Citation Strictness

| April 18, 2011

In an article titled “Why the ‘Research Paper’ Isn’t Working” at the Inside Higer Ed blog, librarian Barbara Fister pushes back on the idea that conventional research papers ought to be the cornerstone of an undergraduate writing education:

“The first year “research paper” has always sent a mixed message. You’re supposed to be original, but must quote someone else to back up every point you make – while in constant fear that you’ll be accused of stealing from them.The obscure rules of citing sources only exacerbates the confusion and focuses attention on mechanics.”

“If you want students to learn about a topic and be able to synthesize information effectively, fine – but don’t call it research. Turn it into a presentation, an informational brochure, or a Wikipedia article. If you want students to make an argument, start from something they know and care about, something that matters to them and about which they can hold an informed opinion. If you want them to read and understand scholarly material, focus on close reading and have the class jointly prepare an annotated edition. If you want them to write academic prose, wait until they know enough about the discipline to know what they’re talking about and how to ask a meaningful question about it.

But if you want first year college students to understand what sources are for and why they matter, if you want them to develop curiosity and respect for evidence, your best bet is to start by tossing that generic research paper. As for those who will complain that students should have learned how to paraphrase and cite sources in their first semester – we’ve tried to do that for decades, and it hasn’t worked yet. Isn’t it time to try something else?”

Is there really any good reason to insist that students conform to complicated and not especially important conventions of writing, like citation methods, right away? Doing so costs a great deal of time and energy that students would do better to spend delving into substantive aspects of the secondary sources. There is disturbing evidence that students very often use secondary sources in an extremely superficial manner; perhaps alleviating the technical demands of a research paper would allow students to focus more on substantive aspects of the paper.

Furthermore, even though nearly all of the graduate students at TC will have been through an introductory composition course, I highly doubt that anyone remembers how to do all of their citations (whose styles constantly change, besides!) At least, as graduate students, we have largely determined whether we are pursuing careers in academia or not. For those who are pursuing academic careers, learning citation styles is not such a ridiculous demand. Those who are not pursuing academic careers are at least better positioned than college freshman to understand why it’s important to respect the norms of academia, and are not forced into the overwhelming position of learning how to write and how to cite simultaneously.

For these reasons, I endorse the idea of lightening up on the technical aspects research papers. It’s nice to think that we could give undergraduates all of the writing skills that they’ll need right off the bat in first-year composition course, but that doesn’t really work out in practice. Are there any compelling reasons for retaining traditional, rigorous standards for undergraduate composition paper formats? Did taking a course with such standards help to prepare you for graduate school or not?