Citation psychosis? On teaching students about citing their sources

This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education from almost a year ago resonates with my current thinking about how we teach students about the process of doing research.

I decided not to emphasize formatting sources for the term essay assignment in my summer course. My reasons for this choice are addressed in this article. I told my students that I wanted them to focus on locating, evaluating, and integrating what other writers have said with their own ideas.  I gave them a set of readings to go along with their writing assignment and told them to not do any additional research. My hope was that students would get much more out of doing a writing assignment based on high-quality readings that were preselected because of their scope, perspective, or relevance. This turned out to be true; their essays were much more sophisticated, coherent, and complex than I expected. I also referred them to the University’s writing website with its summary of citation rules–not exactly Chicago or MLS, but who cares?

My motivation to de-emphasize citation details came from both my experiences as an instructor with students who were side-tracked by minutia, and from my own writing experiences with too much time spent on nit-picky details preventing me from fully developing bigger and better ideas.

In my own writing I am trying to learn how to focus my attention in earlier writing stages on the complex tasks of organizing ideas, refining my questions, expanding on the implications of my research.  I am also trying to strengthen my resolve in later stages to work through the necessary and meticulous process of checking my citations as part of the editing process.

For students, the necessary skills of information literacy depend on having at least some familiarity with high-quality sources (not just websites and reference sources.) This is why I felt giving them a set of pre-selected readings was OK. Left to their own devices, I expect students would continue to just use Google, JSTOR, and maybe the index of a general book about medieval art for a few general blurbs about the paper topic. By assigning them specific, in-depth articles and book chapters, they were introduced to several significant readings about one particular group of medieval objects, a process that aligns with the other objectives of a survey course.

“We could then reinvest time wasted on formatting to teach more-important skills like selecting credible sources, recognizing bias or faulty arguments, paraphrasing and summarizing effectively, and attributing sourced information persuasively and responsibly.  YES, YES, AND YES.

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