The Weaponization of Academic Citation

Freshman composition programs have done that, and we need to stop it right now, argues Jennie Young.

August 7, 2019
 
 
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Here’s the scenario: you are an adjunct faculty member, which is the case for the majority of people who teach first-year writing, and which means you must teach more courses than is advisable if you’d also like to eat.

You are staring at 125 six- to eight-page freshman comp papers that must be graded before next week. That’s between 750 and 1,000 pages of paper you must not only read but comment meaningfully upon. Oh, and those papers are kind of a mess. Most of them do not evidence basic knowledge of sentence boundaries, let alone exhibit arguable theses or logical development or other forms of higher-order thinking.

What to do? There’s no way to address everything that’s compromising every essay and return the feedback in time to help your students on their next essay. Naturally, you begin looking for the easiest way to whittle down your load -- some way to count some papers “in” and move others out of the way. And now imagine that just within your reach is the low-hanging fruit of MLA format (or APA, or Chicago or whatever).

It’s so easy. It’s so easy to say, “This isn’t properly formatted, and proper formatting is a baseline requirement, so it’s an F.” No need to keep struggling through its misplaced modifiers or its sweeping generalizations or its insistence upon repeatedly using phrases such as “in today’s society.” It takes quite a long time to explain to a student what’s wrong with all of those things and how to fix them, but saying it’s not formatted properly -- that’s simple and quick and provable. One paper done.

This example might be extreme, but it happens. And it happens even more frequently like this: the paper isn’t a total failure, but it’s not strong. The prose is clunky or the ideas are hackneyed, or the ideas are brilliant but the grammar renders them unnavigable. You know the student really tried, so you don’t want to fail her, but the grade can’t be good. And it’s going to take a heck of a long time to justify that grade if you have to actually explain what’s not working.

But if the MLA is wrong? Easy: it’s a C, because it’s got some good points but it’s not properly formatted. (But isn’t that a little dishonest? The formatting is simultaneously the easiest thing to pin the grade on and the least of the problem.) I admit I’ve done it myself.

How much we should emphasize academic citation in the first-year writing classroom has long been a matter of debate. (See this piece by University of Iowa rhetoric lecturer David Gooblar, and Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods by Tricia Serviss and Sandra Jamieson, to name just a few.)

However, I’d like to take it one step further: I suggest that we stop teaching it entirely.

There are valid reasons for this suggestion:

  • The vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they graduate. Most writing is now digital and uses active links to document source material.
  • It hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing, such as clarity, correctness and rhetorical effectiveness.
  • There are other ways to attribute credit. Journalists, for example, just write “according to” and provide the information and the date if it’s relevant.
  • The citation systems change from style to style and update to update. Why are we spending so much time insisting on something that’s not standardized across disciplines and is going to change the minute MLA decides to make arbitrary changes (to an already arbitrary system) in order to justify yet another new edition?

Having directed first-year writing programs at multiple institutions, I’ve seen up close the dark side of what James Madison University writing instructor Kurt Schick calls “citation obsession”: underqualified or overburdened or just plain vindictive instructors who opt for the easy default of “this isn’t properly formatted” in lieu of the meaningful but painstaking response to student writing. I’ve seen instructors who make citation the foundation of their entire pedagogy and assessment systems. This is not only tyrannical but dishonest: it misleads students about what writing even is.

There’s an easy way to wipe out this whole problem and to free up writing instructors’ time to focus on teaching and responding to actual writing: boot academic citation out of the first-year writing classroom.

I’ve been toying with the idea for years, but a conversation with one of my students last semester convinced me for good. The young woman was from Poland, studying in America as part of an exchange program. She was in my composition class, and she came to my office to go over every draft in detail, even though she was far and away one of the strongest writers in the class.

During our last meeting, she thanked me for my help and told me that she was nervous about this course because she’d never had to cite her sources before. I was shocked.

“Wait, what do you mean you’ve never cited sources?” I asked. “You mean you’ve used something other than MLA or APA?”

“No, we don’t use a system at all,” she said. “We just write ‘according to John Smith in The Journal of Adolescent Psychology,’ or whatever it is. We don’t do all the rules.”

“But then how do you prepare to write properly in the academy?” I asked. “Surely, Polish academic journals use citation methods, right?”

She confirmed that they do but explained that undergraduate students don’t tend to publish in academic journals. When students go on to graduate school in Poland, they are required to use a standardized citation system, and they learn to use the system or systems required by their particular disciplines.

Paulina’s writing was excellent. She clearly understood the importance of crediting sources, which is what we all claim is the most important thing about citation anyway. But prior to my class, she hadn’t worried about whether the last name went before or after the date in the parenthetical citation or how many tab spaces to offset her bibliographic entry. Perhaps that was one reason her writing was noticeably stronger than her American peers’ -- she’d had the time to truly focus on writing clear sentences, on building a compelling argument, on actually reading her research articles.

She’s correct: undergraduate students really don’t publish their work in academic journals. The extreme few who do are certainly capable of following an APA manual on their own.

Poland’s system makes so much more sense. It allows professors to focus on teaching actual writing. It gives students the time and space they need to grow as writers. And it does away with even the option of using academic formatting as a grading weapon -- an option whose absence will require all of us to respond to student writing in more authentic and productive ways.

Writing instruction is a messy business, and there are few simple fixes for any aspect of it. But ditching academic citation could be one, and this comp director is ready to give it a try.

Bio

Jennie Young is assistant professor of English and the director of the first-year writing program at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

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