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What Is It About MLA?

posted: 6.14.07 by Barclay Barrios

What is it about MLA citation that makes it so impossible for students to learn?

Alternatively, what is it about me that makes me such a good learner (or is that “so anal-retentive” instead?)?

I gave the grad students a little MLA practice sheet. Nothing fancy, mind you. In fact, it was designed to just be the basics: citation with quotation, citation with quotation when author’s name used in the sentence, paraphrase, etc. I handed them the list of tasks at the end of class with a Starbucks gift card prize for the first student to email me the answers with no errors.

The gift card remains mine.

On some level I can understand. I think there’s something fundamentally unnatural about citation–it’s just not the way people think or write. When I’m able to step outside of my own geeky brain for a minute, I can see how alien the whole thing is. I imagine I would feel the way my students feel if I were in a chemistry class, dealing with notations and formulae. And yet, that’s the thing about formulae, right? I mean, they’re formulaic, which means you don’t have to think about it ’cause all you have to do is fill in the blanks. On the other hand, the formula only works if you know it.

Clearly, my grad students don’t know it yet. I got missing quotation marks, I got commas between the author and the page number, I got citations after a period, I got it all. Clearly we’ll be spending some more time on this in class, but I don’t know how else to explain it without making it dead dead boring. Anyone got some ideas?

I’m not fussy but perhaps I am fastidious. OCD? Nah. Anal? Perhaps. I’m not sure what it is in me that lets me learn how to do all this so correctly or maybe it’s better to say I’m not sure what it is in me that makes me learn how to do all this so correctly. Clearly, an issue for therapy and not for Bits. 😉

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Categories: Citing Sources, Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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6 Responses to “What Is It About MLA?”

  1. JP Says:

    I’m with Selber on not worrying too terribly much about whether graduate students have internalized MLA citation guidelines. I know when I write, for instance, the citations often take place in the editing process, during which I often myself need to dig up the trusty MLA guidebook to double-check things. Similarly, with come journals and presses increasingly using “modified” versions of both MLA and Chicago, they will often need to adjust their citations when attempting to publish. Finally, although it’s important to teach proper MLA formats to their undergraduate students, this process often takes place with explicit reference to the MLA book or related websites rather than their personal recall (contra, for instance, they way they might teach the “proper” use of semicolons, etc.). Undergraduate students themselves, of course, often avoid the entire process altogether by using such online tools as or

  2. Selber Says:

    I certainly discuss the importance of style guides, being sure to go over not only the practical functions they serve but also their social and political functions. But I’ve not worried about graduate students getting things exactly right. Not sure why. They of course need to be able to get it right. But generally speaking I’ve not seen it as my job to police that skill development, in part because I know editors will intervene and help. Should I take on this task? I can’t find a convincing argument to do so. Perhaps someone here can provide one.

  3. Jessica Kidd Says:

    Like JP, the issue for me would be that grad students are able to teach citation to their undergrad classes.
    If they can’t look up correct formatting , how can they expect their students to even begin to cite anything?
    I want students to be in the habit of checking their style manuals while building rudimentary citation skills–don’t forget where you got the info, give credit where credit is due, etc.
    And why are students so afraid to look in those style manuals?

  4. MT Says:

    This is how to actually put the quotation in the text, right?

    Has anyone ever analyzed a group of college papers for quotation styles? I’ve done it with high school papers and found roughly 80% or more of the quotes were the classic method of quotation followed by parenthesis, author name, page number, close parenthesis and period. The format starting the sentence with the author’s name and ending with just the page number in parentheses was next, with a very low 10 percent. The other methods rounded out the percentage.

    If this maintains true for college papers, should we modify our instruction for that reality?

  5. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Maybe one thing I need to be teaching more of, then, is not so much the format but *how* to look it up and *when* to do so. I mean, they are their own editors when they turn work in to me so they need to know how to catch this before I am looking at it.

    Hmmmm… perhaps some more time with a handbook…

  6. dr. b. Says:

    I think that they just don’t see the importance of MLA citation format outside of the traditional hoop jumping. Oddly I think that while we usually try to teach through this in FYC classes the same seems to hold true for grad students.