Teaching reference format:
A recipe swap and a rumination on research community

Doug Brent
University of Calgary

On one level, this piece falls into the genre of teacherly recipe swapping.  I’d like to share with you a small assignment with which I’ve had more success than I had expected, in the hope that you may find some version of it useful in your own classes.  However, I’d also like to spin out some larger implications of this little assignment which I hope will capture some of the larger implications of what we do when we try to introduce students to research. 

The assignment is designed to teach reference list format.  I use it to teach APA format, but it could be used to teach any format. 

Before talking about “how,” I need to talk about “why”: that is, why spend class time on a set of artificial conventions when there are so many other things to learn?  Part of my  answer is that learning to follow a standard format helps students keep professors happy, and I don’t mean this to be flippant.  Keeping professors happy is absolutely non-trivial in the lives of students who can be made to suffer in both obvious and subtle ways when their professors are unhappy.  One sure way for students to make professors unhappy is to exhibit behaviour which marks them as outsiders to the academic community in which they will have to spend their lives for the next four or more years.  We owe it to them to learn how to wear the badges of membership in our community.

But of course there is much more to it than that.  Learning to wear “badges of membership” is merely a trivial and instrumental matter, unless they also know that those badges have a real purpose beyond simply marking people as “insiders” versus “outsiders.”  Opening a discussion of referencing involves opening a discussion of what referencing does, a purpose which students find very difficult to articulate, let alone internalize.

Almost invariably, when I ask students why referencing is important, they respond that its purpose is to avoid being charged with plagiarism. This is indeed an important concern, for the academy is obsessed with plagiarism and it is proper that students know this.  But in terms of learning how to engage with the ways knowledge is made in the academy, it is, in the end, a minor consideration – as Russ Hunt argues, perhaps even a dangerous red herring:

Scholars – writers generally – use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their allegiances, they bring the work of others to the attention of their readers, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against allegations of plagiarism.  ("Two Cheers for Plagiarism")

Referencing is the way in which academic works connect to each other – the hyperlinks of the academic community.  We are all familiar with the experience of finding a good article on a subject in which we are interested, and following the references back and back (or forward, now that citation indexes are on line and therefore not an agonizing experience to use), and thereby finding our way into a web of conversation on a subject of importance.  But students aren’t.  In my own research on student writing, I have very seldom heard a student describe following a trail of citation bread crumbs to find material.  They tend to begin each search anew, using the search tools provided in overwhelming copiousness by the modern academic library, without seeing the lateral connections that embed each text in a larger conversation.

Perhaps most seriously, students are typically unable to see the possibility that their own texts might be valuable to others who want to follow the trail of their thoughts.  This is not surprising, since their texts are almost always destined to be read only by the professor, who presumably knows it all already.  Students, in short, don’t see themselves as being part of a community of inquiry; they see their texts as dead ends.  Therefore they don’t take seriously the conventions of format that make references reliable guides for others who wish to find the same material.  They honestly have little reason to care if they transpose some numbers or confuse the author of an article with the editor of the book in which it is found, thereby rendering the reference as unfollowable as a broken hyperlink. 

So referencing is part of a much larger problem, which I attempt to address by designing the classroom as a collaborative community of inquiry in which both student and professional texts circulate in ways that make them both available to and genuinely useful to other students.  You can see more of this macro-strategy on my web page at http://www.ucalgary.ca/~dabrent/art/acadcomm.htm; outside this larger context, micro-strategies of teaching referencing would be meaningless exercises in decontextualized skills.  Right now, though, I’d like to focus in on this micro-strategy and argue that, in the context I have outlined above, it’s more important than it might look.
Most students are confronted with the realities of documentation at the worst possible time: at the very end of a long and stressful session of writing a paper, usually one that is due the next day.  At this point, any formal instruction that they might have received on the subject becomes irretrievable, and the supposedly simple handouts they have received become as meaningless as messages from Mars.  Moreover, they can’t care any more.  All they want to do is get to bed before they have to drag themselves in the next morning.  No wonder their reference lists are often an indecipherable home brew.

So I extract the process from this worst-case context and put it near the beginning of the course.  At this point in the course they have done some preliminary library research to identify at least five sources that might be useful not only to them in their research papers but potentially to others in their writing group who are working on the same topic.  I give them a four-page handout on APA style and the following instructions:

Compile a Reference List of your five items in APA style.  Make five copies of this reference list next day.

