Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trying to be a good kid: Citation for students

I'm sitting in a Panera at a mall, since this is the only way to get both breakfast and wifi out here in the sticks.  I was getting nervous about all the repairs that my car needed, and decided to bite the bullet and take it to a VW dealership so I could get people who know their business to fix it all.  They're probably going to be working on the car through lunchtime, so they gave me a ride to the mall so that I had a slightly nicer place to twiddle my thumbs.  I am smart, though, and instead of thumb-twiddling, I have work on hand, so I went for the wifi and coffee.  I fear that the repair bill will be frighteningly close to $1000 $1300 (fuckfuckfuck), but I couldn't see any way around it.  This is why the devil invented credit cards, right?

Speaking of work, one of the syllabus-related matters on my mind is how to explain thoroughly to students how to avoid plagiarism.  I constantly sit on the fence in the argument about whether these kids nowadays don't properly understand what plagiarism is or whether they're just lying little sacks of shit trying to get away with whatever they can.  In any case, one must assume the former before getting to know them, so I need to walk them through the whole deal. 

What all should I be covering?  Obviously, there's the old-fashioned matter of how one should cite various kinds of sources.  That much is easily accomplished, and I can always tell them to consult the Chicago Manual of Style when in doubt about formatting.  Then there's the larger issue, related to doubt: when should one cite?  The traditional answer that I stand by is "When in doubt, cite."  But how do you explain this to students who do not yet recognize your version of common sense?  I'm trying to think of every situation, reasonable or not, that students could bring up.  Here's what I've brainstormed:
  • A short phrase of two or three words involving technical or abstract vocabulary that they wouldn't have thought of on their own.  "A good idea" is not a phrase that one needs to cite, but "a trenchant paradigm" might be.  The latter phrase is also ugly as hell and likely a smokescreen for a bullshit artist, so it throws up more than one red flag for me.
  • An idea or observation that needs a bit of explanation, even if it is phrased in the student's own words.  As much as most pseudologists are familiar with Benedict Anderson's idea of print capitalism and the effects it had on creole nationalism, I'll eat my hat if most college students know that.  Talking about that stuff without clearly citing the page numbers of Anderson's book so that I can fact-check an argument might not be plagiarism, exactly, but it's shoddy practice.  (Not acknowledging Anderson as the source of the idea at all — that would be plagiarism.)
  • Then there is the occasional student who thinks that zi can copy entire pages of text wholesale, as long as the source pages are clearly cited.  What's a good way to explain to a student that zi must simultaneously cite sources clearly and write for hirself?  I imagine this would be confusing to at least some people, especially the overly cautious ones who distrust their own instincts.  Should I just forbid block quotations of more than three lines?
  • Web pages.  Oy.  I would like to forbid my students from citing them at all, but of course this idea is increasingly troubled by digital access to peer-reviewed scholarship.  Even the idea that some sources are inherently less trustworthy than others can be hard to work with, since pseudologists frequently engage with things that people say and write that are verifiably inaccurate — we need to study things outside of peer-reviewed scholarship in order to do our jobs.  Is there any practical and brief way to explain to students how to be wary of the internet without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  How do you make undergrads wary of factual truth-claims without making them paranoiac?
What other craziness am I missing?  And what say you, my esteemed colleagues, for solutions?


  1. If it's a fact they had to look up but didn't know before -- like Shakespeare was born in 1564 -- they don't have to cite it. But if they're trying to make an argument that Shakespeare was Catholic, they should probably cite where they are getting that opinion. Or at least do an "according to... And this is important because..." (Yes, people care if he was Catholic.) The reason I'd cite the latter is because there are implications for interpretation and that Catholic argument is probably something they are drawing on for the implications in interpretation.

    Essentially, anything that is an arguable point that you got elsewhere should be cited. Simple facts that you could get in a dictionary don't need to be cited.

    I'm impressed that you're doing so much with this. I do, too, but then, I'm in English, so that's probably expected.

  2. How to explain it? In a way that they understand? Basically, don't just talk about rules for citation, which are boring and seemingly arbitrary. Talk about what a reader (you, but also what they themselves) gets out of citations. What do citations tell us that is useful?

    Also, why is it bad to represent another person's ideas as your own? (I basically model how I would comment on something that wasn't cited vs. how I would comment if it was - which is a very different thing (a) but also not citing would raise tons of red flags for me and often would get a harsher comment (b).)

  3. Seconding Dr. Crazy that it helps to go back to first principles (or it should; nothing really works perfectly). The purpose of citation is to (a) give credit for words (for which we use quotation marks) and ideas (for which we use the information that goes in a parenthetical citation, or, more often, no matter what the "standard" format supposedly is, in a signal phrase plus a parenthetical citation, one marking the beginning and one the end of the cited material). Ideas that are not common knowledge (as Fie explains, easy to find in a number of sources, and not a matter of dispute -- determining which requires familiarity with a number of sources, so, yes, if in doubt/not in a position to survey the literature, go ahead and cite) need to be cited, whether or not the author has quoted directly.

    The other purposes of citation are (b) to allow readers to locate the same source you did, and the approximate location within that source where the information appears (this takes care of most how-to-cite-the-web questions; do something sensible and more or less equivalent to helping someone find the right edition of a book, and the page within that book) and (c) to help readers understand the interplay of your own and others' ideas (this, again, is where signal phrases come in; they not only mark the beginning of cited material, but they also give the writer a chance to express his/her attitude toward the material, often through verbs: "has established," "writes," "contends," etc.)

    Diana Hacker handbooks have good discussions of signal phrases (and the free online version of her handbooks -- http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/resdoc5e/ -- is adequate, though it doesn't include the very handy lists of signal-phrase verbs in the print edition). Harris' _Using Sources Effectively_, from Pyrczak press, is a good, much longer discussion of the subject.

    The University of Indiana Bloomington's plagiarism tutorial and test are also very good (and produce a signable certificate in which the student takes responsibility for knowing and applying what (s)he has learned): https://www.indiana.edu/~istd/ . If you do nothing else, I strongly suggest that you assign this before any formal written work is due, and make completing it a condition of accepting the written work. It's a good explanation for those who are genuinely confused, and want to know more, and a good warning for those who know darn well they're cheating, and hope to get away with it.

    1. Thanks to you all for your ideas. Cassandra, this is one of the more thorough-going responses to one of my posts that I've seen in ages! I'll definitely work some of this stuff into a class discussion with my 300 seminar, where these matters are most important to me.

  4. So, how did you make out with the car repairs?

    1. Just under $1300. Can't wait to get paid again. Sigh.

    2. Oh no! Hope the Paycheck Fairy visits you soon and bearing loads of ca$h.