Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Bibliograpy as Medium 

Because I already wrote it, and need sleep -- the Philadelphia Report can wait until tomorrow.

Ongoing discussion over the past few weeks between Library, History and English faculty here at the prep school about teaching citation. Started in response to increasing teacher and student frustration about how to handle an ever-more-vast spectrum of media types, we've subsequently wandered into a wider discussion covering everything from the usual "MLA or Chicago" standardization concerns to more minutia-level issues concerning, for example, the infoglut that currently exists to handle missing data:

...what [says the History department Chair] if a key piece is missing (author's name, for example)? Either no single reference seems to cover every exception, or, the case or example you want is difficult to dig out of the welter of other material.

Tricky stuff. In this case, coworker and Instructional Librarian Susan weighs in on this ongoing discussion as follows:

I usually tell them to somehow indicate that the author is unknown...which at least lets the reader (of their paper) know that they "tried" to credit the author. Is this the right thing to tell them, or do you have other suggestions?

Which, naturally, allows me the prompt I need to address, holistically, The Bibliography As Medium. My response:

I was taught in college that one alphabetizes "works cited" pages by the first item, regardless of whether an author exists or not. A random selection of history books pulled from the library book sale are all consistent with that rule -- instead of Susan's take.

But that doesn't mean that Susan is wrong, and it doesn't mean that the books are wrong, either. What I think we want to remember is that Susan's comment holds the key to citation rules. They are, as I understand it, SUPPOSED to be fluid to some extent -- because different fields, different teachers, different students -- different CONTEXTS -- create different balances between the differing reasons we cite in the first place.

Let's look at what happens when we can't find the author, for example. This example currently under discussion, to take one criteria for a works cited at the high school level, balances a need for clean-looking and easy-to-follow works cited pages against the need to be able to know, as Susan says, that students have done "due diligence" in looking for an author. There are at least two possibilities, each with its own faults and benefits:

1. Susan's suggestion, which creates a context in which students work hard to find an author when it is not clear at first, and then -- under the standard flag of "academic honesty" -- leave some textual marker ("author unknown") to show that they have made their best effort to look for that information, but that to the best of their abilities and knowledge, the "author" information does not exist.

2. My own suggestion, which is consistent with the books we have in our library now, as best as I can tell. Using TITLE first when no author info is available avoids lumping one or more entries at the top of the works cited page (under "A" for "author unknown") -- a problem because I recognize a DIFFERENT and contradictory function of the works cited page as ALSO important for students and readers alike -- that function being the ability of the reader to follow up on cited works, and access them easily.

I have, in fact, been taught that the bibliography lists in information in the order it does BECAUSE that order goes from "most likely to find that info" to "least likely to be helpful in finding that info." If a student has listed a resource as being BY "author unknown," then it is harder to skim a works cited page and then go find that work that has been cited -- because, in the world of information, that information is best accessed by TITLE (because there is NO author known).

Note that neither of these is "better." But they cannot be used together.

This, then, is an example of why we get conflicting and contradictory info in different sources.

Given that: I think we may be looking for a red herring if we want outside resources to be consistent with each other. These are STYLE manuals, not rulebooks.

My opinion on this issue, then:

I think we best serve students by asking them to think about WHY we ask for works cited pages, and let them -- as a class or as individuals, depending on teacher preference -- decide how to be consistent and clear when faced with the world of exceptions.

I believe that THIS is the best way to prepare students to use works in college and beyond -- and, more importantly, to be prepared to use and understand the particular resource or style handbook of their college (and, later, their chosen field). It makes them adaptable to the real world of information in all its forms, where HOW you are writing often determines which form you use (APA or Chicago or MLA), because it helps them see WHY a field might choose to use one standard or another. In my experience, that understanding of WHY helps them "get it" faster.

More importantly, I think it also would help them figure out how best to use and cite media which as yet do not exist. Because, yes, new media - with new citation needs -- are coming at us all the time.

That said: If we want to have a schoolwide discussion about whether we want our own consistent rules, then I think we should go for it! As has happened with standards for writing itself in the Writing Across the Curriculum group, however, we may find that different departments and different teachers prefer different styles -- making a schoolwide consistent resource either moot...or only possible by fiat.

Thanks for reading all this, folks, and for indulging me the length needed to make this point.

posted by boyhowdy | 11:02 PM |

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