Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Why I Bother to Teach MLA Style Even Though...

It Makes Me Want to Slit My Wrists...

And How I Do It, Too.

I thought I'd actually do a post about this after I actually got comments on my last one. And I think that it relates to teaching of any citation style, so perhaps others will be interested even if MLA Style is not their own?

Why I Teach MLA Style
Jo(e) noted in her comment to my last post that she doesn't do it because it's so painful. She tells them that she expects them to know it from high school and that if they don't they have to go to the writing center. Here's why I spend time on it in class rather than take that route:

I think that students don't get style right because they don't see the point of it. They think that citing things properly is just a draconian invention of their teachers meant to keep them awake long into the night over details that don't matter. If I don't spend class time on citation (even if not very much class time), this only reinforces the idea that it doesn't matter. Also, students will never learn (most probably) why we cite. Thus, this leads to the how I teach it.

How I Teach MLA Style
First, I only spend about 30 minutes on it. I do not spend time showing them every little detail. I do not spend time on how to do the works cited entry for every different kind of text that they might cite. I direct them to the appropriate pages in their handbooks and tell them to go to me or to the writing center if they have questions about that kind of stuff.

I think that the most important part of how I teach MLA style is how I begin. I begin with explaining why we use specific citation styles. This begins with discussion. I ask them why we can't just cite things any old way. I ask them why it matters that we use a particular style based on the discipline in which we write. I take about 10 minutes just talking about what the point is of citing things. Because the thing is, they know that you have to cite or you can get busted for plagiarism. They understand that it's a rule. What they don't seem to understand is that there are practical reasons for citing things in a particular way - like letting your reader know how to find what you are citing. I know. This is a radical notion. But I realized somewhere along the way that this is the problem that I had with citing when I started college, and once I learned the why of citing I suddenly was able to be detail-oriented enough to do it properly.

And so the bulk of what I do when I teach citation is about the reasons for it. That we use boring Times New Roman because it's a uniform and formal typeface, that we use 12 pt. type because it's easy to read, that we double-space for the same reason, that we put the period outside of the parenthetical citation in order to show the reader that the citation goes with the preceding thought, etc. And yes, it's boring. And no, they generally don't get it totally right. Always they forget where to put the "period" (Crazy 21). Always they do a block quote when they don't need to. But at least they come closer than they used to come. And that, as tedious as teaching citation style is, makes my life easier. And it also makes me feel justified in giving a substantial penalty for getting the basics of citation wrong.

As for teaching them to cite non-traditional sources properly, I will advise thusly, but this advice is a dodge:
I recommend giving a lecture (not on the same day as style) about what makes a good source, explaining in detail what makes a scholarly source "better" in the context of academic writing. And I recommend requiring them to use scholarly sources in the paper. Tell them that other non-scholarly sources are "ok" to supplement their "real" sources but that they do not fulfill the source requirement for the paper. Also talk a lot about how to use secondary source material effectively. In my experience, once I've done all of that they tend not to use many non-scholarly sources because they realize it just means extra work for them and it's work that doesn't improve their grade. And I tell them that they should come to me directly if they're using a non-traditional source so that we can talk about how to cite it. If they get something from a database (like the lexis-nexis example above) I make them find out the print page numbers and use those. Ultimately, a magazine or journal is a print source, even if somebody accesses it through an online database and my policy is that it should be cited as such. As for websites, well, it's just unweildy to cite them. Which is why nobody should ever cite The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy. How do you know that I am who I say I am? How do you know my qualifications to talk about teaching MLA Style? Do you have any way to verify my authenticity or authority? I think not.


Ok, now I have to go advise a student. Sigh.

Learning the citation style of your field is important, but unfortunately in the sciences every journal has its own quirks. Are brackets like this [ or (? Is it et al or and others? Does the year go after authors or at the end of the reference?
I haven't used MLA since I passed freshman comp, but a lot of what you have to say hit a chord with me. If/when I'm a prof, I'm sure I'll run into a lot of the same issues. I particularly like your approach to dealing with students using non-trad sources. Too bad I can't cite you!
My problem is that I teach my students how to use MLA, but when I receive their papers, they either fail to cite sources within the body of the text and put a Works Cited page at the end or fail do provide any form of citation. No matter how much time I spend, they just do get it or don't want to get it.

Any suggestions???
Anyone who cites someone from Blogger deserves their failing grade. ;-)

But I think much of MLA is still superfluous (and impossible on the web). How about... Author, title, type of media, date? It just seems like a lot of hooey... and then there are, as sciencewoman notes, the other possible styles... APA... is Chicago any different from that?

While I recognize that citation is important, it seems to me a slavish focus on the style of that citation as as silly as a slavish focus on the style of anything.. It can lead to wonderful things, but for most of the world it is just silly...

