Category Archives: citation

Academic Writing: Process, Practice, and Humility

Recently, I accepted a scholarly writing assignment, a policy brief for a university-based think tank. As I approach submitting the initial draft for peer-review and then revision before publishing, the experience has helped me continue to think about ways in which teaching students to write present challenges for both teachers and students.

My writing assignment matches well the scholarly cited essay assignment in my upper-level writing/research course—a course where students tend to struggle with breaking free of reductive research paper approaches to writing.

In my first-year writing (FYW) seminar, I have very broad goals for students. I see FYW as transitional and foundational. The writing assignments are designed to help students confront and move beyond the assumptions and approaches they have acquired in K-12 coursework (transitional) and then begin to establish an awareness of writing that will serve them well in academic settings and beyond (foundational).

The FYW seminar allows me to practice my beliefs about writing and teaching writing—such as providing students with a great deal of choice in writing topics and form (we directly reject the five-paragraph essay and challenge template approaches to writing and the writing process).

But in the upper-level writing/research course, both the students and I must navigate the realities of scholarly writing, including the narrow parameters of academic citation and structured/prescriptive writing templates. I explain to my students that often academic writing follows templates that are rigid and even clunky, but scholarly journals and other publications allow very little deviation from those requirements.

The upper-level course also asks students to better understand that citation style sheets are guidelines for more than citation, such as tone, sentence and paragraph formation, and integrating sources (we specifically examine the stylistic difference between MLA, what they are often familiar with, and APA).

These are undergraduate students, and much of what I ask them to consider and produce is another type of transitional and foundational—transitioning from writing like a student to writing like an academic/scholar and foundational for scholarly writing in graduate school or the so-called real world.

I accepted the policy brief assignment near the end of my spring upper-level writing/research course so I was able to share with the students the assignment as a sort of justification for their cited essay assignment. The policy brief project includes the following elements that I include in the course:

  • The policy brief has a detailed content outline, six defined sections.
  • The executive summary and policy brief have strict word count requirements (including a direct warning that exceeding the word count would result in the manuscript being returned).
  • Guidelines address tone, word choice, and structure/organization.
  • The think tank uses a modified citation stylesheet (based on APA but using endnotes).

As an experienced writer and academic, the narrowness of the assignment and genre (policy brief) was stressful—likely in similar ways that are stressful for my students in the upper-level course—because it is writing unlike what I tend to do. Also, the requirement for using endnotes is a citation approach I have rarely used.

This last point, about using endnotes, is the primary lesson I now have for my students.

I completed a full draft well ahead of deadline, but that drafting had been plagued by my concern for the word count. I was well over both the executive summary and full policy brief requirements. So when I sent in my initial full draft, I had worked for days cutting and tightening—nearly to exhaustion because I was trying to fit a great deal into what appeared to be a nearly impossible word count.

When that draft was returned to me, I was immediately confused since the feedback noted I was way under word count—and thus, much of the feedback stressed a need for adding and explaining more fully. I also received very valuable feedback about organization (editorial feedback is incredibly useful for academic writing since that feedback typically has the context of the writing assignment more clearly than the author of the piece).

What happened?

Well, despite my constant warnings to my students about knowing the features of Word, I fell pray to ignorance since I wasn’t aware my Word default word count included the endnotes. Once I adjusted that, my draft was, yep, well under word count.

Although I don’t recommend making such mistakes as part of the writing process, this was part of the process for me, and while it was embarrassing and frustrating, my next round of drafting was much improved because I had feedback and a greater awareness of my writing purpose and the assignment template.

But another experience with the writing process also struck me as something important to bring to the classroom. Over a few days, I began revising my first full draft, greatly expanding my literature review. As a result, I reviewed that research again, finding more and better ways to integrate that evidence.

Part way through revising and expanding the literature review, I took a break to do a gravel ride. While cycling, I continued to work on the policy brief in my head, and had so many writing epiphanies that I paused during the ride, typed out those ideas in Notes, and emailed myself the brainstorming:

  • Teacher/teacher ed in lit review
  • Move MS to analysis
  • Cover UK research in BL section of lit review
  • Frame analysis with bullet list of SoR claims in intro

While cycling, I realized at least one important gap in the lit review and made some key decisions about organization.

While I had left the draft a bit drained, once I returned from the gravel ride, and showered, I was energized to quickly note the changes in my draft (I moved sections and added brief placeholders, all in red text, to guide my further revision).

