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Why cite sources?

posted: 5.22.14 by Andrea Lunsford

A recent conversation with colleague Meg Worley from Colgate reminded me that I need to think ever more carefully about documentation and citation practices in this digital age.  Meg pointed to the difficulty her students have with understanding arcane documentation systems; I chipped in by saying that my students seem often to prefer to paste hotlinks into their essays rather than follow the guidelines of a formal documentation system. And in an essay Jenn Fishman, Warren Liew, and I published in College English last May, we drew on interviews from the Stanford Study of Writing to demonstrate the nervousness (even fear) students feel about accidentally plagiarizing.  So confusion is definitely rife:  a high school junior who came in to ask about a possible internship in our writing center said during our conversation: “So how about MLA?”  I thought this a slightly odd question but began to tell her a bit about the history of the organization and its work sponsoring conferences, journals, and the like, when she interrupted me to say “MLA is an organization?”  She went on to say she had asked about it because her high school teacher required MLA and she wondered why:  “She lets us make a lot of choices about what we will write about—but she is a real killer about MLA.”  So then we talked about MLA as a documentation system and its relationship to disciplines in the humanities.  All news to her.  Later I asked some Stanford students about MLA and the ones who recognized it defined it as a “way to do endnotes and bibliographies.”

So we have at least two questions here:  why should we cite or document sources, and how should we teach these practices.  While I have never been a real stickler for following a documentation style slavishly (I know people who take big points off for a misplaced period or comma, etc.), I believe that even in an age of instant recall we need to let our readers know where the information we are sharing comes from.  I liked the way Meg thought about citation as a deeply social process, a “complex diplomacy between past, present, and future authors.”  I think that if we presented documentation in this way, engaging students in thinking of themselves as in conversation with past—and future—authors and as part of a large, ongoing scholarly conversation, we might help them to understand that documenting sources is not only a vestige of capitalism and industrialization, one that grew up along with more and more restrictive copyright laws (though it certainly is that), but also a way of tracing intellectual lineages, allegiances,  and differences across time and space.

I wonder what issues you and your students are facing in terms of citing sources and what you think the future will hold for such venerable systems of documentation as MLA and APA.  Please share!

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One Response to “Why cite sources?”

  1. Stephanie B, Long Beach City College Says:

    I love this slant on teaching MLA. I do a variation of this in my basic writing course—I explain that MLA is an organization, and (briefly) why we use it. I also emphasize the issue of ‘style choice’ and how MLA is not the only game out there (and how they may encounter others). But I really like the idea of framing it as mode of connection and conversation, and as a marker of an academic community.