Form ad hoc groups around similar topics, trade reference lists.  In class, make editorial corrections to each others’ reference lists to make them conform perfectly to APA style.  Note any information that is missing (ie, that someone will have to hike back to the library for).  At the end of the class make sure that the author gets a thoroughly marked-up copy back for editorial purposes.

Revise your reference list as needed for submission next day. Marks start at 5/5.  Each entry will lose .5 for a minor error (punctuation, order of name, etc) and the whole value for a major error (wrong order, information missing).

Note the extrinsic motivation – a very hard-ass marking scheme that is much more stringent than I would really use on a reference list attached to a fully dressed paper.  I would rather they learn this skill on the basis of intrinsic motivation, but I know that it will take at least until the end of the course, and possibly the end of their academic careers, before they can begin to internalize the personal benefits of good references.  So I use marks to focus their attention.

Second, I don’t try to give them formal instruction in APA format – a sure-fire recipe for the world’s most boring class.  I just give them the handout and see what they can make of it on a “need to know” basis.

Third, I give them the opportunity to revise each other’s lists.  This seems fairly trivial, but I was amazed at the pedagogical mileage I was able to gain from the exercise.  I use it in a first-year seminar with students who have no idea that they might genuinely be able to help each other learn.  Typically they sit in their groups and gape at each other for several minutes: the instructions seem simple, but the concept is so foreign that the words don’t penetrate.  After a decent interval, during which I have helped them with the mechanics of making sure that each of them has one copy of all five of the lists (not a trivial matter in itself), I start to probe.

“Let’s take a look at Chad’s reference list.  Does anyone see anything that could be improved?”

Silence.  Eventually someone ventures, “Shouldn’t the title of the book be there instead of there?”

“Congratulations,” I enthuse.  “You just got Chad half a mark.  Now Chad, do you see anywhere that you can get Julie half a mark.”

Quickly they catch on, and they are passing papers around the circle, wrestling together with the arcane intricacies of APA style.  They still have trouble getting it right, of course, and not many people get a five out of five.  (Nor of course would most of us – see Louis Menand’s article “The Nightmare of Citation” at
http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/?031006crbo_books1 for a wry but oh-too-true look at the problems that beset any but the simplest citation.)  But I notice that when their fully-dressed papers come in later in the course, their reference lists are immensely better than the ones I used to see.

That’s reason enough for the assignment.  But what I like the most about it is what else it tells students about collaboration.  Sure, they are collaborating for extrinsic reward on an assignment that they have not yet come to appreciate as meaningful.  But they realize, with a certain amount of surprise, that they can collaborate rather than compete, and can actually improve the quality of their product thereby.  They can work together to solve problems, and thereby learn not just the intricacies of APA format but also the processes of problem-solving that allow them to use the raw material of the handout to solve their own dilemmas of formatting. 

Thus the assignment, which occupies no more than fifty minutes of class time and perhaps an hour or two of homework, functions as an introduction in miniature to the culture of collaboration that I attempt to develop throughout the course.  Later I can build on it to show students how mastery of this arcane code can help them use the references in published papers and in each other’s shared texts to build their own repertoire of materials on their research topics, and thereby give them their first taste of what it’s like to be in the middle of a web of shared knowledge rather than at a dead end.

I am struck by how much this exercise appears to contradict my own long-standing practice of teaching writing as a holistic entity rather than as a sum of atomistic parts.  I would never dream of giving students worksheets on comma splices as opposed to commenting on the effectiveness of their drafts.  So why am I comfortable lifting out the process of referencing as a separate skill?  Partly it’s because of the cognitive load issue I mentioned above – referencing is simply not learnable at the very end of a gruelling session of writing.  But it’s also because I want them to know some of these important micro-moves at the beginning of the process, when they are still engaged with their own research.  I want to get them started on recognizing how these trails of breadcrumbs work to connect the texts they are reading, and to be able to use these techniques early in the course to create, for instance, working bibliographies that they can trade with each other and put to genuine use.  This means that the assignment needs to be front-ended, even at the expense of being temporarily lifted out of context.

In miniature, then, this assignment brings forward many of the hidden dilemmas of what we do.  Most writing instructors, consciously or not, tend to dismiss referencing as a relatively trivial matter, something that students should really be able to figure out for themselves by following some “simple” handouts.  I argue that the mechanics are not that simple, and that, moreover, the mechanics are only the tip of the documentation iceberg.  What’s under the water, unless we roll the iceberg over so that students can take a look, is the web of interconnections between texts that makes what we do an active knowledge-making system rather than a storehouse of disconnected texts.

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