Regardless of how often I explain this to students, I cannot emphasize enough that the writing process is quite messy, rambling and recursive. Students, I think, are very uncomfortable with that messiness and struggle to see all drafting as tentative (likely because writing in school is often graded).

While I have a new and “completed” full draft, I still do not see the project as finished. I will have editorial and peer-review feedback, and the final text will be copyedited and formatted.

I have done a tremendous amount of work, and the writing project is still in an early phase.

My writing process included making a mistake with word count, significantly rethinking the next draft while doing a gravel bicycle ride, using red text in my draft to guide revision, and emailing notes and drafts to myself.

Like my students, I struggled with writing within a template, navigating an unfamiliar stylesheet and endnote format, and fully understanding a type of writing I have little experience with. A significant amount of my time has been spent reviewing my sources, seeking out more sources, and copyediting the endnotes several times.

Academic writing is almost equally invigorating and mind-numbingly tedious.

A final point about how my real-world experience with academic writing can inform teaching students academic writing is the recognition that students are often trying to navigate both an unfamiliar writing assignment and coming to understand a complex topic and the research related to that topic.

I am working on a topic I have examined for years, and most of my evidence was already compiled and organized (and examined) in my blog and two editions of a book.

For students to be successful in an upper-level course requiring them to confront both new ways to write and cite as well as new content and evidence, we must provide the most supportive contexts possible.

I require and allow a great deal of drafting, provide class time for drafting and conferences, do not grade writing assignments, and repeatedly stress that the essay is a process (that all writing is tentative).

None the less, students have been trained to be finishers and to focus on a grade; both are not conducive to academic writing, or writing of any kind.

Once this project is completed, I have some excellent artifacts to bring to the classroom, but most of all, I have a heavy dose of humility that always serves teachers of writing well.


The Good Student Trap: Research Paper Edition

I teach good students.

I write that with no sarcasm, or cynicism.

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching at a selective liberal arts university, and the students are mostly high-achieving young adults who graduated high school as A or B students.

Like me, my students also have a tendency toward the often ignored consequences of being gifted or smart—anxiety, depression, imposter’s syndrome, perfectionism.

While “good student” is a compliment, I remain convinced that performing as a good student is also, as Adele Scheele argued, a trap. Scheele posed that students learn good student habits in high school that they then apply in college, but often find those behaviors no longer are successful—or even valued by professors:

We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

But more powerful that acknowledging that good student behavior doesn’t translate into college, Scheele also confronts how the good student trap creates irrational fear:

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do—if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

I often watch these dynamics with my first-year students, which I anticipate. But the most dramatic example of this tension is in my upper-level writing/research course, notably when students submit this assignment:


Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see link above and student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. NOTE: This cited essays is primarily a critical analysis of media coverage, and not simply an essay on your chosen education topic. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

For 8-10 pages, a proposed structure:

Opening – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); be sure to include essay focus on media

literature review – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the sources (write about your topics, not the sources)

media coverage – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples

relationship between research and media – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so connect research and media examples

closing/conclusion – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); must emphasize essay focus, media analysis

Assignment for EDU 250, Paul Thomas, Furman University

Despite the highly structured details in the assignment, and despite students having several class sessions devoted to workshopping the assignment (and two scaffolded assignments—submitting a working references list and submitting annotated bibliographies for their sources), they struggle with completing the assignment as assigned, resulting in intense and negative responses to the feedback I provide on the first full submission.

The good student trap experienced by students here is that instead of conducting, writing, and submitting a media analysis project, students fall back to writing a high school research paper.

The reductive and inauthentic research paper students learn in high school is essentially behaving and writing like a student—collecting and writing an overview of “sources,” typically plowing through those sources one at a time and heavily quoting from each source.

The assignment I ask students to engage in requires that they move away from student behaviors and toward writing as scholars; that shift means that they gather and student scholarly sources in order to provide themselves a lens for writing an original essay (in this case, becoming expert on an educational topic in order to analyze the quality of media coverage of that topic).

For example, students tend to write “research papers” that explicitly state “my sources” and “my media articles” in order to detail “what I learned about X topic” instead of analyzing how media covers that topic.

My feedback includes nudging them (again) not to write like students, stressing that they are not doing the assignment (I refer them to the outline provided and the need to focus on “media analysis”), and warning them about citation concerns (including carelessness that rises to technical plagiarism).

With my feedback, the fear and negative response cycle kicks in. Students seem unable to trust a workshop environment in which draft submission, feedback, and revision are not only expected but required.

