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Common Knowledge in the Age of Google

posted: 7.28.11 by Andrea Lunsford

I’ve been working lately on the documentation section of The Everyday Writer and thinking about the difficulties students have with citations. And it’s no wonder! They are inundated with information coming at them from all sides and all media, and a lot of it has been remixed from other sources. It’s not unusual for a student to ask, “So how do I cite a video on YouTube of an interview for a magazine that was also on NPR?” (How would you cite this Alison Bechdel video?) No citation system I know if can give examples of everything students will need to cite, so I always work with students to decide what their “text” is most like.  If it is most like a video, then cite it using that model, and so on.

But these discussions have led me to believe we need to do some hard rethinking of citation practices.  For one thing, we need to be flexible and let students know that it’s OK to just do the best they can to follow MLA style, for example.  I was talking with a high school student—a senior—who said “My teacher lets us choose what to write about—as long as we use really strict MLA.” When I asked her what “MLA” was, she vaguely understood that it was a documentation system, but she had no idea at all that the MLA was a very large organization with a full publishing program, annual meetings, and so on. To her it was just a set of hidebound rules that she was forced to conform to. So being flexible to me means explaining where citation systems come from, why they gained currency right alongside intellectual property rights, and why scholars use them today.

Being flexible also means rethinking what is called “common knowledge,” information that does not need to be cited.  Most books define common knowledge as something most readers already know—that Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, for example. But the Web has made defining common knowledge increasingly difficult: if a student Googles a question and gets thousands of “hits” all saying more or less the same thing, which one should he or she cite? It’s high time, I think, to broaden our understanding of common knowledge in the digital age and to include, at the very least, “facts available in a wide variety of sources” as not needing citation.

I’d love to hear other thinking on this issue!

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Categories: Teaching with Technology
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3 Responses to “Common Knowledge in the Age of Google”

  1. Brad Zakarin, Northwestern University Says:

    It’s unfortunate that so few instructors are willing to raise these issues for the purposes of reflecting on lesson plans–especially since they deal with them routinely (and almost subconsciously) in their own scholarly pursuits. What’s business as usual for us is anything but for novice writers in high school and college.

    RE styles and formats of citations: I won’t rehash what I wrote in a past blog post ( responding to James Lang’s piece in the Chronicle about citation software. All I’ll say here is that correctness of citation format is not the same thing as fulfillment of the principle of attribution, which is the core academic value represented by symbols like footnotes and parenthetical notes.

    RE common knowledge: In more than one academic dishonesty case that I’ve adjudicated, students have told me that they saw definitions of terms or bits of background information on multiple websites and concluded that they must be “common knowledge.” Is seeing something on 5-6 websites enough to call it common knowledge? One student thought that was a good enough standard when taking a working definition of a philosophical concept. Does it matter which websites we’re talking about? Another student couldn’t tell me which website she had consulted when I showed her multiple sites containing identical encyclopedic information that plagiarism detection software had flagged in her paper. With so much information on the web cut-and-pasted from elsewhere, what is commonly seen may not be commonly known. It doesn’t matter if the material is reposted in violation of copyright or legally republished from the digital commons of Wikipedia or similar sites. What does matter is that students don’t know if they’re supposed to cite it. Educators need to think more about how to train students to think through these situations, and how to respond when students make mistakes.

  2. Catherine Prendergast, University of Illinois Says:

    I could not agree more. In our custom materials, we introduce citations systems in tandem with the professional organizations, including links to the professional organizations’ websites so the students can “go there.” We encourage our students to choose their citation system based on the nature of the research their doing, and the fit with the academic audience they wish to address. We also encourage students to cite each other as sources of knowledge. As a field, we are overly focused on MLA style leading to its reification as the “school” citation system. It becomes as animated and useful in that instance as a plug-and-chug lab report where everyone knows the answer. If we want them to recognize the social uses of citation, we need to give them choices.

  3. andrea lunsford Says:

    We’re thinking along the same lines, Cathy, that’s for sure. Choice is good! I bet your custom materials are terrific.

    And Brad, thanks for your astute comments. I don’t know that five or six websites saying the same thing makes for ocmmon knowledge but surely somewhre around 20 would work!

    Sending all best wishes,