It’s two in the morning. Fuelled by Redbull, coffee and fear, you’ve cranked out another brutal essay for the morning deadline. You pull together some vague, sweeping generalizations for a conclusion, and you think you’re done — but you realize, with a sinking heart, that you still have to painstakingly format your “Works Cited” page.
Depending on your program, your subject and the whims of your instructor, you might be using APA, AMA, MLA, Chicago (Turabian?), CSE/NLM, ICMJE or whatever ungodly acronym is currently in vogue. Oh, and they might change each year, so you’ll have to make sure you’re using the eighth edition of the MLA handbook rather than the seventh. Also, they might make mistakes and then issue corrections to the first printing of each edition.
Many North American universities are fanatically focused on the formatting and citation of essays, at the expense of other aspects of writing, like, I don't know, content? Your argument?
To be clear, it’s important to have a consistent documentation style in academic writing, but this is a means to an end: format is a way to organize text, and citation is a way to attribute sources, which is imperative. But documentation itself should be a simple process, not one that requires a three-hour seminar for every discipline.
One problem is that the whole body of work around citation style is a bewildering mess of pedantry. Each discipline has their own style, and many of these styles have ridiculously exacting specifications for every tiny detail. About a third of my essay-writing time is spent consulting the latest edition of the MLA guide: how do I cite a Tweet? Which titles have quotation marks, and which ones are italicized? What if I want to cite two works by three authors, one of which is in a compilation edited by his mother-in-law?
It’s not just students, either — many professors are sick of the arbitrary, ever-changing minutiae of citation style. Professor Kurt Schick, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, writes of “citation obsession:"
“What a colossal waste. Citation style remains the most arbitrary, formulaic and prescriptive element of academic writing taught in American high schools and colleges," writes Schick. "Now a sacred academic shibboleth, citation persists despite the incredibly high cost-benefit ratio of trying to teach students something they (and we should also) recognize as relatively useless to them as developing writers.”
None of this would be an issue if citation style was left to fester in its own elitist circles, but it’s pervasive, especially in the humanities. I’ve lost marks because I didn’t indent a Works Cited page exactly, a matter of about an inch. I’ve lost marks because, apparently, the first page of an essay in MLA format is not supposed to have a number on it — but the rest of them are.
Which brings me to the larger issue, which is that citation style, despite its many problems, is emphasized in university just as much as the actual content and style of your writing.
It’s outlandish, this fanatical devotion to jumping through dumb hoops, when you consider that a disturbing proportion of university students can’t write a coherent sentence: see this article in Maclean’s and this one in The Washington Post.
In fact, we’ve arrived at a bizarre universe where writing style — that is, the clear, communicable way of expressing ideas — is seen as an nice little bonus, and the formatting of a Works Cited page is seen as absolutely essential.
Too much teaching, class time and content are dedicated to teaching this arbitrary drivel as if it were gospel. Let’s dispense with the citation fixation and, instead, fixate on communicating ideas sensibly. Isn’t that why we’re at university?