Libraries and Learning

Learning Why, Not How

August 8, 2019

I agree with Jenny Young that emphasizing correct citation in composition courses is not helping students learn why and how to use other people’s ideas effectively in writing. In fact, I agreed with her as far back as 2009 and probably earlier. My primary beef with making formal citation practices a significant part of introducing new college students to academic argument is that It puts too much emphasis on covering your butt and being able to follow complex rules and too little on engaging with ideas, or engaging with the humans who share ideas as part of a collective effort to understand the world. The activity of constructing citations is used as a stand-in for what academics actually value about ethical and well-sourced argument, but it’s a stand-in that conceals rather than illuminates.

Some argue learning how to cite sources is essential for learning to use good sources or respect intellectual property or avoid plagiarism or make responsible arguments.  Learning how to compose citations has little to do with any of that.

Good journalists cite their sources, but without footnotes. Good public speakers are careful to attribute ideas not just to avoid being humiliated by charges of plagiarism but because it helps them develop their own authority and strengthens their argument. Supreme court justices cite sources in decisions but in oral argument, they have to make clear what authorities they are drawing on as they debate the issues with petitioners. Sources matter. Citations are just one way to describe them.

As a librarian (who mostly worked with students in the library but has also taught the occasional first semester seminar), here’s what I see are the problems new students have with the way we teach citations as part of academic argument:

  • Too much headspace is taken up with trivia (not actually reading and referring to texts but extracting quotes and constructing hand-coded references to sources). It takes hours away from actually working on their writing.
  • They are misled about plagiarism because they associate it with correct citations, not with how to handle the ideas being cited.
  • They don’t learn why citations are useful because they associate them almost exclusively with the possibility of making mistakes and the threat of punishment.
  • They don’t connect composing citations with academic values: having an open mind, respecting evidence even if it doesn’t support your hypothesis, making sure readers know how you arrive at your conclusion, and honoring expertise. None of that is made obvious from the act of citing sources.
  • They are likely to think academic argument is weird and not something that matters beyond school because nobody else argues that way. Actually, they do but if you’re focused on proper citations, you won’t see the similarities.

Yesterday I was having one of those good mornings when ideas were coming fast from different sources I’d encountered, snapping together like cognitive tinker toys and, as I paused to jot some notes, it occurred to me that we typically asked to come up with a topic or question for research and then search for sources, which is exactly the opposite of the experience I was having. And I began to brainstorm a sequence of possible activities to rethink how we introduce first year students to the value of using sources  (though this is hardly new; John Warner’s book is full of great teaching ideas).

  • Toss an idea out to students and ask them what they think. Make it something that’s in their wheelhouse – an issue to do with the campus itself, or something that group of first year students have in common. (It might be something they’re already talking about as they settle into their seats.) Ask them to reflect on how they learned about it or who told them and why they trust that person. Nudge them to think about why some information is trustworthy and why some is less so. See if you can collectively sum up what the class agrees on and what points are still unresolved. Ask how they would address those points. What more would they need to find out? Show how moments of curiosity turn into questions and how research is not about finding sources, it’s about finding out.
  • Show how academics do the same thing by modeling one of your ideas. It could be the starting point of a formal research project, but it could just be a moment when your curiosity was piqued and you found stuff out to satisfy it. Draw a messy map on the board. I read this, I remembered that, somebody mentioned, I wondered about, so I needed to know …
  • Invite students to share similar experiences with each other. What have you wondered about? What’s an argument you have tried to make, and what did you have to find out to explain it to someone who didn’t know much about the topic?
  • Reflect on their process of finding out and how they decided who or what to trust. Look at some of their sources using the same concepts you’ve already used to help them as writers – who’s speaking? Who’s the audience? What’s the purpose? Give them some habits for evaluating what they found. What’s the source? If someone referred to a news story, what does the actual news story say? What’s the nature of that news organization (something Wikipedia can answer surprisingly often.) What do other sources say? Use those explorations to emphasize that credibility matters, that people use sources so you can track them down and learn more, that this kind of research matters in everyday life. That making good, ethical arguments using credible sources that you name isn’t just for school.
  • If you really want to get ambitious, give students experience reading citations to see how they work. But writing them – that can wait until there’s an actual need, maybe after they’ve chosen a major.

On the few occasions I taught a course that emphasized writing for first year students, I did what a lot of instructors do: I had an assignment that required constructing citations because I knew students would be told in other courses they should already have been taught how in my course. It never really worked, and I knew the students would have to learn all over again using different manuals because disciplines want to know different things quickly when they read citations. Now I wish the “service” I provided had been giving students a better grasp of why we cite, not how to do it, because no matter what I said about “why,” it still converted itself in the minds of my students into following rules and avoiding punishment.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.