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Class: Citation as a Lens for Interdesciplinarity

By popular request from my twitterish friends, here is the basic gist of the class I taught today.

One of the amazing professors here (I have to say that, she’s reading this :P ) teaches a class which, being interdisciplinary and being a lower level course, often ends up introducing students to the world of interdisciplinarity. So this professor and I have decided to prime the students’ brains early in the term for two concepts: there are different disciplines out there and they each have their own conventions for good reason, and you’ll have to follow one of these conventions soon, so here are the basics.

Class (PPT):

  • Citation has many goals, and avoiding plagiarism is only one of these goals (and frankly, the least interesting of the bunch, in my opinion… see my opinion). These goals have to do with the fact that writing is enherently communicative, and communication happens primarily within a community of inquiry. As you read throughout this term, see if you can determine a little bit about each authors’ relationship to research and to his/her community of inquiry simply based on the citations included in each piece of writing. Citation…
    • Shows respect for your community
    • Communicates clearly within a community (like jargon)
    • Reveals what kinds of evidence are most important to a community
    • Builds context for your argument
    • Gives credit where credit is due
  • There are three interlinked rules that all citation styles strive for:
    • Rule of Least Confusion (get your readers to exactly what you want them to see)
    • Rule of Brevity (Accomplish the first rule as succinctly as possible)
    • Rule of Readability (I know… doesn’t seem like any style accomplishes this one)
  • EXERCISE: Working in groups, look at these three journal articles and build your own citation style that fulfills the three rules of citation and that reflects the values of the “community of inquiry” that is your class. Report back what you decided to include, exclude, and why.
  • Comparing MLA, APA, and Chicago (show citation to the same work, three different ways)
    • MLA is designed specifically for the “softer” humanities, such as languages, literature, and the like. This style foregrounds authors and their works and chooses to mention but not highlight dates, since most of these disciplines don’t do as much time-sensitive research (works of literature rarely become “obsolete”). The important evidence in this field is often the words that particular authors wrote, so the author and title are the two most salient pieces of information.
    • APA highlights authors and dates. It serves many of the harder sciences, and information in these disciplines can quickly become obsolete. What would you think if a person gave you computer instructions based on a manual from 1992? Most of the information in that book would be out of date and therefore not useable.
    • Chicago Manual of Style is somewhere in between MLA and APA. It is especially useful for interdisciplinary work, which is as likely to use time-sensitive material as it is to use material that is not time-sensitive. It foregrounds the author and the work, but it acknowledges that the date and the publication itself may also be important to the author’s argument. Footnotes bring this information to the reader’s attention at the point when the author quotes or makes reference to another author. The bibliography provides a summary of all the works cited in the document, allowing the reader to go out and easily find all the author’s sources.
  • Basic Elements of Chicago, and examples of citations for the primary kinds of works (this is the nitty-gritty details bit)

So there you have it. That’s what I was up to today. Since I wasn’t actually teaching the mechanics of Chicago style and was concentrating on how to read its citations and what the citations could tell you about how useful the works themselves would be, I didn’t spend long on the nitty gritty bits. In all, this was a 40-minute session.

Since we’re talking citation, I should mention that I out-n-out stole many of my views on citation as a function of disciplinary priorities from one of my esteemed co-workers. But I was really excited to see how that kind of thinking could help me move this class toward a richer understanding of interdisciplinarity.

Published inIn My Classroom


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    As the “amazing” professor (:-P right back atcha, Iris!), I have to comment on how wonderful it was to watch the students (1) grasp disciplinary conventions and priorities and (2) get a sense of the higher value for citation. (In other words, citation isn’t just a CYA act.) I plan on using much of your language (the “community of inquiry”, for example) throughout the course as we move between disciplines. THANK YOU again! The presentation was fantastically useful.

    -Adriana E.

  2. Iris Iris

    Let the mutual admiration society convene. :)

    Seriously, though, those students did an amazing job. I’ve NEVER had the groups come up with three such different and interesting rationals for their citation systems.

  3. […] showed a few things, too. I showed my “subversive handout” and my work on teaching scholarly attribution, the problem of controlled vocabulary for my students (since they have to work with the MLA […]

  4. Historian->Librarian Historian->Librarian

    This is great. I used to teach my history students about Chicago style from this perspective. I would compare it with author/date for the sciences, but this gives me ideas for adding MLA into the mix. The sad thing, though, is at my MLS program the instructors always say things like, “Citation style isn’t important here, just give me any old thing.” Some of them wouldn’t even care if you only used author-date and didn’t even have a list of references. This makes me sad–especially when the students in the program without in-depth subject knowledge might not have thought about citations in a context other than CYA. Then they’ll go off and teach citation style as just a hoop you have to jump through….

  5. Thanks! I know that I’d never heard of citation as anything other than a hoop to jump through until talking with my history librarian colleague, Heather, here. And then all of a sudden light bulbs went off and I realized that rather than hate the conventions, I really rather love them.

    Well, to a point. The new MLA and especially the new APA can go jump in a lake. ;-)

    But the ideas behind them are fascinating and lovely.

  6. […] this year I came across a 2008 on The Pegasus Librarian blog about teaching citation to students: Citation as a Lens for Interdisciplinarity. As usual, Iris Jastram, The Pegasus Librarian, managed to give more food for thought in one blog […]

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