Thank you, MLA!

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Dear Friends—let’s welcome the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook, published April 1, 2016, a simpler and more flexible system for students to learn and for us to teach. Most importantly, it is a system that allows us to focus students’ attention on why writers use sources and how documentation extends a research conversation. WritersRef MLA Update.PNGThe emphasis of the 8th edition is not on rules; rather, it is on making documentation useful to readers and on helping writers to participate in an academic community—a community in which the exchange of ideas requires a system.

As composition teachers, the ones in charge of introducing our students to MLA, we approach these seismic changes in the MLA system with some trepidation. We need to learn a new system and be comfortable and conversant with it in time for our September classes. Yet we understand, too, from our students’ confusion in documenting digital sources, and our own challenges in teaching an overly cumbersome system, why the 8th edition is needed.

Here are the problems the 8th edition addresses:

(1) In its attempt to keep up with the rapid evolution of sources, the 7th edition presented models for each source type or format. As the editors of the 8th edition write, “we need a system for documenting sources that begins with a few principles rather than a long list of rules.” The 8th edition shifts attention away from models for each source type to documentation principles that can be applied across sources.

(2) Sources have become less stable and more mobile. Publications “migrate readily from one medium to another,” and are no longer contained in simple categories. An idea might start as a blog, for instance, develop into a TED talk, be published as an article, and reposted on a Web site. The source might be located or viewed in a format very different from its original publication, so guidelines are needed to account for that sort of migration.

Enter the 8th edition of the MLA, with its relaxed, more flexible approach to documentation. The 8th edition focuses attention on “simple traits shared by most works” that run across all sources:

  • Author
  • Title of Source
  • Title of Container
  • Other Contributors
  • Version
  • Number
  • Publisher
  • Publication Date
  • Location

These simple, core traits are recognizable to us as writing teachers, except for the new one, “container.” Here’s how to understand the container concept: A container is any larger work that contains or holds the source cited. A container might be an anthology, a print journal, a podcast series, an online discussion board, a Web site, and so forth. Containers can be nested: If a container is itself part of some larger container, such as a journal located in an online database or a photograph collection in a digital archive, then information about the second container--the online database or the digital archive--becomes part of the documentation to help readers locate it.

As writing teachers, we encourage students to enter a research conversation by engaging with the ideas of other writers who have explored and studied their topic. We urge them to look for debates, areas of disagreement, so that they can find gaps and entry points for themselves in this conversation and gain authority by consulting a wide range of digital and print sources. The guidelines in MLA’s 8th edition make it easy for us to extend documentation as part of a research conversation between writers and sources and between writers and readers. Rather than teaching documentation as a series of rules to memorize, we can teach it rhetorically, as decisions made by writers to guide their readers quickly and unobtrusively to the source of a quotation, a paraphrased or summarized idea, or other kind of borrowed material used to support an argument.

All of the Hacker/Sommers handbooks will feature guidelines and models based on the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook. Look for “2016 MLA Update” stickers on the covers.

About the Author
Nancy Sommers, who has taught composition and directed writing programs for more than thirty years, now teaches in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. A two-time Braddock Award winner, Sommers is well known for her research and publications on student writing. Her articles “Revision Strategies of Student and Experienced Writers” and “Responding to Student Writing” are two of the most widely read and anthologized articles in the field of composition. She has also created three films—Shaped by Writing, Across the Drafts, and Beyond the Red Ink—to bring the voices of student writers into a larger discussion about writing instruction. Nancy Sommers is currently the coauthor of Diana Hacker’s best-selling handbooks: The Bedford Handbook, A Writer’s Reference, Rules for Writers, A Pocket Style Manual, and Writer’s Help (see Her newest instructor resource, Responding to Student Writers, offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers.