Citation frustration

In addition to my work as a librarian, I have a separate incarnation as a writing teacher.  I serve as an adjunct instructor in my campus English department and regularly teach writing courses of various kinds. Most recently I’ve been teaching a 200-level writing course required for many majors, Writing in the Arts & Sciences. Students have to pass the 100-level Introduction to College Writing with a C or better in order to take this course. This is the course description:

An introduction to academic writing as a means of discovery and record. Study of and practice in the procedures, conventions, and terminology of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Research-intensive.

Serious stuff, right? I consider teaching this class a weighty responsibility. And although I characterized my role as writing instructor as a “separate incarnation” above, my various incarnations actually intersect and overlap. I am the writing teacher I am today because I am a librarian. Similarly, I am the librarian I am today because I am also a writing teacher. Did I mention that I also used to be a writing center tutor? Because that, too, informs my practice as a librarian and a writing teacher.

Something I see students struggle with in my writing class and at the reference desk and in the library instruction classroom is navigating discourse conventions of various disciplines. More specifically, students have trouble with understanding and mastering the details of citation styles.  I try teaching this thorny task in all different kinds of ways. I require that my writing students buy a handbook that provides a comprehensive and detailed overview of APA, MLA, and Chicago styles. I open the book in class and make students interact with it with hands-on exercises and activities. I open the book during individual student conferences and make students read it. I write down the exact page number that they need on a Post-It note and hand it to them. I outright forbid them from using the References feature in Word or other citation generators, because these tools inevitably create errors. (More on that for another post.) I emphasize that I want them to actually learn how to format a citation properly. I try to explain that formatting a citation is like putting together a puzzle, or working a mathematical formula. I try to emphasize there’s a basic structure and you just have to put in all the right pieces. And a friend who looked at a draft of this post usefully pointed out that we can teach students that following citation rules is a good skill to practice, because while they might not need to ever know the intricacies of MLA or APA again, they will need to know how to  follow specific rules and guidelines in the workplace. Thus, this is a transferable skill.

And still, despite all of my efforts, I get bibliographies that look nothing like the samples provided in the handbook. And I really truly seriously don’t understand why. Is it because citation rules seem stupid and arbitrary so who cares about doing them right? I mean, I guess maybe I kind of agree with that. And ultimately I care more about the quality of students’ ideas and how well they express them. I care more that they cite their sources, period, than whether they cited them exactly correctly according to the rules. My grading rubrics reflect this. (More on grading rubrics some other time.) “Develops a logical argument thoroughly and clearly” is worth twice as many points as “Correct citation and in-text citation formats.” Overall, when you tot up the whole rubric, citation correctness only accounts for about 6 percent of the total possible points.

How do you teach citation? Do you agree with Barbara Fister when she says:

I recommend that librarians stop teaching citation styles. (Why did we get stuck with that job, anyway?)

If you agree with Fister, whose job is it? The writing center? The writing teacher?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it bothers me. I wish I could fix it. Or maybe care less about it. I don’t see either of those things happening any time soon, however. And it will be nice to have a break from this on sabbatical, a break from the frustration and irritation of students just not getting it for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe the critical distance of sabbatical will provide some sort of divine illumination on the issue and I’ll figure it all out. Or maybe I’ll be too busy taste-testing caramel lattes at all of the coffee shops within a five mile radius for that to happen. We’ll see.


About Maria

Librarian, reader, writer, catlady.
This entry was posted in librarianing, teachering, thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Citation frustration

  1. Pingback: More citation frustration | The Sabbatical Librarian

  2. I found myself thinking about this the other night — I don’t remember learning citation styles. We had a book, and we were shown how to use the book to find the format we needed to use. I did this in high school, college, and graduate school. I do it now. I either use a book or a website. I was an English major and am a librarian, so I may not be the best example of what the average student does, however.
    I do wonder if students are afraid to admit they don’t know, so they just plow through with what they’re doing instead of stopping to ask or look it up or even refer to one of those articles they’re citing for an example. A Fake It Til You Make It mentality, perhaps. Do they get an A for effort if they put something even if it’s completely wrong?
    I do not teach, but I have a lot of friends who do, and they all — whether librarians or professors — complain at some point about poor citations.


    • Maria says:

      I think you bring up a good point–that maybe students are afraid to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing so they just sort of make something up and hope for the best. I can see that. My rubric indicates a range of points for citation formatting, so they can get some points for at least trying, but not full credit. And what I don’t understand is that there are students who struggle with citation formatting, but they actually eventually get it right. And these are ordinary students, too. So it’s possible, I think, to put forth sufficient effort and properly format citations. As for the others: how frustrating and irritating it is to explain it over and over, provide examples, etc., and to get jacked up citations.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  3. Pingback: The ethic of care | The Sabbatical Librarian

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