How to teach MLA/Chicago form
October 31, 2006 8:50 PM   Subscribe

I teach graduate writing and research. I'm pretty confident with the way I teach the spirit of citation (it's what we have in the humanities instead of the scientific method), but what draconian pedagogy can I use to soul-crushingly impose format dread on my unruly grad students?

They all have a copy of the MLA handbook, and most of them have a Chicago Manual of Style near to hand. Most of them use robo-reference managers like Refworks, Endnote or Citation, that can theoretically output in any format But some of my senior colleagues still complain that they receive badly formated bibs and notes. Ideally this would also support the conceptual aims of the course, but what can we do in class, and what resources can I direct them to, to improve their pains-taking in producing formal research papers?
posted by Mngo to Education (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
OWL at Purdue. I use APA, but they also have MLA. No Chicago or Turabian, it looks like. But I like to direct students there because it is a nice, live, and frequently updated source.
posted by oflinkey at 9:08 PM on October 31, 2006

Best answer: Probably the most important thing you can do is explicitly mention your senior colleagues' complaint. Any grad student I know would take that as an invitation to intense, borderline paranoid self-doubt and compulsory rechecking of citations.

Seriously, if you're sure that these senior colleagues are reacting to genuinely bad formatting problems (rather than overreacting to minor variances), I'd pass that on explicitly and then devote a few minutes to some kind of exercise about citation styles. Either bring in a stack of books and have everyone work out the references together (the easy way) or have students bring in recent work and check each other's papers for errors (the competitive way).
posted by RogerB at 9:09 PM on October 31, 2006

For online resources, I also like's brief and accurate citation style guides.
posted by RogerB at 9:12 PM on October 31, 2006

A grant or fellowship application can be immediately denied if your bibliography is incorrectly formatted. I'm not sure what a post-doctoral researcher could fear more than having thousands (to millions) of dollars they depend on being denied for such a silly reason. Graduate students should understand this and be able to format citations in their work correctly.

As the instructor, your request to have perfectly formed bibliographies and citations isn't unreasonable. What about giving them an assignment where they correctly cite and format their own work (either a brand new or older piece of writing is acceptable) and then penalize them to hell if they get little things wrong (i.e. incorrect text bolded, abbreviations, etc.) Frankly, that's an easy assignment that shouldn't take more than 45 minutes time if one has attention to detail (which is what you're really stressing to begin with).
posted by dendrite at 9:17 PM on October 31, 2006

Oh - I had this drilled into my head as an engineering undergrad through my department's draconian term report marking policy. It went like this:

You submit your report, and it goes through 'phase one' of marking: the checklist. A non-technical marker goes through your report and checks every reference, table, figure, as well as table of contents and heading format, etc. More than two small errors and you have to resubmit. Only once you pass 'phase one' does someone actually read your paper.

This would be quite a lot of work for you but I think you could implement a lighter version of this. Tell them their reports will be returned for revision, unread, if the references are poorly formatted - and give them a mark penalty as well.

Now for undergrads, this is a tempation to get a de facto extension on the paper - so the department specifies you may not change the content, and actually keeps photocopies of the reports that have to be resubmitted.

We all hated their guts for it - but we got the point.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:24 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I run my department's graduate program, and one of my regular duties is checking MA theses for MLA style errors. Botch the bibliography and/or citations? I toss the thesis right back at you, and I'll be perfectly happy to toss it back again and again until everything's correct. Did you leave everything until the last minute? Why, too bad. (Sufficiently draconian for you? :) )
posted by thomas j wise at 10:28 PM on October 31, 2006

Best answer: Is there a good reason to encourage "format dread" in yet another generation of writers? Make them spend time battling Microsoft Word rather than working on the content of the paper? Personally, I think it's a big waste of time to get the formatting exactly right when you have all of the relevant information that any human being with a college education can use to verify the reference. Sometimes, you could mention, there are snobs who will insist you "get it right", and it's important to appease them if only to eventually have their jobs and put an end to such foolishness. For this, have a copy of MLA and the Chicago Manual, or a good bibliography program so you know whether a period goes after the page numbers.

It's not the scientific method of the humanities, it's a bizarre aesthetic fetish that allows people to substitute rule-worship for good judgment in way too many situations.

Whew... So I guess you can see that I have a little bit of a strong position about this. Ok, I'll be going now.
posted by ontic at 10:34 PM on October 31, 2006

A grant or fellowship application can be immediately denied if your bibliography is incorrectly formatted.

Just out of curiosity, what grants is the true of?
posted by advil at 10:38 PM on October 31, 2006

You teach this exactly the same way you teach anything else. Read their papers closely, mark the errors, and grade them down whey they don't get it right.
posted by LarryC at 11:05 PM on October 31, 2006

You're not going to get very far trying to impress ideological concerns on them; it's just another hoop to jump through, like spelling or punctuation. I always teach these things pragmatically: some markers are likely to mark incorrect referencing down, and it's easy marks to get it right, so a little effort often pays off.

You could also point out that people, both in university and in the world of work that lies beyond, appreciate the ability to follow instructions.
posted by Paragon at 11:48 PM on October 31, 2006

I had a bibliography marked up after I used EndNote on it, and ever since then I've done mine by hand. I keep a copy of my style manual open, and often start working by adding anything new I've come across since the last time I opened it up. It's old-fashioned, but I have a much better grasp of how to format than I did with EasyBib or EndNote.
posted by anjamu at 11:52 PM on October 31, 2006

I'm pretty tough on myself with regard to referencing but find Endnote takes some of the strain out.
I'm also charged with getting it into the heads of undergrads how to ref properly.
We tend to emphasise three things.
1: That the ref has to contain enough info for someone else to find it again. A URL is not enough by a long way for example.
2: That not putting the stuff in or not having it clear can leave them open to plagiarism accusations.
3: That they will lose marks on assessments that need proper refs every time they don't get it right, all the way up to the end of their degrees. We mean it too.

