Citations (not the traffic kind)

DAVIS: I think one of the biggest stressors of writing a paper is making sure everything is cited correctly. I mean, it’s one thing to think of a topic, do the research, develop a thesis, and organize the paper to the standards that you want to reach, but it’s another thing to have to worry about making sure all of those citations are right. There are a bunch of tiny, little rules for formatting citations, and I know the last thing I want to do while working on a paper is pay attention to those details that don’t have much to do with the rest of my argument. But there’s got to be a reason that those rules exist, doesn’t there? I wanted to find out, so I called up Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

KATHLEEN: “I’m the Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication for the Modern Language Association.”

DAVIS: The MLA is a society of teachers and scholars that promotes and explores the study of language and literature, but you probably know them by the MLA style guide: a process of formatting and citing that the MLA publishes. There was big news awhile back: MLA’s new edition has some drastic changes to the approach, so maybe there’s hope on the horizon for all of us who feel perpetually confused by citation styles.

KATHLEEN: “I think the most important thing to know is that any time a student or a scholar at any level is writing a piece of scholarly work, that work is participating in an ongoing conversation. And it’s, on the one hand, looking back to the sources that that piece of writing is relying upon or is in conversation with, thinking about how those sources influence the work, how the work builds on top of the work that’s been done in the past, but it also looks forward and addresses itself to a future reader who might come along and join that conversation as well, who might read this essay or this article that’s being written and want to engage with the sources that that article used and might want to dig back in through the citations to follow this path of research. So thinking about who that future reader for this essay might be, whether that’s literally just your instructor, or it’s going to be a broader audience, and what they want to know about the sources that have been used and about the prominence of those sources, is really I think a big part about what we’re trying to get students to think through, their role in this ongoing scholarly conversation.”

DAVIS: That ongoing conversation is super important to the way we think about citations. The writing that we do doesn’t exist in a vacuum, meaning, we’re all helping to contribute to dialogue about the different issues in our fields. We can’t contribute and participate if we aren’t properly interacting with others in the field. That’s where standardized citations are helpful. And that brings us to another point: There are a lot of different fields out there that require different types of writing. And because of that there are a lot of different citation styles—there’s MLA, APA, Chicago, ACS, CSE, just to name a few—which all function as different ways to solve different problems. To show how that works, Kathleen gave me an example about in-text citations, the parentheticals you use in the middle of a paper to reference a source.

KATHLEEN: “MLA style, in its in-text parenthetical citations, asks you to use the author’s name and a page number for the most basic in-text parenthetical, those parentheticals in APA rely on the author’s name and the year of publication. And those two approaches tell you something very different about what the fields value, that in APA and in the sciences that use APA, often there is a need to know how recent the source that’s being cited is right up front. In the humanities that sense of recency doesn’t matter quite so much, so what you want is to know that if you have cited a text by Charles Dickens and your in-text citation says “Dickens 252” you can get right to that page right away, so that there is—in humanities scholarship—an interest in getting back to the sources and to seeing the original which is a little different that what happens in the sciences.”

DAVIS: Kathleen told me that this new edition of the MLA Handbook helps encourage writers to use the tools that are appropriate for the job. In previous editions there was a specific way to cite different media, and in this edition, that’s gone. It’s more about the process of citing something than the mechanics.

KATHLEEN: “Instead of asking students as we have in previous editions to first figure out what kind of source it is they’re trying to cite—whether it’s a newspaper article or a journal article or a magazine article or an article in a newspaper that is online, or what have you—and then looking up that type of source in an endless list that keeps growing and growing of different kinds of formats, we instead now ask students to look at the thing they are trying to cite and to look for some of the features that are common to all sources, so we provide students with one template that applies to all sources that helps them think through what is important about the source that they’re citing and how to put together for themselves a citation for it.”

“We’re trying to encourage a kind of critical thinking about the sources that students or any writer for that matter are working with as they’re writing, to think about what is going to be useful to someone who is reading the thing that they’re writing in order to track down the original sources that are being cited.”

DAVIS: That critical thinking with regards to your audience and the type of conversation that you’re in plays down into the nitty-gritty of the citation style itself too, even if sometimes it can feel a little arbitrary. While the new MLA approach does away with categorizing types of citations, the mechanics of those citations still do have meaning.

DAVIS (on tape): “It is kind of, I guess, common, especially in 100-level rhetoric courses for professors to just kind of dock points when you get something wrong on a citation—like it’s not italicized, or something like that, there’s a period in the wrong place. How important do you feel that those exact things are, or is the real meaning of a citation just to get that information across?”

KATHLEEN: “I think that the real meaning of the citation is, as you say, to get that information across, but some of those differences do matter. So, say, where the period goes may matter a little bit less than something like italics. Italics actually tell you something about the title that’s italicized, it tells you it’s a full length thing. So there is meaning that gets conveyed with italics that I do think is important to pay attention to. Part of what we’re trying to do with this edition of the handbook is to explain why that matters, rather than just telling you this has to be in italics.”

DAVIS: So next time you’re writing and wonder why exactly you have to insert parentheticals, italicize something, or keep track of page numbers, this is why: your writing isn’t just for yourself. Your work exists to build on top of and to contribute to a larger volume of work that explores and analyzes a topic in the field. Just as you read other people’s work to research your ideas, other people are going to read your work to research and expand on theirs. Keeping your sources and ideas cataloged in a way that is standard to your field helps facilitate that conversation.