Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Finding Connections

My most recent post, Basic Academic Skills, mentioned students seem to either not know or not care about the value of citations and acknowledging sources within academic papers. Maybe they have some appreciation for the concept that scholarship builds on previous knowledge, that all human understanding is built on the past, but I'm not convinced they understand that "web of knowledge" is more than a metaphor for researchers.

Why do we make citations a "chore" instead of something to be celebrated? Why is it easier to focus on the consequences of poor citations (or missing citations) than on the benefits of good citation practices?

Too often educators stress citations merely as evidence that a student isn't plagiarizing. While I understand this as a goal, it elevates fear of punishment over the concept of collaborative learning. I don't want my students to be afraid of sharing ideas and building upon the past — and I know they will make some mistakes when it comes to citation norms and formats. Instead, I want my students to be excited by the concept of sharing, helping me discover resources alongside them.

I tell my students that I do find books, movies, articles, and more thanks to citations in their papers. Thanks to well-documented papers, I have ordered books and I've downloaded great articles. I learn from my students and I want them to know that I learn from them. Citations are how I share in the discovery process. Every field builds on the past; no professor (or student) knows this entire past. That is why a student can locate a great work I haven't experienced.

While I do mark a few points off some papers for a total lack of citations, I rarely penalize a student for minor formatting errors. Minor APA or MLA formatting issues can be corrected. Personally, I don't use MLA or APA for my own writing: I use an older style that I learned in high school and still prefer. I like the "p." for pages, for example, and I wish we would go back to using footnotes. With the Web, there's no reason you can't link to many sources, too, so there's no question what is being referenced.

I show my students that the secret value of Wikipedia and other online reference works is not the text, but the citations at the end of articles. We open a Wikipedia page, scroll to the bottom, and start exploring the links. A good Wiki page has citations, something that students often fail to realize. You can see the "light bulbs" as they realize they can use Wikipedia to locate "acceptable sources" (whatever those are) that instructors won't dismiss or question in a paper.

My wife and I are updating some of our websites. As we update pages, we are updating source lists. We don't always include citations within texts, a practice not uncommon when writing for mass audiences, but we attempt to offer a complete list of external sources at the end of each article. My wife also helps me maintain master bibliographies for websites. I want people to read the source materials, not merely my interpretations and analyses of the sources cited.

If my students learn that knowledge is constructed, and sometimes "deconstructed" (pun intended), within a community, then they will value citations for far better reasons than the fear of bad grades.

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