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.

This Year’s New Technique To Contemplate

So far this year I have not come across a new composition trick to try, at least not borrowed from someone else as I have in years past. Recently, I have realized one of my own which I intend to keep as an experiment to see if it bears sharing or implementing in composition classes starting this fall.

As usual, the last few weeks of the semester are busy with writing exam and study guides, and grading. For most instructors, I imagine, this time of the year involves putting one’s own projects either on hold or slow-down mode. In my case, I was holding off on spending sustained amount of time on a book review, drafting a conference paper, researching and drafting a second conference paper, and 4 CFPs (two due within the next week, the others not until fall). There’s also a writing project to pick back up, but that’s part of another story, as is the design of a summer syllabus. On top of all this, I had some family in town.

The past two days, I have been getting back into my usual pattern of being able to spend more than 30 minutes at a time on a particular project. I started to notice a trend. My grades were due two weeks ago Wednesday, but then the next two days (Th-Fri) I was struggling a bit to get back to work, which was a problem because of some looming deadlines. I took that first Monday off, mostly to get family to the airport, and then the next two days I was suddenly able to get productive. Part of this might be the day or two off, but I think it was more due to how I was spending my self-imposed work time.

In two days, I was able to draft 1 CFP, complete the book review and send it off, and draft the first conference paper (due to be given Friday- as in 2 days from now), in addition to getting some outlining done for my summer course. Not to mention only spending about 5 hours per day in my office and not doing scholarly-type work at home; a much needed spring deep clean of the home is currently underway, plus I have really started to get attached to the idea of keeping home for myself and not work if at all possible.

Here’s my new (to me at least) composition/scholarly technique: work on one thing until it starts to get difficult, then switch over to another thing for a while, and when that gets to be a struggle, switch to something else, etc., coming back to the first thing the next day with fresh mind and eyes. While I admit that sometimes just staring at something for a while can be effective, more often than not, that can be a waste of time, just like fighting the sleepies for an hour vs a 30-minute nap.

Another version of this is spend an hour on one project, then switch to another, etc., and repeat the cycle the next day. This way progress is continually made on multiple items, and there isn’t as much frustration about getting stuck on something even if a deadline is getting close. Avoiding some of the mental fatigue like this also seems to help keep the temptation to take a brain break on social media at bay, which can turn into a big unproductive time-suck as well.

The more I think about it, this seems to be related to several well-established bits of time-management-when-it-comes-to-studying advice. First, there’s the idea that cramming is less effective than frequent short bursts. Then there’s the idea of stopping just before you’ve run out of ideas so that you have somewhere to start next time. Lastly, there’s just listening to yourself and knowing your mental status, and what’s possible as a result. If I need to write both a paper and a course, if I feel more like one than the other, then why not work on what feels better if both need doing on similar timelines?

Another benefit of such a practice is that you have an automatic reason to get up and move at least a little after each hour or so. This is probably as good mentally as it is physically.

Last but not least, I would note that there will be days where any particular technique just won’t work. Maybe you’re just tired, or not feeling as good as usual, or just not focused for whatever reason. The key to any good system is flexibility, and some days you might just start something and be able to easily keep going for hours. I find this often happens more with repetitive tasks, like looking up and recording all instances of a certain word in Chaucer’s corpus in preparation for starting on a conference paper or setting up a class website in a course management system. It’s monotonous, not creative, often dull, and necessary prep work that has a definite deadline.

For now, I’m going to see how well this works out, before I start figuring out ways to adapt this into classroom settings and scenarios. But that’s not to say I can’t/won’t be noting ideas or possibilities. Composition techniques like this don’t seem to work well as general recommendations presented in lecture; they’re more likely to be effective when modeled in class and then tied to possible outside of class uses. Or alternatively, modeled in a homework or out of classroom assignment, then discussed in class. I don’t have anything exact in mind yet, but I’ll be working on that the next week or so when I really get my summer course calendar built up beyond its current outline state.

End/New Year New Idea

It seems like kind of a pattern that the past few years I’ve either ended the fall semester or begun the spring term with a big new thing to try, either research or teaching, that has something to do with writing. This year, over winter break, I was revising a composition course that doubles as introduction to literature since I have 3 sections of it this spring. I got the random idea that this semester I would work with students on a series of common problems or things students seemed to struggle with every term in writing assignments, the things I always seem to end up commenting on. I counted the number of class days I had to work with and, subtracting a few for things like the midterm and library research day, I came up with 28 class days for the semester. Each day could have one smallish composition related thing as its focus.

