Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Struggling with citation

Last night I dreamt of citations. I spent my sleeping hours much as I did my waking hours--dragging students through the process of creating a citation in NoodleTools, and then begging, pleading, and cajoling them to use in-text citations. It’s not a traditional nightmare, but I would have much preferred to spend my sleeping time being chased by a bear. I feel like it would have been more restful.

I am struggling mightily with the teaching citation this year. I am amazed and a little appalled by the number of juniors and seniors I have who claim they have never had to create citations before (most of whom I know for a fact I’ve taught how to cite). Several want to just be able to print a list of URLs (the quality of some of the sources students insist on using--and their reluctance to even try a database--is a topic for another day). Even students who are on board with creating citations are either flummoxed by or giving me push back on creating in-text citations; several claim to “just know” very specific statistics, and have no source to cite.

To be fair, there have been a handful of new students who, upon going through the steps needed to create a citation in NoodleTools, have said, “Well, that was easy!” And even students who are getting a refresher (willingly or unwillingly) do well with the process when they actually start it, many of them needing very little guidance.

So what’s the stumbling block? I think there are several. I don’t think students are universally held accountable for the need to cite; they think of it as something you do for the research paper in History/English/Science class, but not something you have to do unless it’s part of the requirements. Or only for certain teachers or assignments. I think we need to have students cite regularly and consistently on assignments big and small, just so they get in the habit. And the consequences of not citing need to be clear and consistent; if a student is handing in a major research paper with no citations, that’s a big problem that needs to be addressed.

I know many students also simply struggle with the format of citation, even using NoodleTools. It can be hard to figure out what information is which and where it goes and why or even how to classify the source you’re citing.

I have really good analogies (usually involving food) to explain almost every part of the research process, but I have yet to come up with something for citation that clicks with most students. The biggest issue seems to be helping students understand WHY they need to cite. I’m less interested in having perfectly formatted citations (and can empathize with students who get frustrated with the details of creating a proper citation); there are tools that will help students with that. But getting students to really grasp when and why to cite? That’s the really important part, and harder to teach than what goes in which part of the NoodleTools form.

I also wonder how much of this difficulty with the concept of giving others’ credit for their work comes from a lack of students’ investment? pride? ownership? (some combination of those three words embodies the idea I’m trying to express) of their own work. If they don’t feel like they are authors (with a real, genuine audience, and pride in what they have written and created), why would they understand that another author might want credit for their own work?

Citation is, in a way, about empathy; it’s about understanding that someone would want credit for the work that they’ve done. And if you can’t imagine yourself as creating anything that someone would read and use, how can you put yourself in the shoes of someone who has? I think a big part of fixing the issue with citation is helping student come to see themselves as authors and creators of work that worth sharing and getting credit for.

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