Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Still a Citation Curmudgeon


Back in the early days of this blog, I decided to write about things that I won't do: "Curmudgeon or Experienced? You Be The Judge." In that post, I talked briefly about how I won't teach citation in my librarian role. I got an email asking for me to expand on that idea recently, so I thought I would share my response with a broader audience.

For context, here's an excerpt from the email, somewhat edited to ensure anonymity: 
I'm a new librarian at a [small-ish] Canadian university... Hard data shows that we, a staff of nine, provide walk-in citation support at the reference desk 15% or so of the time (over half of these are under 10 minutes per though a third are 10-20 mins). We also have the requisite handouts and online resources, plus one-on-one meetings with subject librarians and IL sessions, though the bulk of the time spent with one-on-ones and sessions are almost always dedicated to things other than citation. Still, it's there.
So, this is the environment I entered; it's my first library job and so, barring reading or hearing anything to the contrary, I figured that teaching citation style is the done thing for academic librarians. What's your take on a library culture that accepts the responsibility to teach citation style? Frankly, I'd rather not teach it as often as I do though the fussiness sometimes appeals to me but, I don't know, I'm wondering how I might raise the subject here, conversationally.
I understand, and to some extent sympathize with, a lot of the arguments I've heard in favor of librarians teaching citation. It's true that, if nobody else is teaching these skills, someone needs to step up to the plate. Also, traditional undergraduates don't always see the difference between a librarian, a writing tutor, and the person who can help them format a slideshow. Besides, we're here to help them, right? And if we can be helpful with citation, then won't they come to us for other help?

All of this is true, but it's also true that I'm not the person who will be grading the papers nor am I as familiar with any citation style as someone who works within a discipline that ascribes to one style or another. 

Beyond that, my main reason for not teaching citation is because that's not how I see my job. I don't teach students particular skills or interfaces, not really. Instead, I see myself teaching students to teach themselves. When a student comes to me for citation help, I walk him or her over to a public computer and talk about OWL. I explain how the Online Writing Lab has guides for the most popular styles, and then I talk about how citations are kind of like MadLibs in that you fill in the blanks with the right kind of word or phrase. I don't leave them stranded, but neither do I teach them where to place the periods and what to put in italics and so on.

To answer the original question: that's how I talk about it with professors who ask me to teach citation. I talk about how they are more familiar with citation, and about how the person grading it is better suited to helping students fulfill his/her expectations. Finally, I talk about how my time with students is better spent teaching things in which I am an expert - creating search strategies, narrowing topics to a manageable size, dealing with the emotional roller coaster that is tied to academic pursuits, etc. I rephrase it slightly when I'm talking to colleagues or my boss, but the central gist is still the same.

However, having said all that, I should be honest and admit that I've occasionally given in and taught citation. More to the point, I have taught how to use the citation management system to which my institution has a subscription. Why, when I obviously have strong feelings and a solid argument? When "push comes to shove," I err on the side of good customer relations. A professor who has had a good experience with me will likely invite me back, and face time with students is face time with students.

How about the rest of you? Where do you stand on teaching citation?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, boy, I'm glad to see this discussion. I dislike being the "keeper" of citation. In my circumstance, I feel like it's a role that has been passed off to me because the professor doesn't want to teach it or doesn't know how to teach it.

    I agree with your reasoning 100%. Even when a student comes to me asking about citation, I show them the resources we have, help them get started, and then make sure they understand that their professor is the final word on what's correct. They are the ones doing the grading, after all. I will occasionally require the construction of a citation in a class I'm teaching, but only if it's directly relevant to the professor's underlying assignment and never as the reason for my lesson.

    I'd love to find a way to return the responsibility for citation to the professors. I'll definitely be trying out your approach.