The Intricacies of Citation Today

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I still remember about eight years ago when a student came to me saying she needed help with a citation: she was preparing an oral presentation based on research of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and she had found a clip of Bechdel doing chin-ups on YouTube. That would make a good opening image, she thought. So she began tracing it and found that it had first been a still photo in a Vermont newspaper article about Bechdel; then it was described on a radio show/interview; and then a home video clip from which the still was taken was uploaded to YouTube. Or something like that. She threw up her hands, and so did I. Eventually we came up with a viable citation, or at least one that satisfied the two of us and that would help readers understand where the image came from.


Fast forward eight years and oh my have things gotten even more complicated: students are now faced with amazingly complex trails to follow in trying to show that they’ve done their homework and that they can help readers find their sources. This fact was brought home to me most powerfully in a recent email conversation with a colleague from the Bread Loaf School of English, Allison Holsten, who is now teaching IB language and literature in Mumbai. She’s taught an assignment for years—students were to “create an imaginative response reflecting their understanding of course objectives, coming up with a text that emulates a real world author and a real world mode of delivery.” As Allison says, the assignment was “fun and a demonstration of how the art of imitation helps students with rhetorical structures often outside their own range of writing/reading but within their ability to mimic very successfully.” She continues:

"I’ve seen students come up with their own LifeHacker texts, and Rolling Stone articles, and lots more, including Reddit threads and Instagram posts. However, when we help prepare students for submitting these works the concerns for plagiarism have grown... How far does a student go to reference screenshots designed to make such a task plausible? Years ago, kids grabbed a screenshot of the NYTimes masthead and we didn’t worry about it. But now. . . ."


Allison sent along an example of one student’s assignment, and after puzzling over the message and the student’s work, I turned to my own guru and tech guide, Christine Alfano, Associate Director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, to ask for her advice. As always, Christine came through with not one but two insightful responses. It turns out that one of her assignments asks students to “create a faux blog that simulates a conversation between authors of sources they’ve read and then comments in response” (as if written by other source authors). In doing so, she and the students have all struggled with “how to deal with the question of ‘originality’ of a piece that borrows heavily visually from other sources.” Here are her two responses to this dilemma:

"As you suggest, you could strip down the assignment and ask them to submit just bare text, but that might limit the possibilities of the assignment. In my case, I actually have students put an ‘Images Sources’ section under their standard bibliography. I ask them to list, in order, in MLA format, the different image sources they’re using. . . . The process of logging every image in this way reinforces to them that each set of images they are capturing are someone’s (or a set of someones’s) individual creations and therefore need to be credited. I give them liberties in citation form, since MLA8 is pretty flexible. So, for instance, I let them call the social media icons under the title something like “Social Media Bar” or “Screen shot of Social Media Bar” since there’s no official title for that. I find Andrea’s Quick Help table on p 555 of the 6th edition of The Everyday Writer to provide helpful guidance for writers."


But Christine doesn’t stop there. She goes on to suggest another possibility: to ask students “to build the design elements themselves, using public domain images, rather than lifting so heavily from existing sources. . . . Programs like PowerPoint can help students easily create graphics similar to those they might lift from other sources, which they could then screenshot and insert. . . . However, just having these conversations with the students themselves—about the difference between public domain images and publicly available images, intellectual property, and the ethics of attribution—can be a powerful learning moment and make them mindful of the way they appropriate the work of others in the future. I always want my students to tap into their creativity and make their writing an engaged and innovative experience, while simultaneously helping them understand the ethics of how we navigate collaboration, sharing, borrowing, and remixing in this digital age.”


This exchange was very provocative to me, especially now that I am not teaching full time any more, and I am very grateful to Allison and to Christine for sharing these thoughts. I especially like the idea of an Image Sources page—and the advice to take these discussions right into the classroom, engaging students in thinking their ways through the complexities of being an ethical author today. Brava, Christine and Allison.


And by the way, a little shout out: The 7th edition of The Everyday Writer will be rolling off the presses soon!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 820272 by fancycrave1, used under the Pixabay License

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.