I eventually figured that this would make for a good warm up most class days. It did not take long to come up with the list. What took longer was trying to work out a good order (still working on that), and what components should be the focus of the 5-10 minutes of mini lecture/activity. I’m thinking already that I may end up wanting to reorder things.

What seems to be working so far (1 ½ weeks into the semester) is to tie the writing thing in with whatever the main literary concept of the day will be. I’ve annotated the first few days for example and also because I haven’t written the entire semester’s worth of actual notes or practice exercises yet. That’ll probably happen off and on every other week or so,

Writing Thing #1: Bibliography Citation (Bibliography vs Works Cited) MLA 8 for entry in anthology (prose or poetry) and complete work (like a novel) and web page (secondary)

Day 1 of class has no specific literary focus; it’s basically syllabus day. The main reason bibliography and general citation is first is that this will be necessary for nearly every assignment in class. I find this seems to be especially useful since there are always some students who don’t get the textbook right away for a number of reasons, and need to use alternative versions of the short stories for the first week or two. Thus, they need to provide a works cited in their homework so I know they are not leaving out parenthetical in-text references or getting the numbers wrong, but rather are using web versions without page numbers or simply a different edition.

Writing Thing #2: In-text parenthetical Citation for prose and poetry, both for quote and paraphrase

The literary focus is the short story genre, and plot graphing methods via line, circle, triangle/pyramid. The assigned story is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”., and a set of lecture notes covering various definitions of short story. The exercise: Paraphrase from Poe’s definition of short story to have a single sentence which contains the main requirements for the genre. Quote in one sentence the necessary components given by Werlock.

Writing Thing #3: Signal phrases with quotes: don’t say ‘x quotes’ etc, format (commas and final punctuation), purpose of the signal phrase/attributive tag/lead in/ whatever other term of choice

The literary focus is narrators and narration, and the texts for the day are Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and Millhauser’s “A Visit”. The exercise/discussion: Find where we finally definitively learn the name of the narrator in “A Cask of Amontillado”; hint: it’s located a ways into the story. Put together a sentence which includes a signal phrase and a quote (either the whole sentence or part of it) which responds to some element of why the name might be delayed.

Writing Thing #4: Quotation Marks: how and when to use when quoting and with titles (also use of italics in titles)

Writing Thing #5: Passive Voice: vs active, why to generally avoid it, when it’s ok; avoid ‘it can be seen/shown/proven etc’

Writing Thing #6: Pronouns- first vs second vs third (what they are and when to use), avoid generics (also expletive ‘it is’) as subject and why; also relatives (who vs whom, which vs that)

Writing Thing #7: Thesis Statements (detail and specific, ‘so what’ factor- meaning or importance)

Writing Thing #8: Topic Sentences- detail and specific, link to thesis, include ‘so what’ or meaning, placement, as transition and focus/forecast.

Writing Thing #9: Reasoning-Explanation of evidence; evidence supports not replaces argument or interpretation, must refer to details and explicitly reference evidence and reasoning behind how it supports idea(s)

Writing Thing #10: Comma use and abuse- joining clauses, oxford and with lists, with quotes, when to not use

Writing Thing #11: Colon and Semi-Colon- what they should be used for, not to be confused with/uses to avoid

Writing Thing #12: Grammatical person 1-2-3, and when to use what

Writing Thing #13: Introduction paragraph- provide context for subject and analysis (ie-thesis), not overgeneralized.

Writing Thing #14: Conclusion paragraph- review highlights, including thesis or main goal, final thought and/or why it might be important or useful to understand the way you’ve presented

Writing Thing #15: Supporting evidence- detailed, matched exactly to the point, cited

Writing Thing #16: Paraphrase- what it is (not patch-writing), when to use it, how to cite it

Writing Thing #17: MLA 8 Essay formatting: font, spacing, header, page number, bibliography, title

Writing Thing #18: Focus on the prompt- answer exactly what’s asked, note verbs and all required parts, don’t try to reconfigure too far to fit your ease/interest

Writing Thing #19: Focus and Interpretation- thesis and topic sentences, explanations (and evidence), detail, one point per paragraph.

Writing Thing #20: Reliable Sources (academic, general, popular) – author and date, publication source, use the works cited, when to use general or popular sources (and how to cite them)

Writing Thing #21: Using Dictionaries and Thesauri- know the exact definition and the proper context of the word.

Writing Thing #22: Synthesis- secondary source does not replace your ideas and need to be interpreted too as it suits your point.

Writing Thing #23: Fragments and Run-Ons- what they are, how to fix them

Writing Thing #24: Coordinates and Suboordinates conjunctions- what they are, which to use when

Writing Thing #25: Paragraph Structure review- point focused, specific; evidence- detailed, reasoning and explanation- focused and explicitly direct.

Writing Thing #26: Avoid- Generic statements, generalizing, rhetorical questions

Writing Thing #27: Web Searching- determining use and usefulness of source; can/should use this.

Writing Thing #28: Revision- order of revision: content (points and evidence, overalll structure), sentence-level, proofread, formatting.


A Medieval Style Writing Class

A few months ago I got a little cranky and frustrated with technical composition proficiencies in some composition-based classes, and I felt the need to get students back to basics of citation, grammar, and style. Being from a medievalist background, I wondered if a good way to accomplish this might not be through the medieval foundation of education in both the arts and sciences, the trivium.  Here now is a course outline that I plan to use next time I teach composition 101, along with the goals and reasons for each assignment.

The medieval trivium is a foundational element in the history of the liberal arts. It features in everything from allegories (ex. De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella) to handbooks (artes poetriae) to textbooks (especially on rhetoric) to pedagogy/philosophy (ex. Metalogicon by John of Salisbury). The three branches are Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic or Logic.  These three subjects have been the foundations of education in much of the modern world.

In spite of this extensive and critical place in history, all 3 subjects have suffered a general decline in how much and often they are directly taught. In a basic intro to composition course at the college level, most students won’t know the distinction between grammatical subject and object (grammar), be able to name the 3 appeals (rhetoric), or the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning (dialectic). Largely, this lack of knowledge is not their fault. This stuff just isn’t taught much anymore; maybe it’s time to bring the trivium back and see if it can help remedy some of the general complaints teachers and employers almost always seem to have nowadays about people’s ability to write and otherwise communicate clearly and effectively.

My current institution works largely on 75 minute class periods, twice a week, for a 16-week semester. Within that timeframe, I envision something like this:

Assignment 1: A review of a movie or book or tv show

Time to completion: 2 and a half weeks

Reason and Purpose: Less intimidating, and allows students to develop skills in summarizing, describing content and stylistic features, and stating opinions.

Branch of the trivium: grammatica. Grammar makes a good starting point both in the modern functional and medieval senses. In the past, classes have liked opening class periods with a series of brief grammatical exercises. I suspect that since formal grammar is not taught as much anymore yet remains an important aspect of good style, students appreciate learning some of the basics, such as parts of speech and correct uses for commas. In the medieval sense, grammatica included things like the parts of speech and usage, but also included figures of speech and arrangement. Eventually, some of these elements would fall under the purview of rhetoric. Early medieval grammar textbooks, such as Donatus’ Ars Maior and Ars Minor, and Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticae, include sections that consider syntax, tropes, and figures of speech, and as such I would include some of these components to help students develop their descriptive and stylistic capabilities.

Assignment 2: A rhetorical analysis of a political speech, based on the 3 appeals and 5 canons

Reason and purpose: Approaching rhetoric through the medium for which the tradition was originally designed makes it easier to understand and work with. I first designed this assignment for fall 2016 which happened to coincide with the presidential election season, which made the subject particularly relevant. For non-political seasons, the assignment could be modified to focus on speeches by politicians currently in office, or historical speeches.

Time to completion: 3 ½ weeks

Branches of the trivium: rhetorica et grammatica.  This assignment could be moved later and include dialectic as well, but knowledge of the rhetorical triangle is useful in upcoming assignments, starting with the appeals in their natural habitat seems to be a good introduction, and adding elements of formal logic, particularly fallacies, alongside the triangle might be too much new information for a lot of early career college students to take in well. From the medieval perspective, the Aristotelian focus here is a little anachronistic, since most handbooks of rhetoric were based more directly on Ciceronian rhetoric. Aristotle was re-discovered late in the medieval era, and this was more in terms of dialectic than rhetoric. That said, Cicero and Quintilian’s focus on the 5 canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) I think would prove a useful addition to the triangle. Figures of speech (figura), which are of particular interest to medieval rhetoricians and grammarians, could provide the further possibility for analysis, since they are also connected to style.

