Wednesday, June 29, 2011

RTFH. A Quickie from Greg in Greenville.

Okay, so I'm working through the summer like a mule.

On my handout - a glorious (and concise)  instrument full of information of all types of good, useful help - for the first essay, it says:

"Your essay must be documented in MLA style, using in-text citations and a complete works cited page."

Guess which of the questions below got asked during class this morning:

a) Do we have to document our essays?
b) If we do a works cited page can we skip the citations?
c) Can I use APA style instead?
d) What does MLA even mean?
e) If I just include the name of the source in a paragraph can I skip MLA style?
f) All of the above.

Oh, this isn't much fun. You all know the answer, don't you?

And my response to it all: Read the Fucking Handout.


  1. I've had them all plus one more to top it all off: "What essay? We have to hand in an essay???"

    Yes, I only mentioned it in the syllabus and in every single class meeting since the beginning of the semester, so how could anybody have realized there was an essay to hand in?

  2. One of the best things my institution did was standardize documentation--we all use APA. Yes, this meant teaching a lot of English teachers APA, and I may have pried the MLA handbook out of somebody's cold dead hands, but from their first class everybody requires documentation for everything and it's all the same. So. Much. Better.

  3. @MLP: It might be better from your perspective, but I actually think your school made a stoopid move. APA is great for some things, but it doesn't work for everything. Any kind of serious history honors thesis involving a lot of particular kinds of primary source work would be next to impossible with APA, just as an example. Or to be more precise, yes you could use APA for archival citations, but it would be so wildly cumbersome and inefficient as to be useless. There are actually good reasons, beyond convention and tradition, for the survival of the three major notation systems. So my guess is that while your school may have solved one kind of problem by standardizing, it may have created a host of new ones of which you may be unaware simply because you are personally unaffected by them.

    Anybody coming for my Chicago Manual might have to take a serious beating (and if you've seen a CMS lately, you know that it would hurt).

  4. Parenthetical citation sucks. Bad. Really bad. In all contexts, but especially in history. Everything anyone needs to know about style systems can be derived logically from that simple truth. Any issue not addressed by that simple truth (margins, fonts, title page or bibliography format, etc.) is of tertiary importance.

    Endnotes suck too, but not as bad. Publishers are so scared of normal footnotes ("Stoopid folks might not buy this $80 book on an obscure topic if they see footnotes!") that they will probably soon disappear completely from books. So endnotes are the best we can hope for. That sucks. But anything that keeps parenthetical citations out of my face is the enemy of my enemy and hence my friend.

  5. @Slave: I share your hatred of the endnote, but that isn't the reason why publishers have embraced them. The big reason is cost. Endnotes are cheaper because they save paper and typesetting time. I forget the exact figure, but footnotes add something on the order of 5% to the page count of a book. Paper is their single largest material expense and typesetting is one of their two biggest production costs, ergo endnotes are king.

    If you have the energy for it, you can fight them, but you need to know a lot about book production to mount a convincing case in their eyes. If they think they can make the quartos come out right, they will sometimes bend, but the usual compromise they demand is that you cut the equivalent percentage of text from the body of your text so that you can have footnotes. Most people are unwilling to give up those words, and so endnotes it is, once again.

  6. @archie well we don't have honors majors, nor history majors, nor pretty much any other major that would have to do archival research. We did look at the affordances of each system and picked the one that worked for what we offer and what our students will need and use in future careers.

    Completely impossible at a larger institution? Yep, probably. But it did clear up the nastiness that was one English teacher who wanted MLA, another one that wanted Chicago, an other Turabian... all because nobody wanted to learn a new system. As the tutoring center director, I don't have any particular love for folks who are using a version of a citation system that was introduced before I was born (I'm not all that young) and thus have no way to deal with digital sources and talk about the "new" technologies like VHS and Beta. Then there were the professional students who come in knowing their field's documentation style well, used it well, but were failed because their teacher in their field wanted MLA (or worse, were accused of plagiarism for not using the right system and I would get to fight in their favor...)
    Actually, I think this may be a misery all its own. *sigh*

  7. Well I assumed you taught at one of those schools. For what it is worth, I still think it is ultimately lame. The argument, as I understand it, is that the students are too lazy to look up different citation formats and use them correctly for particular assignments, and that the faculty should abet and validate their laziness by agreeing to alter their own disciplinary and professional norms to suit the flakes.

