Why we cite

Are profs psychotic about citation styles?

A few years ago, I told a colleague how tough it was to teach students to cite sources correctly. He chuckled and replied that he didn’t really worry about such details. After all, he said, unless students are going to graduate school, what difference could it make if they knew the difference between MLA and Chicago citation styles?

A more extreme version of this view—that insisting on correct use of professional citation styles amounts to a psychosis—is taken up by Kurt Schick in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For Schick, citation styles are “alien and absurd” to today’s students and trying to teach those styles to those students is “a colossal waste.” Sure, he says, teach students to cite, but stop worrying about the technical details—leave students more time to focus on what really matters.

Schick’s analysis is razor sharp, but I’m unconvinced. For one thing, he assumes that if students have to spend less time on one thing (citing), they will spend more on others (careful reading and analysis). That’s never been my experience. Where I come from, if you make an assignment easier, students just spend less time on it.

There are several other good reasons to teach students to cite exactly and correctly. For one, many students do go to grad school, and you never can tell exactly who it will be. You can’t create one set of standards for those who really want to learn all aspects of the discipline and another set for those who don’t. Rather than hold everyone to the lower standard, why not hold them to the higher one?

Schick maintains that we can divorce the form of the citation style from the function. That we can teach why we cite without teaching exactly how. But by the time you teach someone how to cite even sort-of well, you might as well teach them how to cite perfectly correctly. After all, any reasonable attempt at citing an edition of Shakespeare, for example, would have to include the author’s name, the editors of the edition, who published it and when. Anything less than that and your entry wouldn’t be very useful, even if you weren’t worrying about the details. But do those things and you’ve done most of what MLA and Chicago want anyway.

Most importantly, the discipline that comes with citing correctly fosters an attention to intellectual detail that will serve students well whatever they do. They may not be required to know the details of MLA style in their jobs, but then, they probably won’t write formal essays in their jobs either, but we teach them to do it because it helps make them methodical, careful thinkers. And part of that means, when faced with a writing task (legal brief, screenplay, whatever), learning the right way to do it, and then doing it that way.

As I often tell my students, faced with the choice between right and almost right, why not do it right?

Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University.