The good student trap has also trained students to see all feedback as evaluation, judgment, and to fear that not being immediately perfect is a signal that they have failed, or that they are going to fail.

Anticipating their fear and expecting they received my feedback negatively, I emailed them and assured them that revision was expected and that everyone was still capable of making an A in the course regardless of how well their initial submission had fulfilled the assignment.

In the first class after returning their essays with comments, however, they were mostly frantic; many of their comments were dramatic distortions of the feedback they received.

None the less, once they had their draft in front of them, they admitted seeing the gap between the assignment and what they submitted was much clearer to them.

So here is what my good students teach me over and over.

First, they confirm that prescriptions and templates are not nearly as effective as many people believe; I have always rejected prescriptions, templates, rubrics, and prompts for teaching writing—despite their all being common in traditional classrooms.

Students respond better to direct instruction once they have an artifact in front of them for context.

Next, they demonstrate for me the negative power of prior behavior that is successful, regardless of the credibility of that behavior. In this case, students struggle mightily to let go of the research paper.

And finally, they embody the paralysis of fear of not being good enough, not being perfect.

Unless traditional schooling changes—and I suspect it will not—I am faced with this reality continuing, and ultimately, I regret that the ones who suffer most in the good student trap are students themselves.

Helping Students Avoid Meta-Essay Moves

Maybe it’s the multiverse?

Or possibly the ever-evolving and shifting social media world that encourages young people to be the center of their own images and videos?

Well, actually, this is not going to be yet another “kids today” post by an aging educator. In fact, I know both the problem I am addressing (meta-essay moves) and the reasons why students practice them (direct and indirect lessons in school-based writing).

One of my favorite examples to help students reconsider their assumptions about writing essays as students is the brilliant Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation. It is a stand-alone master class in deconstructing the overstatement as the opening sentence of essays in school by students.

Despite covering this satirical essay by The Onion in class and despite my repeatedly emphasizing that students should never open with overstatements, students persist, turning in subsequent essays with the overstatement first sentence and the clunky traditional introduction (more overstatement) and then trying out a couple interesting paragraphs that match the lessons we conduct in class for engaging openings.

I mark that first sentence/paragraph and urge them to delete and focus on the better work following. And then, the next essay circles right back to the overstatement and clunky introduction.

This situation is but one of dozens of examples of students finding unlearning more challenging than new learning; many of my students earned A’s on their essays in high school, essays that began with overstatements and clunky introductions making grand proclamations.

Success is a powerful lesson for young people in school where grades are both the goal and motivation. However, artificial success is also a powerful deterrent for authentic learning—such as the inherent problem with using templates, the five-paragraph essay (equally as harmful for writing as training wheels for learning to ride a bicycle).

Another area I struggle to foster in student essay writing is avoiding meta-essay moves.

The classic example of meta-essay moves is the “This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay” thesis approach (see The Onion satirical essay). I rarely have students still clinging to that (thankfully).

But what persists are meta-essay moves (bolded in examples below) around the use of sources in cited essays, for example:

  • According to The Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, anything more than twenty work hours a week can result in problematic grades or psychological well-being (Fuller, Lawrence, Harrison, Eyanson, & Griffin, 2019).
  • Most of the sources used tended to use the definition of disparity provided by the institute of medicine (Cook, et al.,2012; Williams & Wyatt, 2015; Wang, et al., 2013).
  • Many articles and papers done on these topics jointly don’t go far enough when splitting up classes to paint an accurate picture of disparities faced by different persons at various levels of class with varying races (Braveman, et al. 2010).

I joke with students that I anticipate something like the following when I read their meta-essay moves in cited essays: “When I got the assignment for this paper, I searched online through the library and found sources that included research on the topic I am writing about.”

These meta-essay moves about integrating sources is grounded in MLA style (and some of my motivation for addressing this is helping students recognize different style expectations among citation style sheets) and in a less obvious self-consciousness and insecurity among students as writers.

I provide students resources that guide them in ways to revise and integrate sources in sophisticated ways that emphasize the patterns found in their sources; my refrain is “write about what you learn from the sources and not about your sources.”

Students often have had disproportionate experience writing cited essays as textual analysis, requiring extensive quoting and using MLA citation. When they shift to other disciplines and different citation style sheets, they tend to remain trapped in meta-essay moves and narrow uses of evidence (quoting only).

I have, then, added to concepts traditionally used when integrating source material—quoting and paraphrasing—what I call “synthesizing” (from my resource material):

Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources—and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time. Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

Fostering in students more sophisticated approaches to cited essays is part of the transition from high school to college, but lessons from high school are incredibly resilient since my students often report they received A’s on those high school essays.

