Citation Theory – A recap

Thanks for all for your help last week as I prepared a block class on citation theory for our three AP Language classes. It was surprisingly the most fun that I have had with a class all year because it wasn’t just a crunch of time to answer panicked questions about individual sources. I think that I learned as much from the students as they learned from me. We opened with 5 minutes of writing reflection on the following questions.

1. With what documentation styles are you familiar?

2. What are the important parts of any citation?

3. Why are there different standardized citation styles?

4. What challenges have you faced with documentation?

We split our libraries at grade seven, so I’ve been working with some of these Juniors for the past 4 1/2 years. Each year there is a research project that contains some sort of citation component. Loosely speaking, here are the four biggest research assignments they should have completed:

7th grade History – Native American history and culture presentation – Modified MLA

8th grade History/English – Boston, Early America, and the Industrial Revolution presentation and paper – MLA

9th grade History – Western Civilizations research paper with thesis – Chicago

10th grade History – World History research paper with thesis – Chicago

And now we come to 11th grade…

Students’ answers to these open-ended questions made me realize that the one-shot sessions that we’ve done in previous years have taught them how to follow directions well. This is a good first step but it isn’t enough in a college preparatory school. I love Debbie Abilock’s description of our role in “adding friction” to the process. In discussion, students focused almost exclusively on the anti-plagiarism component of citations. Both the teacher and I stressed that this was the reason we needed to discuss the least, especially in an AP class. He used the analogy of a science experiment, where the purpose of the lab report is to allow others to recreate your experiment to see if they reach the same conclusions. I come from a slightly different angle, most enjoying seeing how students use the ideas of others. Where are they summarizing, where are they synthesizing, and most interestingly, where are they using source data to draw different conclusions? You could see the students’ engagement increase we treated them like rising scholars whose ideas are worth considering, rather than children on the verge of stealing someone else’s work. For the first time, I felt like students “bought into” the idea of citations. Since the AP curriculum only mandates that you teach students skill with a citation style but doesn’t specify which one, we all had a frank discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of MLA and Chicago. Students thought carefully about which was more appropriate for their paper, a synthesis on citizenship using the ideas of Plato, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and an additional primary source and secondary piece of criticism. Making this decision individually certainly added friction to the research process. The teacher and I spoke honestly about our frustrations with all style guides in the digital age. Students accessed Plato’s “Crito” on a pdf hosted by MIT’s Internet Classics Archives site, where they had to consider the translator and had no stable page numbers. “The Declaration of Independence” is located on the National Archives site. It neither follows the standards for a government document nor for a website. We all hypothesized ways that style guides might continue to evolve as more documents are either born digital or accessed digitally. I think it’s important that students aren’t just completing citations by rote, but thinking about the reasoning behind them, and this kind of critical discussion opens the possibility for that.

As I go into underclassmen research season this winter, I’m going to think carefully about how I present citations. For starters, we will talk openly about online citations generators and the differences between web-based ones like easybib and eturabian compared with automatic generators in our online subscription databases. This is a classic example of a time when technology should  assist thought, not supplant it. It is not important for students to memorize style rules, nor should they blindly follow the instructions of an online citation generator. I don’t mind if they use one to help them get the right format, but they need to read it over afterwards to see if it makes sense. (Real example: If you see this and only this, you should backtrack! “L.” Etter from a Birmingham Jail. Web. October 27, 2014.) The ultimate goal is that students won’t be stressed out by citations but will know where to go for assistance. This leaves the bulk of their brain power for reading, search, analysis and writing.

When I’m preparing for a class, I tend to take notes as I read and consider how to present a subject. If you want to know the gist of everything I read and see notes for further learning on citations and style guides, open the following document on Google Drive. There’s some surprising trivia in there!

I hope you’re given the opportunity to “just talk” about citations at some point in the future. These three classes impacted the way that I’ll be teaching citations in the future and gave the kids a chance to think about them as more than a completion task for an individual assignment. As a bonus for the library, about a third of the students came to see me individually to talk about their specific needs for their papers. One-on-one time with students is generally the most effective time with them, and this is a higher-than-average rate of return for the invitation. Please share below if you have had a lesson on citations that worked particularly well. If you’d like to continue the conversation, I’d love to hear from you!

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One Response to Citation Theory – A recap

  1. Joanne Crotts says:

    Very timely…I’ve just spent the past few weeks teaching and reminding my students about the details and nuances of MLA citations. I have to remember after teaching for so long that things that seem so obvious to me are not at all obvious or logical to many students. Great idea to open with a those questions. Thanks for posting!

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