Now I'm off to rewrite my thesis since I can no longer quote you.
Seems to me the most important lesson is to learn how to FIND good sources and use them appropriately. As Dr. Crazy notes the WHYs of citing are also essential... which style? that doesn't matter,,, A copy of endnote will take care of that bullhooey for you... it is the whys and hows of actually using and citing the material that are important. If they learn that you have taught them something important.
I do a lot of work on citing with my students, sophs in tech writing. I do a lot of Crazy-esque stuff, and more, since plagiarism is such a big issue.

I review a Powerpoint on plagiarism, in-text citation, and Works Cited, and I upload it for them. On the research assignment web page, I have a link to a sample research paper with correct citation, even with entries geared to the specfic databases they are using. I include on the assignment page an image of an MLA paper, with arrows showing signal phrases and parentheticals. I link to the citation part of the Hacker handbook. I reference the page numbers in their text that review MLA citation. I have numbered lists reinforcing what students must do in citing. I include little warning icons to attract attention (the exclamation point inside the triangle).

I also quiz on citation and have them do a short citation and paraphrase exercise.

And then I get their papers, at least 15% of which have no or minimal citations (despite all I do, some students are convinced that they need only cite quotations....grrrr), and 85% of which have at least some screwed up Works Cited entries. So, I spit their drafts back at them with margins full of "source?" "source?" etc.
In the past, I've extended MLA lessons into a game. Even for graduate students. The game is usually a cross between Jeopardy and a spelling bee. An MLA Bee, if you will. Split class into 2 or more teams, announce a type of source, team writes answer, first to ring bell/raise hand gives answer and, if correct, is awarded points. You get the gist.

Please don't think less of me for such in-class shenanigans.

And do know that I see marked improvements in style.

I should also note that I'm a primary editor on two journals and I constantly receive and correct mansucripts with numerous style errors--made by grade students and established profs alike. It drives me crazy. But I think a small part of me takes pleasure in all the concreteness of errors and corrections. I like the way such concereteness balances out the abstract quality of the critical/cultural theory that constitutes the manuscripts' content.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
VERY BELATED COMMENT - just wandered onto this page from links on other pages.

I've tauught for 8 years before deciding to join the evil empire. And guess what, when you have bosses, they're allowed to tell you they want all your memos in PIG LATIN. WHILE HOPPING ON ONE FOOT AND CHANTING KUMBAYA.

As their teacher, you are their pre-boss. We know that you see inherent value in the teaching choices you all make, that it is considered and thought about. So this doesn't all the way prepare them for an insane boss. Who wants a weeks worth of work in a day. On a daily basis. Oh - sorry - acid flashbacks of an evil ex-boss. Had the sense to leave that job months ago. BUT when you have the nutcase, if you wish to collect the paycheck, you just do it - not 1/2 - a**ed, not how you feel like (v. what's asked for). You just do it.

Keep doing what makes most sense to you.
Also very belated -- here from the Teaching Carnival. I just thought I'd leave a little note of encouragement for professors and educators. I started out in a high school with a strong English program, where the MLA style was absolutely hammered into my mind, and went on to major in both English and physics. Now, as a PhD student in the physical sciences, I have to use a completely different *style*, but of course, the tools, skills, and strategies are the same. In the end, your readers need to know what ideas are your own, which ideas were informed by the work of others, and where to find that work so they can go inform themselves some more. Learning this correctly the first time and at a younger age means that, even if a student ends up writing in a disciple with a different citation style, he or she understands what needs to be learned in order to master any style.
Yeah, I just quoted you in my unit reflection for my practicum portfolio, and had to learn how to cite a blog with MLA. I wonder if I'll even graduate now, having a name like "Dr. Crazy" on my Works Cited page.
I feel so sorry for all you teachers who could not find my source because I put period instead of a comma. MLA is overkill for what it truly tries to accomplish. MLA should be easy for the writer to cite and easy for the reader to follow, currently it fails in both those categories.
I feel sorry for every student who confused MLA with rocket science. I hope they find their career in the fast-food industry fulfilling!
Contrary to Anonymous's comment above (11:26 PM), I believe that putting the periods and colons where they belong is critical. They mean something.

There has to be a standardized way of conveying publication information to others SO THAT YOUR CONCLUSIONS CAN BE DUPLICATED (a routine practice in any scientific field, btw).

Like many of the posters above, I too get frustrated with lazy, clumsy, or altogether missing attribution. The logic often goes like this:

1. No one owns the Internet;
2. This source was on the Internet;
3. I therefore cite no one for this source.

How have we created such a generation of non-thinkers?!?
Thanks for an article. I also believe that if you chose writing in MLA style you should learn how to write in it. Though it sounds banal yet many students just ignore this simple fact. For learning how to write and cite in MLA I mainly use this website
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