Citations: Bane of the Student, Bane of the Master

Excellence in student writing is contingent on many things; the most important of these are form and content. Yet, in the rush to achieve sufficiency in the latter, the former is often woefully discarded.

I do not expect perfection from my students; I do not court disappoint. I do, however, expect a sufficiency in both their expression and in the meaning which they wish to express. Errors in punctuation, spacing and typography, so quickly rectified with such minimal effort, seem to scream at the weary reader ‘I think so little of you that I could not grant this submission a second glance.’

My first reaction to such transgressions is harsh. As an undergraduate, I would not have dreamed of submitting a poorly formatted paper; I would have been ashamed to do so. Nor, had my professor corrected any aspect of my style, would I have allowed myself to ever present the same mistake again.  I, in fact, had a checklist taped to my monitor with a list of every stylistic mistake I had made, against which I checked each new submission; for example, a list of word I often mistyped, such as track for tract.

Yet, my second reaction was more measured. Looking back at my early written work, a ritual I undertake each year, I find a number of ludicrous errors for which I have an overwhelming desire to write to my former professors and apologise. I was not perfect; I cannot expect my students to be. Yet, the question remains, why do my students fail to learn from their mistakes?

Before seeking out the answer, I should not my three bones of contention:

1)      Lack of sufficient margins (or an over abundance thereof) and incorrect line spacing.
2)      Roaming superscripts numerals.
3)      Inconsistent citations.

The first, I expect, is generally wilful. Students must pay for their printing at most UK universities and narrow margins and single or 1.5 spacing saves precious pennies. I can understand this, even if it makes my attempts at annotation difficult.  As we move toward electronic submission and marking, perhaps this issue will resolve itself.

The second I cannot quite fathom. In History, I have found, with very rare exception, that superscript numbers should be placed at the end of the sentence, following the final punctuation mark. Yet, my students attempt all variants imaginable.

The first three seems to suggest that the footnote refers only to the first half of the sentence, rather than thought as a whole; why it roams from word to word, however, is unclear. In other cases, such as

it is clear that the student has simply combined three separate notes, each of which originally had its own citation. This haphazard placement is unacceptable in most History style guides, but is perfectly acceptable in disciplines utilising parenthetical referencing. When in a charitable disposition, I correct this error of discplinarity with gentle remonstration. As for the fourth example, I am still at a loss for its frequent appearance. It seems to have no practical purpose and cannot help but appear untidy. If any of you, dear readers, can explain this as anything other than a lack of editorial rigour, please comment below.

Yet, of all the formatting difficulties that arise in student writing, the most vexing is the stubborn refusal (it would seem) to adhere to clearly delimited referencing guidelines. As you can well imagine the monstrosities I daily encounter (omissions,  additions and ambiguities in author, title and year) I will not include them here. Instead, I will provide you with a simple worksheet that may prevent such negligence in the future.

What is most noteworthy about this document is the way in which it was developed. It arose out of a collaborative project between myself, two taught postgraduate students, in their capacity as academic writing tutors, and the first-year cohort within the School of Comparative American Studies at the University of Warwick. When confronted with their poor citations during a peer-writing session, students complained that the departmental style guide was far from exhaustive and that no discussion had taken place between staff and students on how to obtain bibliographic details or how to arrange them correctly in their footnotes and bibliographies. The style guide, lacking clear, step-by-step  instructions, was essentially useless.

Thus, this worksheet provided students with a selection of title and copyright pages, from monographs, journals and edited collections, as well as screen shots of a scholarly website and an electronic journal database (JSTOR). With these five examples before them, the writing tutors helped student highlight or circle the information presented in the sample footnotes below. Working through the exercise as a group, simple queries, which students had been reluctant to ask in seminars or via email, were quickly resolved. Moreover, the departmental style guide was now imbued with new meaning and understanding. Although I cannot claim that subsequent papers were flawless in their execution, there was certainly a general improvement throughout.

I would therefore like to make The Citation Survival Guide available to you, gentle readers, in the hope that a variant thereof may be of use to your students as well. I have left the document in word format to allow easy adaptation. Please alter and disseminate as you wish.

2 thoughts on “Citations: Bane of the Student, Bane of the Master

  1. Emma Louise

    I have been guilty of more of these errors than I would care to admit. Upon correction I did feel a great deal of embarrassment and vowed never to repeat my mistakes. Though I did misunderstand one of the corrections indicating that I should use a semi-colon to separate citations within a sentence. I ended up in my next essay doing the following: Beals believes this to be the case and so do I. [superscript] 1;2
    Thankfully I managed to get it correct for my final essay! I do take responsibility for my ignorance, but I do also wish that I had been taught how to footnote and reference properly before attending University. I went to a good sixth form but even there, nothing was taught other than some kind, any kind, of footnote reference should be included. I vote for the immensely thorough and slick worksheet to be placed on the National Curriculum…if only to save markers’ sanity!

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