Assignment 3: Personal Narrative with Purpose in which students are asked to present the narrative of a personal experience that illustrates a unique aspect (good or bad) of their community (as they define it) according to the parameters of a magazine article or essay.

Reason and purpose: This assignment serves several functions, including giving students a change of pace from the traditional academic analysis, focusing on concrete language, keeping in mind length restrictions and audience analysis, and developing vocabulary. It also provides the foundation for the companion assignment that follows.

Time to completion: 2 weeks

Branches of the trivium: grammatica et rhetorica. This assignment provides students the chance to actually implement strategies of the trivium so far for themselves, as opposed to identifying and interpreting them in other texts. Quite a few of the early handbooks and textbooks that considered grammatica focused strongly on syntax and style, both of which are necessary here. Students don’t often realize how hard it is to comply with a length restriction rather than a minimum, and in order to deal with the 1,000 word limit they have to employ as strategic language as they can manage in terms of narrative and description. Students also need to consider strategies from rhetorica as well because students have to determine how to tell the story in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of the community and-or the experience. Rhetoric also comes into play when considering the style and conventions necessary for persuading the audience of a particular publication to stop and read a particular article.

Assignment 3.5: Proposal Letter

Reason and purpose: This assignment serves as a companion to the personal narrative with the added feature of asking students to write using the conventions of the formal proposal letter. Students are to identify a real magazine that might publish their narrative, and find the contact person and their information to send their story to. Students must consider and investigate the magazine audience, and explain what about their text would appeal to that audience.

Time to completion: 1 ½-2 weeks

Branches of the trivium: rhetorica et dialectica

The rhetoric comes from understanding the rhetorical situation and making appeals to the audience, in addition to the first 3 of the canons (invention, arrangement, and style). The dialectic elements is present in the requirement to provide strong reasoning and avoiding fallacies when arguing the benefits of the position (namely, why you should publish my work).

Assignment 4: Researched Proposal in which students define a community issue, explore what has previously been proposed and attempted, and make the case for what they believe is the most promising option.

Reason and purpose: The most basic goal of this assignment is to familiarize students with the conventions and practices of academic research at the university level.  The focus on current, local issues is intended to encourage more creative research, particularly in terms of primary material, including creating surveys, conducting interviews, and exploring local organizations.

Time to completion: 5 weeks

Branches of the trivium: omnes

Dialectic will be a prevalent influence here as students will be expected to work with Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis with both primary and secondary information. They will also have to analyze the reasoning of sources as they encounter different propositions using some of the techniques described in the Organon. This would also be a possible place to introduce syllogism and enthymeme. Rhetoric comes in with the possibility of enthymeme, but also in considering rhetorical situations of the positions they find, as well as their own arguments. Grammatica would be relevant particularly with identifying the auctoritas of sources and working with citations. Organization of the entire project would include both grammatica and rhetorica.

Assignment 5: Revision of Essay 1, 2, or 3 (including 3.5). Students are also be required to explain changes they made in footnotes or marginal comments.

Reason and purpose: Students are asked to reassess a previous piece of writing to encourage them to always look for ways to improve their work, and to emphasize that good writing is a process. In addition to making changes, students have to consider and explain their motives and reason for making each specific change through the notes.

Time to completion: 1 week or whatever is left of the term

Branches of the trivium: omnes

The particulars of working with each branch of the trivium will vary depending on which essay students decide to focus on, but there are some overall elements that all revisions will share.

The common elements of grammatica are the necessity to evaluate and adjust style and structure in the essay, as well as making choices about the structure and level of detail in the explanatory annotations.

The common rhetorical focus in in the contents of the explanations themselves, as students would need to be convincing (ie- detailed and specific) about why a particular improvement was made beyond “it was in the feedback or grade-sheet”.

Finally, with dialectic, no matter which essay is chosen, students would need to be able to identify and explain which changes would be most effective, and provide the reasoning how the changes made represent improvement.