Venn Librarian

Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Cite nonsense

Posted by lpearle on 5 December 2011

Last year a friend asked for my help with a paper she was writing for a class – how should she cite a YouTube video? Her professor didn’t know the proper format, and my friend knew that “Go to YouTube and look for [title of video]” wasn’t correct. At the LIRT session I attending during ALA10, the student voice on the panel said “there are more citation styles than MLA!”, and Joyce Valenza’s survey backs up this poor student’s experience. What wasn’t discussed (or asked) was how one cites in the paper itself: footnotes, endnotes or parentheticals?

When I was in high school and college, working on papers, I hated footnotes. You had to figure out how many there were on a specific page, measure up from the bottom margin to leave space, draw a light line to indicate your new bottom margin… ugh. Endnotes were more elegant by far. Of course, endnotes made it far more difficult to fudge the paper length (with footnotes, you could be a little generous with the bottom margin; I’m sure many, if not all, our professors knew that trick). Since the early part of this century, most word processing programs have made inserting footnotes easy, but the schools I’ve worked at have asked for parenthetical citations.

One of the things we drill into our students is that they need to cite often and give credit for all ideas, images, quotes, facts, etc. that come from someone else. It’s not because we want to catch them plagiarizing, I tell students, it’s because often I (and teachers) learn something from each paper we read and this is a way for us to learn even more every bit as much as it’s because giving credit to others shows respect for intellectual property. To guide them, I suggest that they cite everything they learned during the research phase (this includes class notes, as several teachers allow students to cite lectures they’ve given). For many, this can lead to a citation-heavy paper, which isn’t easy to read!

I just finished reading Massie’s Catherine the Great, and thought of the contrast between his citation method and that of Alison Weir (whom I use as an example of “cite early, cite often”). Just look at Weir’s Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley:

Massie doesn’t cite in the text at all:

I’m not sure which I prefer, but just imagine either with footnotes or parentheticals! Getting back to my friend’s question, sometimes I think we adhere too closely to form and forget the real reasons for citations. Does it really matter where you put the periods, or if you use initials instead of first names? Shouldn’t we be more interested in getting our students to give credit for other’s ideas and providing clear paths to how they found those ideas? Focusing on the nitty gritty of the citation obscures that, bores and confuses students and creates more reasons for them to just not cite.

2 Responses to “Cite nonsense”

  1. […] also an on-going discussion about how to cite, which I’ve already covered here. Suffice it to say, with all these new tools the ways in which we cite information are constantly […]

  2. […] When I work with students on their own research, that last section is called a Bibliography or a Works Cited (which are two different things, but often teachers don’t make that distinction).   We spend many hours teaching them not only how to properly cite sources but when to cite sources.  It’s the last part that is somewhat problematic, as they understand citing a direct quote but don’t understand why they should also cite any information that’s new to them during the course of their research.   I usually hand out a page or two from Alison Weir’s books to help them along.  Yes, I’ve talked about this before. […]

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