Oh MLA, Really, Again?

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I suppose many of us are grappling with the significant changes to MLA citation in the organization’s eighth handbook.  I know I am.


Change happens, particularly as our technologies of publication continue to evolve rapidly in a digital age.  That’s one of the reasons that increasingly I don’t teach the mechanics of citation per se, but instead a meta approach to citing sources.  I tell my students that there are only 4 things they need to know about citation.


  1.         It exists.
    The most critical thing to know about citation is that it exists. That means that writers are responsible for acknowledging there sources.

  2.         If it’s not absolutely right, it’s wrong.
    Every little bit of a citation is critical, since these systems are designed to accurately document sources used. Getting citations perfectly correct is essential to the integrity of the work.

  3.        Know what you’re citing.
    I spend time talking about the kinds of sources that could be cited, as students often don’t know the differences between an anthology, an edited collection, a book, a journal article, a website, and more. Before any source can be cited, it’s important to know the kind of source it is.

  4.         Know how to find the answer.
    This step is crucial since it encourages a kind of meta-literacy. Citation systems change all the time, so making sure students learn the eighth edition MLA formatting is of limited use.  What’s more, only a fraction of the students in my courses will move into disciplines that use MLA.  It’s not at all important that they master the intricacies of MLA, but it is assuredly important that they master sets of tools that will help them find the correct answer.  In class, we discuss the range of tools they might use: a good handbook, a reliable web resource (including ones provided by our school’s library), and a spectrum of software tools that will help them construct a citation.


Encouraging citation literacy is my solution to the ever-changing nature of all citation systems.  I know that, personally, I often have to research and review how to do citations of even the most basic sources.  I share the strategies I use in the hopes that students will adopt similar ones.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.