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Attention to Detail

posted: 11.8.11 by Steve Bernhardt

[See also Doug Downs’ take on this topic—a happy coincidence, entirely unplanned.]

My Intro to Comp students are working on annotated bibliographies this week, using styles appropriate to their disciplines (MLA, APA, Chicago, CSE). I know some instructors prefer that everyone work with MLA and hope that whatever students learn will transfer to disciplinary standards sometime in the future, but I find that students are motivated to learn the expectations of their disciplines. A few of the students’ questions in class the other day established that some of them have paper assignments in other classes, and those classes expected Chicago style in one case, CSE in a second, and APA in a third. I suggested that we might as well concentrate on learning what they are likely to need. Writer’s Help is turning out to be a great resource, as students can go to the different models and figure out how to apply the information to their particular source information.

This kind of work, which calls for attention to detail, is really quite technical. Students need to determine exactly what kind of source they have, find their way to a matching model, and then apply it to that. Even if all the source information is at hand, getting citations correctly formatted is a challenge: name formats, colons, spacing, italics, capitalization, parentheses, periods, commas. Can we focus on details, notice tiny differences, work toward utter consistency? Because this attention to detail forms part of my instructional goal, I don’t encourage students to head immediately toward citation generation software sites, though we talk about them and identify some good ones.

Attending to these tiny details can lead to other lessons, as well. For example, getting the layout correct is a challenge for many. Most students have not learned how to create a hanging indent or how to adjust the indents on the ruler bar. As soon as we project someone’s bibliography and turn on the Show/Hide Paragraph in Word, we see the mess behind the method: repeated tabs, paragraph breaks, forced line breaks, and a reliance on the space bar to line up information. When I show students how to do this formatting cleanly, they say “Gee, I thought I was pretty good with Word, but I never knew how to do this stuff.” A quick lesson on format styles and the quick styles bar gets a few interested in how to start controlling a text with style tags.

Is all this useful learning? My suspicion is that most professors are happy if students use sources at all and provide reasonably consistent citations. In all probability, only a few of my students will ever actually submit a paper to a journal or write a thesis that calls for the kind of precision we are practicing this week. Yet I think that slowing learning down at certain points and focusing attention on the tiniest details must have value for a wide range of pursuits. So the meaningful question I’ve posed for my students this week is “Can you, when called on to do so, get something perfectly correct in detail?” The answer is relevant to measuring laboratory values, constructing data tables, writing a resume, filling out a tax form, reporting the results of an audit, setting up a machine, or any number of work activities. And I hope and believe some of what we are doing transfers to life after college.

Categories: Research, Working with Sources
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