My uni provides a guide to the full and proper drawing up of our Harvard style ideal, here.
posted by biffa at 3:17 AM on November 1, 2006

I say to students:

Referencing is easy. It's just a question of following instructions. If you don't do it right, you lose marks. Do you want to lose marks for something stupid? Or do you want your grade to reflect your subject knowledge, insight and analysis?

If they're still stupid enough to get it wrong, then hey, they lose the marks.
posted by handee at 3:54 AM on November 1, 2006

i teach citation to law students and i approach it like LarryC and handee suggest. teach them the rules and take points from their grade when they break them.

i don't think my tools and resources would be particularly helpful, but here they are: i have students "diagram" a legal cite, translate a case caption into a citation, identify the errors in the cut n paste from Lexis or Westlaw, and i have them insert cites into a document. for the "style" aspect of citation--which, alas, is part of the legal writing curriculum--we do other things. for instance, i give them students a huge block of text and several quoted excerpts, a couple paraphrased excerpts and two or three reiterations/syntheses of the text. then we talk through which versions need citation, which type of citation. we discuss which quoted excerpts alter the meaning unacceptably. it's frustrating for them at the start of the lecture, but usually by the end of class, it seems more natural to them.

we're lucky in that we have really only two major citation manuals in law and no other uniform style guide, but i find it's just a matter of making the students look through the manual and realize cites are just a means of imparting information. this is the information you must make available to a reader of your document: does your citation, in this form, in this place do that clearly? if so, you've understood all there really is to citation.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:14 AM on November 1, 2006

It baffles me when authors (I work in publishing) can't get freaking citations/references correct. It's so EASY. Much easier than creating a thesis and supporting it for 100+ pages.

EndNotes and the like are the bane of my existence as a person in publishing. Those programs rarely get everything right, and reformatting submitted papers that have used a reference program is an utter bitch. I forbid the use of those programs, but some people use them anyway.

My advice is to a) ban the use of those worthless programs and b) take off points for any incorrect citation or reference/bibliography entry. When they see it's affecting their grade they'll (hopefully) get the hint and start citing properly.

You could also have them submit an annotated bibliography as one of the first hoops they have to jump through before submitting their final paper/project. It'll give them some practice using the citation style, and it'll hopefully help them better examine the references they're using.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:25 AM on November 1, 2006

Just tell your students that a) staff has been complaining and b) grant applications can be turned down because of it. Then start marking mistakes down.

However, this nonsense pedantry is why I quickly lost interest in grad school and academia in general.

It baffles me when authors (I work in publishing) can't get freaking citations/references correct. It's so EASY. Much easier than creating a thesis and supporting it for 100+ pages.

This is the difference between authors and editors: No it isn't!
posted by spaltavian at 6:38 AM on November 1, 2006

I had a teacher who threatened to give an F to any student's paper whose citations were wrong. (It was not an empty threat either, as some people found out.) Incredibly effective.
posted by milarepa at 6:50 AM on November 1, 2006

They are graduate students, they have your instructions, they have a manual. That's pretty much it. You really shouldn't need anything other than a clear comment that perfect style is expected and that the programs do not, in fact, produce perfect style.

RogerB's comment on how graduate students will react fits my experience exactly.

Those that don't get it, get incompletes and an invitation to fix the citation in one day (just one).
posted by oddman at 7:00 AM on November 1, 2006

misanthropicsarah wrote "EndNotes and the like are the bane of my existence as a person in publishing. Those programs rarely get everything right, and reformatting submitted papers that have used a reference program is an utter bitch. I forbid the use of those programs, but some people use them anyway."

...which is funny, because quite a few scientific journals post EndNote formatting templates on their websites and encourage the use of such, as it makes editing the submitted documents that much easier. A difference between social and hard sciences, perhaps? I for one wouldn't dream of writing a publication without EndNote to track my references, and would much prefer to see students taught how to use such a program correctly. (I do however always export the final submitted version unformatted, with all field codes removed.)
posted by caution live frogs at 10:47 AM on November 1, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for the responses. I'm interested in the tension between the sense of research and writing as process and the sense of education as hazing in some of the answers. I think it indicates both the absurd arbitrariness of the systems and the stakes involved in getting it right.
Thanks especially to RogerB, Ontic, and their kin. I actually agree with both perspectives: the fetish for bib form is ridiculous, and yet I do think that the "spirit of citation" is that we make our work transparent, and this is worth a little effort to get right.
If anyone cares, in my 3-hr class today, we spent the entire time talking about issues raised by citation and bibliography, and working through a box of difficult materials in 3 different citation formats. To my surprise, we were able to both talk through the historically exclusionary function of the specialized speech codes of academe, and rather pleasurably fetishize the proper form (and the issues for retracing and re-produciability it raises).
I had more fun talking about citation and bibliography than I ever have, thanks in no small part to askme.
posted by Mngo at 9:13 PM on November 1, 2006

Mngo: Glad to help. Sounds like an excellent class! I think you put it exactly right: insisting on perfect formatting (and plenty other things in academia) can really be a form of hazing. I remember going through a lot of it. Since a lot of us made it through, I think we now have a moral obligation to check such practices. I'm afraid far too many people still can't wait to inflict it on others as it was inflicted on them.
posted by ontic at 7:46 PM on November 2, 2006

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