Yet, I persist because moving students away from meta-essay moves accomplishes two writing goals.

First, students are encouraged to recognize and avoid empty, filler text in their writing. “Many researchers have conducted studies on this topic” is a waste of text space, and frankly, that emptiness erodes any student’s credibility and authority.

Next, linked to the first point above, students need substantial writer/scholar moves to establish and develop their credibility and authority.

Again, students often admit they have written “research papers” by stacking up their sources and mechanically walking the reader thought those sources, one at a time, as if the essay is about the sources and not some authentic topic.

This is why they have the urge to write “my sources.”

The result is an essay whereby a student is a mere conduit for Source 1’s thoughts on The Scarlet Letter followed by Source 2, Source 3, etc.

My emphasis on synthesis of sources introduces to college students a fundamental move by scholars, reading source material to learn about a topic through identifying the patterns found in a body of research. Except when providing evidence (quoted text) during textual analysis, writers/scholars assert their authority through paraphrasing and original expression (synthesis is creating something new from assembled parts; the newness is the synthesis, even when the assembled ideas are not).

In short, paraphrasing/synthesis shows understanding in a more sophisticated way that simply selecting other people’s words.

Maybe students today are compelled to use meta-essay moves in the same way they post selfies on Instagram or videos on TikTok, and maybe there are valid reasons they want to keep themselves the center of their stories.

And while we do acknowledge the use of “I” as credible and common in scholarly writing, students must avoid the sort of meta-essays moves that erode their credibility.

At least until the Marvel Multiverse spills over into our daily world, and then, none of this will really matter.

The Trap: The Ends v. Means Tension in the Pursuit of Content Knowledge

Over the course of almost 40 years, I have taught writing/composition to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. I am well aware of the cumulative toll of reading and responding to 10s of thousands of essays by students who are both learning to think and learning to write.

Those essays are often vapid and jumbled, and thus, the work of a writing teacher can be incredibly tedious.

The Onion parody of student writing, Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation, is too accurate for me to laugh since, despite sharing the piece with students, I still often read essays that begin with the same sort of dramatic and over-simplified claims fictitious Jeremy Ryan offers:

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay.

Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation

So when I noticed a Twitter thread about teachers/professors struggling with responding to student essays, I offered the following responses:

The trap, as I note above, results from any teacher’s perception of the role of content knowledge and the acquisition of the knowledge in the teaching/learning process.

Is that content knowledge the ends of instruction and learning, or the means of instruction and learning?

I think Rod Graham speaks for many teachers who incorporate student writing in order to assess whether or not students have acquired essential content knowledge as an ends of the lesson, unit, or course.

However, I have a different view of what constitutes “content” and I tend to place that content in the context of the means of learning.

For example, this week in my first-year writing seminars we have begun our journey toward their submitting a formally cited essay. My guiding goals for this assignment is helping students make the transition from high school thinking and writing to behaving and thinking as writers and scholars (especially in ways that are expected in undergraduate education).

First, I cautioned students about what it means to gather sources in order to write a cited essay. Students tend to begin their search of sources with a predetermined outcome in mind (they will lament, often, that they didn’t find what they wanted to find) so I tell them they are seeking a body of evidence in order to learn more deeply about a topic (thus, start with a question, not a conclusion/claim); and then, their job as student-scholars is to credibly represent what the evidence shows (whether that is what they “wanted” to find or not).

Next, I introduce them to the difference between mainstream approaches to topics (the “both sides” approach) and scholarly approaches to topics (more nuanced, and often resulting in only one credible “side”).

To engage with the problems of “both sides” approaches, I shared the current controversy in Texas: Books on Holocaust should be balanced with ‘opposing’ views, Southlake school leader tells teachers.

Several students were visibly shocked by the “both sides” mandate about the Holocaust (much to my relief) so we explored exactly what those “sides” might be, and then applied that to other topics such as slavery in the U.S., sexual assault, etc.

However, when I shared my own work on corporal punishment and the negative backlashes I experience for my public work against corporal punishment, the student reactions shifted dramatically; as is typical, several students argued for corporal punishment (although I clearly noted the evidence overwhelmingly rejects any positive outcome for corporal punishment).

Of course, this is an ideal example of the power of cultural norms and ideology (specifically religious training and beliefs) to trump empirical evidence, and it serves my larger instructional goals, but this dynamic is troubling none the less.

