Friday, September 11, 2015

Let the engine do the citing?

"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.


Contingent Cassandra said...

Amen -- on the problem(s), the most likely solution, and the acceptable outcome.

I also get the feeling that citation engines create a sort of learned helplessness: students are convinced that a process that is, admittedly, painstaking and tedious and sometimes a bit exasperating, but not really hard (I'd mastered it well before 8th grade) is so hard they couldn't possibly do it by themselves.

Anonymous said...

Okay, let me play devil's advocate here for a moment. And I say some of these things in a tongue-in-cheek sorta way. You say you want students to know that there's more to research than Google. But sadly for most of them, there isn't. Most of the research the current college generation will do for the rest of their lives will involve varied and seemingly-authorless online pieces. In fact, unless they become researchers--which most of them will not--they are unlikely to ever use citations or citation-formatting again. I have never used a formal citation since college, which was many, many, many years ago. Part of college education is teaching students to see the benefits of using the tools of the past to navigate the future. I think there is an argument to be made that learning proper formal citations is beneficial to a very few students. Yet, I also know that no English professor is likely to agree with me. I myself was, in fact, an English Major in college. And I thoroughly appreciate the fact that I became a lifelong reader and a better-than-good writer. And I honestly do not remember learning citations, although I am certain that I did. It's just that those citations have never served me at all in my life. Online information is ubiquitous these days. Hard to tell news from opinion, an article from an essay, even occasionally fact from fiction. Which to me means teaching a bit of how to separate information is necessary, but teaching how to formally cite it is not. Keep the faith though. Teaching students in college these days is tough work.