I’m not anti-citation (as such)

I was a bit surprised recently when one of my colleagues told me she’d head that I oppose teaching students how to cite sources.

I presume this came something I’d posted on Twitter or some rant at a conference. But no, I’m not opposed to teaching citation.

Or, to badly paraphrase West Side Story: “It’s not I’m anti-citation, I’m only anti-busy-work.”

The point I’m increasingly making in class and to colleagues is that we need to prioritize the use of sources over the mechanics of citation. Or to put it another way, I don’t care how exquisitely your parentheses are punctuated, how hangingly your references are indented, or how alphabetically your sources are listed if you have just dropped vague allusions to tangentially relevant sources into your paragraphs “will-he-nil-he,” as the Bard says (Shakespeare, 1601).

See, that’s what we need to focus on: knowing whether to cite, and if so, whom to cite; when to cite them; where to cite them; why to cite them; and how to integrate citations into a sentence, paragraph and text (with a tip of the hat to Dell Hymes’s definition of communicative competence).

That’s a lot harder than teaching where to put the commas, italics, and volume numbers or all the other paraphernalia of the APA or MLA referencing system. This is one of the points a recent Inside Higher Ed article was making:

“[Teaching citation] hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing, such as clarity, correctness and rhetorical effectiveness.” ~ Jennie Young

Young is most concerned in her article about faculty punitively using errors in MLA format to justify low grades and avoid giving comprehensive feedback. I’ve never encountered anything as extreme as Young’s examples, but I know that some rubrics in my department do penalize students–only those who have been “taught” the “rules,” of course–if they swing and wildly miss APA style. Some of my colleagues are bigger sticklers than others, but we all spend many, many hours giving feedback and meeting with students.

So, I don’t follow Young in vowing not to teach citation at all. In fact, I think she is mistaken to say that all citations can be written informally. That’s only true in certain genres, and I agree that we should teach students how to use hyperlinks correctly in online writing, as I’ve attempted here, and informal citations in journalistic writing. But in pedagogical genres, we use citation for many important and valid reasons, and not just to stave off accusations of plagiarism. A standard system such as APA or MLA is helpful for the reader (and the style guides contain a lot more than just reference format). But the basics of the system can be taught in a few minutes — for APA, parenthesis with author’s last name and year. Get the reference from Citation Machine (or, if you have the time, do what I do and use Zotero). Done.

Now, let’s get on with the hard stuff:

  • Should you cite at all? Is this idea “common knowledge”? What actually is common knowledge? Is it necessary to attribute the phrase or idea to a source?
  • Who should be cited? Where does the idea really come from (not just the top hit on Google)? Is the source reliable and appropriate for the task? Is the information even correct (I’m trying to add Mike Caulfield’s 4-move “SIFT” techniques into my classes)? Advanced academic writers also think strategically about the authors they cite as they can be aligned with particular schools, camps, theories, or sides.
  • When is the citation needed? Does the task call for sources to be integrated throughout the paper or only in certain sections? My students often rightly ask whether the introduction and conclusion need citations — sometimes they do.
  • Where does the citation appear? rhetorically, not spatially — as in, where in the development of the writing is the citation most effective?
  • Why do we cite? What purpose does this particular citation have? Does it support a claim, counter a claim, define a concept, provide an example, contextualize a problem, offer a solution, evaluate an idea, present a framework, etc.?*  Which takes us to …
  • How should the source be cited? Again, not the parentheses and commas, but how will the attribution be rhetorically effective? Is an integral (Bloggs argues …) or non-integral (Bloggs, 2015) citation more appropriate? Should the writer choose an objective reporting verb (shows) or one that aligns (proves) or distances (claims) the reader? Is the author’s job, position, or status important to include? Does it matter where and when the source was published?

Finally, of course, we have to really reflect on what students are learning from source-based assignments. In the classes I teach, it’s vitally important for my students to learn how to read, write about, and discuss academic sources and ideas. My challenge is to do that in ways that are intellectually rigorous, promoting both language and writing development. And I’d rather be working on that than on citation.

* If you’re interested in this topic, I strongly recommend Teaching Effective Source Use by Jennifer Mott-Smith, Zuzana Tomaš, and Ilka Kostka (Michigan), also available from Amazon. This book really helped me refine the way I think about and teach writing from sources.

(image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/147711208@N05/46587813615)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

2 thoughts on “I’m not anti-citation (as such)”

  1. Thank you. I’ve been thinking and reading about this topic as I try to teach citation to my legal writing students. Your perspectives help reinforce some of my instincts and also provide valuable food for thought. So thanks for a timely (for me) post.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Legal writing has very specific standards and conventions and uses of citation, doesn’t it? We don’t have a law school at my university, so I don’t work with students in this field. I’d want to spend a lot of time analyzing with students HOW good legal writers use citation. That could be very interesting!

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