"Let's be honest," said the first-year student. "We're going to use online citation engines. What are your thoughts on that?"
Good question! Why would I require first-year students to practice using an MLA guide to create citations by hand when they can plug the information into a machine and get perfect results instantly?
Primarily because so many of the machine-generated citations I receive are far from perfect--and too often, students don't know how to fix them.
It all comes down to that old cliche: Garbage In, Garbage Out. The citation is only as good as the information students insert into the machine, and if they don't know the difference between an online article and a print article accessed online, or between an anthology and an essay in an anthology, or between an editor and an author, then they're going to produce flawed citations. (And don't even get me started about the student who confused the dateline with the byline and cited as author Regina Saskatchewan.)
The problem is compounded when students read so many of their sources online. If all the information they need pops up on the same little box, how can they tell what they're looking at? That's why we spend time in class figuring out how to distinguish between types of sources--and that's also why I require all my first-year writing students to go to the library and check out a book at least once during the semester. They need to know that there's more to research than Google.
Then they need to know what to do about works with no author or multiple authors, and how to handle names of translators and editors. What about E-books? What about multiple places of publication?
And what about format? Aside from the fact that citation engines often result in inadequate information (and the multiplication of "n.p., n.p" throughout a Works Cited), students aren't always particularly adept at making the resulting citation match the required format for the paper: the Works Cited shows up in an entirely different font from the rest of the paper, or it's all single-spaced or (horrors!) centered on the page. Sometimes the Works Cited features different colors of ink or large highlighted sections. When I comment on these problems on drafts, students too often shrug it off with "That's the way the citation engine did it." Either they don't know how to change the format or they'd simply rather not bother.
In the end, what I'm looking for is a Works Cited that includes all the required information formatted correctly; if students can achieve that goal through a citation engine, I have no complaints. However, I do my best to equip them with some knowledge of how citations work and some practice in creating their own citations so that when the citation engine produces something dreadful, they'll at least have a clue about how to fix it.