Teacher and Student Struggles with Citation and Research

Scholarly research and citation are things commonly taught in most every English course, particularly composition. I saw a post on social media recently suggesting that focusing too much of Works Cited formatting might scare students off. But then again, students do really need to be able to cite accurately no matter what their post-school goals might be, even if the formatting rules might vary by profession. Even if students practice and review, it seems like the majority of the time most Works Cited in a batch of essays have noticeable errors. Students know citation is important, they can explain why it’s a good thing, yet why is it that it seems so difficult to remember to italicize or indent?

I have taken to trying to explain why those things are part of the formatting to help students realize that these formatting details are not just there for looks. I think it helps them understand, but I’m still no closer to figuring out why so many can’t quite manage to format basic book or article citations properly. I know of the problem is citation generators, but even that does not fully explain. Maybe it’s also because the rules seem to change a bit every few years, but most composition students have really only had to work with one set of rules, possibly two. MLA 8 has been the standard in most English composition classes for long enough now that the changes should no longer be much of a challenge.

As someone who has been through MLA 6, 7, and now 8, I have to say an adjustment period should not be years long. There were some substantial changes between MLA 7 and 8, many of them good and necessary, although the revision of the structure on the Handbook itself was one of the worst pedagogical decisions made by an academic group in recent memory. I have serious doubts anyone who was seriously involved in that process has had to work with actual students much, or at least not aby other than top tier very above average ones. I was and am a good student in the traditional sense; I’m good with details and traditional schooling has not been something difficult for me. But I have had trouble trying to figure out how to cite something even slightly less than common using that manual. The style itself is not the issue; it’s how the book is set up, and how over-generalized it has become. MLA 7 let you look up exactly how to cite things, while MLA 8 tries to use the same basic paradigm for everything and it only makes a process confusing for students even worse.

Every now and then, I seem to run into something that reminds me of what it might be like for students who struggle with Works Cited and formatting. I realized that I needed to cite a digitized manuscript but had not idea of whether to treat it as an e-book or as a manuscript, which require two quite different formats. The journal I’m aiming for requires MLA citation, and the MLA 8 Handbook was not helpful for something this specialized. While I’m advanced enough as a scholar to know that sometimes the rules are not as set as one might think, it’s still a mildly vexing problem since you don’t want to submit something to a professional journal that has basic level errors like a faulty Works Cited; that’s just embarrassing even if the peer-reviewing is done blind. It’s especially bad if the particular citation is something incredibly well-known, like the Ellesmere Chaucer or the Findern manuscript.

One of the other common struggles with composition is trying to get students to take the time to actually find the best possible sources for their projects, and not simply the most convenient. Some of this might be attributable to the rise of the digital age, and the fading of patience to spend an hour working through an index or bibliography of a given subject. I’m sure there’s plenty of research about this sort of thing, but none of it helps with figuring out how to show students the value of in-depth research for a researched-based writing assignment. This complaint is all well and good in theory, but when it comes to practice some student problems are more relate-able. When the main campus library only has about half a floor worth of books on shelves, students might be quickly discouraged from the stacks, and when the accessible databases either don’t have the most current or relevant sources, again, it would be easy for an average student to get discouraged. Thankfully, my institution has great people in our ILL area, but getting students to use that system also has challenges. Even for me, having to wait a week to get a source is aggravating since I might have had time for the work when I requested the book, but may not when the book actually shows up. Or as a colleague noted, it might be difficult to remember exactly what the new arrival was needed for. If these things are troubling for someone with research experience and who learned how to use things like physical book-length bibliographies and indices, then I can only imagine what such difficulties might be like for someone who does not have the same level of expertise or experience.

Then comes the problem of fully reading and understanding things like academic sources themselves. I remember as an undergraduate being quite excited to find a journal article that I could fully read and understand. I saw on social media recently a post along the lines of “If you run into an academic source that you can’t read, that does not mean you are stupid; it just means you are not ready for that source.” I like this sentiment, but I have to wonder if the average student would accept this or feel more like they were being talked down to or possibly dismiss the idea as a feel good palliative.

So where does all this leave me? For now, students know that formatting counts on a Works Cited but is not a major part of an essay grade overall. I’m experimenting with a few things this semester in Composition 1 to see if some work on finding and citing sources outside the context of the middle of a major research assignment will be helpful. I also try to use prompts that are open enough that students can tailor their research both their own interests as well as the current resources available to them. We’ll see in December how everything works out.

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