it’s akin to being asked “Will this be on the quiz???” But you’re right – it’s an important skill – the resume analogy made a lot of sense to me. On the other hand, I went and read Stephens’ post, and I agree with some of what he has said as well. As I’ve started reviewing various citation manuals, I find that I disagree with a lot of their structures in terms of usefulness. I suppose that the reason MLA has users type “Web” with no URL is to get around all the issues of link resolvers, proxies, etc. with scholarly journals. But why do that with actual websites? Why doesn’t MLA require a URL with a website citation anymore? (To my thinking, even if that URL dies, there is always the option of going to the Internet Archive, perhaps, and often, the title and other information about a website is not necessarily enough to find it…). Anyway, I guess my point is that I agree with the reasoning behind learning how to do things correctly, but I also have a hard time teaching people to do things that I don’t necessarily agree with!

    • April 27, 2015 5:19 pm

      Hi, Jennie. I can’t say that I’ve read both the MLA and APA Style Manuals word-for-word, but I have probably gotten closer to doing so with APA; and I do think there are ambiguities for how to do some types of citations (basic websites, for example). Other resources to which we refer students here offer more specific guidelines in a few cases, which implies an additional level of interpretation being applied, and I find this interesting. But yes, it is a struggle to maintain a balance–trying to teach students how to cite correctly while not always agreeing on what that is and/or the importance of students having it 100% correct.

  2. Hilary Westgate permalink
    April 27, 2015 4:58 pm

    Hi Kimberly:
    I loved your take on this and shared it with my colleagues both in the library and in our Writing Center/writing program. I think we can get a little discouraged when we seem to spend much more time with technical citation questions (at certain points in the year) than we spend with research questions, but I absolutely love your point about citation empowering students to enter the scholarly conversation. We recently had a visiting lecturer on campus who spoke about academic integrity and plagiarism, and I was able to relate the ideas in your post in our discussions with him. I think this also connects really well to the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy; citation is a foundational piece of working with students on the frame/concept of Scholarship Is a Conversation (and some of the other frames as well!). Thank you for sharing your insight!!

    • April 27, 2015 5:21 pm

      Hi, Hilary.
      I’m so glad you found a venue for talking about what I had written. I struggled with how to express both the challenge and opportunity that teaching citation can be. Thanks for letting me know the post resonated with you!

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