Citation as Fashion: Do You Really Need Those Page Numbers?

February 16th, 2015

We are happy to have Sarah Cooper back on our blog with a post about those pesky citations at the end of a research paper. Are they important? Why are they important? She breaks it down for us with some useful tools and advice. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionCitation as Fashion: Do You Really Need Those Page Numbers?

By Sarah Cooper

I like to be able to justify to myself and my students why I’m teaching what we’re learning.

Usually in history it’s easy: relate past to present, analyze a relevant ethical issue, tell a story that makes people pop to life.

But last week it wasn’t easy. The eighth graders were spending two days in the library to find sources and write a Works Cited list.

The assignment: to write a paragraph about an issue related to their service projects in science, such as strategies for teaching children with Down syndrome or the environmental value of biking over driving.

The topics were meaningful and the sources strong. I had no problem rationalizing the assignment until the third day, when I helped students with their paragraphs and also checked their Works Cited lists.

The eighth graders had used NoodleTools, a research program I love, to create their bibliographies. As with EasyBib, BibMe, and other citation sites, NoodleTools asks for all the relevant information and then creates a bibliographic citation in the right format. The program also goes one step beyond to alphabetize, double-space and indent.

Walking around in the computer lab, looking over students’ shoulders, I compiled a list of common fixes for their Works Cited pages.

See if you can figure out which one was hard to justify for me:

1. Include the article title as well as the publication title.

This is necessary information to find the source again, and students definitely need to list it.

2. Indicate that an electronic source was found on a database rather than in print.

This makes sense because I’d like students to appreciate the plethora of online sources available.

3. List the volume and issue numbers for scholarly journals.

This is a little more esoteric but okay. I would like students to understand that journals are almost like books in how seriously they organize themselves and how closely they track their topics.

4. Include the page numbers for newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals found in online databases such as ProQuest Research Library.

What the heck?!

After asking at least half the students to go back and add the page numbers from the original database source – not the page numbers of the their printed-out pages, but those from the actual journal or magazine, as listed in the citation on the database – I started to feel sheepish.

Why am I asking students to cite page numbers for print publications that they will never see, that 99% of the people citing their articles will never see, and that almost didn’t exist to begin with since the publication is almost always accessed online?

After sleeping on and wrestling with this page numbers issue (you can see I really don’t like having my students do work that doesn’t make sense!), I came to this conclusion:

Including the page numbers in your MLA citation of an online source is like ironing your shirt before you go to a job interview. It’s like putting on earrings to match your necklace. It’s like knotting your tie tightly.

Citation as fashion.

Citation as window-dressing.

Citation as dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s so that no one faults you for not knowing the rules – so that they can be impressed by your unwrinkled collar and pay attention to what you are saying instead of what you’re not wearing.

Helping my students make the right impression on future teachers, professors and employers by sweating the details – this I can justify.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook relegates page numbers to the same dustbin where the now-optional URLs lie.

Which citation details do you care about? Why do you care?

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stacey  |  February 17th, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    As a kid, I didn’t understand why those citations were so important. Now I rely on them as I gather research. I always like to go back to the original source to see how something was framed.

    As for the citation details I care most about? I suppose the volume and issue number are helpful. Not everything is archived online. Sometimes you have to head to the stacks and it helps to know exactly what you’re looking for.

  • 2. Sarah Cooper  |  February 20th, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    Stacey, I appreciate your scholarly reminders of looking at the context of a source and sometimes needing the stacks!

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