    I mean, that's what it comes down to in the end. It is simply not that hard to follow the instructions in a fucking style manual. This is just lazy ass snowflakery validated by administrative fiat. The argument that "this is what they'll need" is mostly bogus. If they do go on to publishing careers inside or outside of the academy, they will have to bend to the conventions of whoever is printing their work. Journals use a house style of their own devising more often than not, and book publishers have their own opinions about what is appropriate to a given circumstance. And unlike your admin, a publisher or journal is not going to accept "I was too lazy to look up how to do it" as a legitimate excuse. Some have started charging the author for any copyediting of the notes. So you aren't preparing them for the future, you are just setting them up for a harder fall later on. Just my opinion.

    Also, as a parenthetical, Turabian is not a different citation style. It is just Chicago boiled down to the most commonly occurring cases in undergraduate papers. The other nice thing about the Turabian manual is that for every Chicago example it also gives you the equivalent in MLA. Again, it is simplified for the most common undergraduate needs, but it isn't a standalone format.

  8. And as a public service, there is an even better book to assign the flakes: Cite Right by Charles Lipson. For every case he shows you what the citation would look like in Chicago, MLA, and APA. As far as I can tell, it covers every case that might come up for an undergrad and probably 98% of the cases that might come up for faculty or professionals. The book is cheap, invaluable, and puts an end to any excuses the flakes might try to come up with for why they couldn't (wait for it) cite right...

  9. @AA: not only is there a book, but websites (Easybib; BibMe; Noodlebib, etc.) do this for free now. I don't understand WHY it's so freaking hard to get it right when you can just plunk in the info. and get it formatted for you correctly. I agree that students should at least know the difference in formatting rather than simply teaching a single one (unless one is, for example, a School of Nursing) just because it's easier to do so. It's easier for me not to show up to teach or grade anything, but I don't do that.

  10. Oh, Archie. I once had a syllabus for a How to Write a Research Paper class where I labelled and gave the example of how to cite our 2 required texts. After explaining to the class that the 4 citations were just the 2 books listed twice - once in MLA and once in APA - I *still* had a handful of flakes who told me they couldn't find 2 of the required textbooks.

    I can only imagine the nightmare scenario with that Lipson book that lists all 3 major styles! Sounds like a great book, though; I would have used it. Maybe with an entire book they would have gotten the idea. Considering a majority of my students never mastered ANY style, I have no high hopes of that.

    Why is this so hard for today's flakes to get? Is it just that too many of them are not college material?

  11. I want them to understand citation -- not just the rules of a particular style (which change over time), but the underlying principles of all the styles (giving credit, yes, but also allowing the reader to find the same sources, and to trace the genealogy of the ideas in the text). That requires practice with at least two styles, I think, and preferably more. Otherwise, they'll be ill-prepared when they come up against a "house" style, or the need to translate a document (say, a grant proposal or bid) from the requirements of one organization to another. In my book, you don't "learn" a particular citation style, but instead learn to employ a citation style appropriate to the discourse community you are seeking to join/reach (how's that for a sentence that was unquestionably written by a comp teacher?) This strikes me as a distinction similar to the one between memorizing facts and learning critical thinking/how to make an argument with those facts.

    That said, I do agree that encountering too many styles too quickly, especially if the underlying principles aren't explained, can be confusing for students. But it's up to proffies to keep explaining that it's not the exact placement of the date (or the lack of a "p.," or whatever) that matters; it's the underlying principles -- including, yes, R (and follow) TFH (or manual, or other style guide).

  12. P.S. to Archie: you just sold a copy of Lipson's book. Tell him (or Chicago) to send you a few cents, or a 10% discount on a book of your choice, or something.

  13. @Cassandra: I have reviewed so many manuscripts for Chicago that I don't think there is a book they publish that even remotely interests me that I don't own by now. But I'm glad Lipson made a sale anyway.


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