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Teaching the Mechanics of Citation Styles

February 23, 2011

There are many, many parts of my job that I love.  Teaching students the mechanics of a citation style is not one of them.  I don’t mind teaching about many aspects of citations, including effective use of in-text citation, or even technology sessions on using tools like Mendeley.  But teaching the basic, “this is what an NLM article citation style looks like” is one of my least favorite parts of my job.

This is partly because I can completely sympathize with students when they complain about the preponderance of citation styles – it doesn’t make much practical sense.

It also probably because my style of teaching about citation styles isn’t very exciting.

My basic plan starts with a PowerPoint presentation in which I discuss the following:

  • Why we use specific styles – it isn’t just to annoy undergraduates, it is to facilitate clear communication among scholars.
  • Specific rules for articles, books or websites in the selected citation style – especially the bits that tend to mess with students
  • Resources to make all of this easier – “bibliography” output buttons in databases, references managers like Mendeley and Zotero

This is normally followed by an in-class practice session where they are given a sample article, website, book etc. and asked to create a citation.

I follow up with a homework assignment via the LMS in which I ask them to create a properly formatted citation for a resource they will use in an upcoming assignment.  I provide feedback and they should have at least one good citation for their project.

I believe that this information is useful to students, and the faculty who ask for such a session believe it is worth giving up class time, but it isn’t the most interesting.

So I put the question to the universe – what are some teaching strategies that can make the boring fundamentals of citation styles more engaging (to both me and my students)?

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7 Comments
  1. Teaching citation has become one of my all-time favorite things to teach. No joke. And for me it all fell into place when I realized that without a framework, it’s just a bunch of rules (kind of like learning the lyrics to a song without the aid of melody or beat — it’s just a lot of word to learn). With a framework, though, it starts to fall into place, and even to reveal the epistemological underpinnings of the disciplines that use the various styles. It’s jargon, for sure, in that it conveys a LOT of information as succinctly as possible in the order most needed for readers to quickly evaluate whether the evidence you’re using counts as good evidence given your audience and your topic.

    Here’s one version of the kind of citation class I teach.

    I’ve found that often, when students realize there’s more going on than abbreviations, commas, and periods, they pay more attention and don’t begrudge the rules quite as much. It becomes more like learning a language than like filling out legal forms.

    • Thanks for the link, Iris – interesting stuff that I will probably “borrow” in a class I’m teaching next week!

      There are some aspects of teaching citation that I like – for example, I like showing students how referring to an author by name in text can make your writing clearer.

      But I find the arguments about the necessity for disciplinary differences unconvincing. Sure, the humanities may not emphasize dates as much, but they still include them. So why must we sometimes use indentations, italics, bold, etc. and other times something different?

      I’m not holding my breath, but I would love to see a more standardized citation style develop.

  2. Here at Georgia Tech, we’ve partly pushed this off to our LibGuide for Research/Writing/Citing Sources (http://libguides.gatech.edu/research). Under Citation Styles, we’ve put a page on how to read a citation, and pages for APA, Chicago/Turabian, and MLA with examples right on the page, plus a page for other citation styles. Did not create the content, found it on other libraries’ guides and got permission to re-use them. It does provide a place the students can go and refresh their memory about citation styles. The pages also list the manual for that style and links to some useful web pages.

    • We also have a page devoted to citation resources, with similar content, but since students don’t *have* to look through it, a lot of the faculty I work with get frustrated.

      I have been toying with the idea of developing (or locating) some kind of online tutorial that students have to go through as an assignment for the mechanics, so that in class I can concentrate more on the rationale and the best practices aspect.

      I’ve been teaching NLM style a lot lately, and there aren’t as many resources about that one as there are about APA and MLA.

  3. I think the point isn’t that “humanists don’t need dates” but that dates in that epistemology become important only when you get to the point of wanting to find the actual page the person is citing. The names and titles get elevated to the point of being called out in the text (and being first in the citation) because they’re what matter to the way knowledge is constructed in that field. So if you think of citation as primarily a way to communicate, with the important stuff first and the details later, the citation styles all take on a similar feel.

    It’s important to have some things called out in quotation marks and other things italicized because that’s what helps your reader’s eye catch the parts of the citation quickly (kind of like newspapers are arranged in columns because of the way they expect people to skim quickly). It’s like the typographical version of using a highlighter to call out certain bits.

    And granted, there are a ton of stuffy rules. But I’ve found that my classes go better when I emphasize the reason behind the rules rather than the fact that there are tons of annoying rules. Students have to do this anyway, and will continue to have to do this beyond college in some form or another, so I might as well give them some way to resent the task less, right? Reinforcing the resentment doesn’t do them any favors. So I looked for something about why things were the way there were that I could geek out on, and then counted on that geeking out to help my students see *anything* that might peek their interest enough that they’d do what was required with less angst.

  4. Marie Cmino Spina permalink

    Teaching citation is as much of a pain as doing them –unless you treat it like a puzzle and teach it in the contect of evaluation. Finding “who what where when why and how” are the very elements for critical thinking about why a resource was selected and the context into which it is valid for the research, essay or whatever. In the world where keyword match for information (almost) rules I have found that in Community College context this methond of combining the research with citation at the outset opened doors to greater use of specific databases and better use of Google, Google Scholar and other Search engines for students new to the process and even more advanced users.

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