28 May 2009

Why do we cite?

I spend a lot of time talking over the last three weeks talking about citation and documentation with faculty. What is it that we want our students to be attentive to: correctly identifying and attributing someone else's idea or citing a source correctly. Don't get me wrong. Both are important. But in the grand scheme of things, I am more interested in talking to students about documentation, attribution, plagiarism, and intellectual integrity than talking to them about MLA or APA. Styles seem like the cherry on top (did I just equate citation styles to the cherry on a sundae...I did. That happened.)

I guess this is where I remember arguments in ontology and want to parse our what we mean by citations and documentation.

Here's a first go:

Documenting is really about giving credit where credit is due. This is a tough one for students who are just starting out and I think that is worth really thinking about. It's difficult to remember what an 18 year old who is new to college, let alone college writing or research, is taking in on any given day or assignment. At times, I wonder if the expectations we make for students in their first year assignments are truly setting them up for success. When it comes to documentation, the key point is that a student can identify an idea as their own or as someone else's that they are building on. It is, essentially, providing evidence.
This gets into why do you provide evidence and how.

Now we get into citations.

The real question is why do we really cite anything?

The answer that I’d like to advocate for is that citations are the most consistent way of sharing information. We cite because we have information we see as worth sharing. Citations aren’t just to prove your point. They aren’t even about being a part of the scholarly community. With so much information in the world, it’s about SHARING that piece, that piece that did something you wanted, needed, or made you think. That piece that stood out. That piece that was relevant and valuable to the questions and issues you are exploring.

Once we have a handle on what needs to be cited and why it should be cited, then we can get to that final layer: how we cite it. APA, MLA, AMA, IEEE. In the end, the important thing is that the information is findable. All key components are present.

This is my philosophy on citations and documentation. To my way of thinking, there is not a real good reason to teach one style over another. Students are using web-based citation tools whether we like it or not (more on our hunt for one of those in a forthcoming post.) There is a good reason though to talk to students about why it is an important thing to do. There is a good reason to talk to students about what they can get from these "stupid citations". Perhaps we could bring it back to the most basic of lessons: sharing. We are sharing information with one another every day in many different ways. Citations are a way to do it in writing so I can FIND what you found.

And then comes the hard part: teaching this in the classroom. Any ideas?


Josh said...

I feel like another part of the citation/attribution/documentation issue with students - especially freshmen - is that it's another part of their academic transition with a poorly designed goal. The assumption seems to be that every incoming college freshman will one day be a research professor with a CV 15 pages long. We basically throw them a style guide while they're also still learning how to write and use the arguments of others. Perhaps it would be smarter to start first year students with the first cognitive step - sorting out your ideas from someone else's - and then stairstepping up to the essential pieces of a citation, and then finally to the cherry of MLA or APA or what have you.

Then again, perhaps some radical bunch of librarians (with faculty accomplices) could start building an open standard for citations based on the idea that the key is findability, and providing that essential pieces of information are represented intuitively (I don't that basic bibliographic description we learned in Cataloging I will cover it). Call it Standard College Style or something. I know the style guide publishers would have a fit, but really, how many freshmen are submitting articles for publication in flagship discipline specific journals that require rigorous style adherence? Let's keep it simple for our undergrads, and let the grad students worry about how to cite a Census statistical table in MLA.

Of course, this may be babying them too much, and folks at more prestigious institutions than mine may see no issues with their undergrad students, but that's the view from here.

The Sheck said...

Great points, Josh! So glad to hear them.

I very much agree with you in terms of expectations we set for first year students. It's a great idea to "stairstep" citations and documentation. I will think about that more as I rework lesson plans for the fall. Thanks for the suggestion.

And YES about keeping it simple in the name of sharing! I don't think that's babying. I think that is recognizing that the goals of writing change in different circumstances and sometimes, our rigid adherence to style guides undermines a learning opportunity or teachable moment. That's a hard thing to balance.

Thanks for the thoughts!