What is Academic Writing? Part Two

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Grammar was the most prominent (if somewhat disheartening) theme in students’ first day responses to the question “What is academic writing?”  However, surprisingly, the second most mentioned feature was citation.  That one really caught me by surprise. I guess I am so surprised because citation seems to be a particular Achilles heel for students.  They seem to have little sense of what it is or when it’s needed.  Given that citation is, I think, a kind of disciplinary “secret handshake,” a way of showing that you are a member of a particular discipline and belong there, it’s not all that surprising that first year students would know so little about citation.  I’m just glad to know that it exists at all. In fact, that’s the approach I’ve adopted to teaching citation—starting by making sure students know it exists.  I only teach my students three things about citation.  I don’t “teach” them MLA citation (even though we use it in our class) because, first of all, students are going to end up in many different disciplines with many different citation systems.  There’s a good chance they will never use MLA again.  Besides (and secondly) citation systems change.  Teaching the intricacies of one instantiation of one citation system will end up useless knowledge—if not the next semester then certainly some day.  No.  I tell students they only need to know three things about citation:
  1. It exists. In class we discuss what this means.  Basically, students need to understand that if they are using words or ideas from someone else there needs to be a citation.
  2. If it’s not absolutely right, it’s wrong. In discussing this point, we continue part of the conversation from the first point: academic writing takes proper attribution very very seriously.  We generally open this up to a discussion of plagiarism: what it is, how it happens, what the consequences are, and how to avoid it.  But this point also underscores the “secret handshake”-ness of citation.  I think that citation is part of the process that David Bartholomae describes in “Inventing the University.”  Using it, if not mastering, is evidence that students are stepping into our language.
  3. Know how to find the answer. I’ll admit it, with all the recent changes to MLA and with writing in a discipline that uses either MLA or APA depending on the place of publication, I have to look up citation formats all the time.  If Idon’t know every citation form by heart why should my students?  Instead, I know how to find the answers and in class we tease out where those answers might be:
    1. A handbook or other reference book.
    2. A reliable web resource (Purdue OWL being the most popular, of course).
    3. Electronic citation tools like Refworks or even Microsoft Word.
    4. A targeted Google search with some discerning assessment of the results.
    5. Asking me.
    6. Asking at the writing center.
    7. Following what other sources have done, ones they know are correct.
It doesn’t matter how students find the right answer, as long as they have a set of tools for finding that answer. I know my approach might be a bit weird (as I am) or a bit oversimplified (as I never am) but the more I use this approach (which requires constant reinforcement through the semester) the more I am convinced it’s a workable one. So, only three things to know about citation.  Could that work in your classroom?
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.