This lesson as well as the cited essay assignment represents my practice of using content as a means to acquiring authentic ways of thinking and writing (a different type of “content”) regardless of the content knowledge being interrogated or explored.

Students are free to choose any topic for this essay, and ultimately, I will be assessing how well they explore and incorporate sources and then how credibly they represent their sources over the course of synthesizing a coherent essay; I also trust that these students will acquire content knowledge (ends) as a result of interacting with that content as a means.

I do recognize that many teachers will and should continue to use writing as a mechanism for assessing the acquisition of content/knowledge, but I also must stress that this dynamic will necessarily be tedious for teachers and students—and that it likely inhibits many important goals for students as independent thinkers/scholars and writers.

As I Tweeted above, students experience content as an ends far too often, and are invited to use content as a means far too rarely.

Prompts and rubrics do most of the work for students, and in effect, infantilize those students, guaranteeing any acquisition of content is superficial and transitory.

If we want students to think and write with sophistication and nuance, we must provide students many, many opportunities to choose what content they engage with and then practice those sophisticated and nuance moves with content/knowledge as a means to their own growth as scholars and writers.

Transitioning from High School to College: (Re)considering Citation Edition

My first really challenging experience with citation as a student/scholar occurred fairly late in life, during my mid- to late 30s while I was in my doctoral program.

Although I had undergraduate and graduate degrees in secondary English education, I had functioned, essentially, as an English major in my academic as well as personal writing. That means I had done mostly textual analysis and worked my way over the years through the many versions of MLA—from footnotes to endnotes to parenthetical citation.

Before entering my doctoral program, I had been teaching high school English for a decade while also actively pursuing a career as a writer (submitting literary analysis, original fiction, and original poetry for publication). Frankly, my approach to citation as a teacher and writer had been uncritical and rigidly practical.

Even my dissertation—where I certainly learned how to navigate APA since I produced a final manuscript of over 300 pages with about 10 pages of references—was nothing more than a glimpse of the social science scholar and writer I would become; writing a biography allowed me to remain primarily focused on textual analysis, often more like a humanities (history, English) scholar than a social science scholar (writing educational biography). I culled a life of Lou LaBrant out of her memoir, her published scholarship, and her personal letters, augmented with a few interviews and a couple pieces of scholarship on her published before I took on my project.

Two pivotal experiences in my doctoral program changed me profoundly—being introduced to Joseph William’s Style (and later Jacques Barzun) and transitioning to APA citation and style after many decades using only MLA.

For about 15 years now, I have been fortunate to teach first-year writing at the college level, where I have dramatically changed how I approach citation and the teaching of writing. Much of my focus for undergraduates is fostering genre awareness and disciplinary conventions (including citation).

My approaches have pulled back considerably to the wide view so that students are invited to see and navigate at the conceptual level regardless of the writing or disciplinary circumstance they find themselves in.

I see in my eager and very bright students how paralyzing a reduced high school writing experience can be. These students have written almost entirely in English, primarily doing literary analysis (especially if they took Advanced Placement Literature and Language) and, as one student announced angrily, “memorizing MLA.”

When I explain to them that many (if not most) of them will navigate college and never use MLA again, that all of them will be expected to write at a high level across all the disciplines, and that each discipline has different style sheets and conventional ways of writing, they look deflated, if not outright angry.

At the broadest level, I think students and future scholars need to understand why academia incorporates sources and uses formal citation. There are two reasons, I think. First, students and scholars serve knowledge best by having intellectual humility—starting all writing and research projects by assuming other people have examined a topic already, likely many people with a great deal more expertise and experience that the student or scholar.

If a scholar is fortunate, they can eventually find themselves as one of the or the dominant voice on a topic, but this is rare (I am likely the Lou LaBrant scholar in the world, for example).

And second, related to that first foundational concept, students and scholars establish and gain credibility by “standing on the shoulders of giants”—those scholars, thinkers, and writers who have come before and already spent many years thinking and studying a topic.

Thus, most writing by students and scholars must begin with primary and secondary sources.

Next, students and developing scholars must understand the essential concepts that constitute citation.

In the positive sense, citation is clear and adequate attribution given to other people’s words, ideas, research conclusions, original creations (writing, photography, artwork, performances, etc.), and so forth.

In the negative sense (often how formal education approaches the topic), citation is avoiding plagiarism, which falls along a spectrum from purposefully to carelessly/accidentally presenting someone else’s words, ideas, etc., as your original work.

Finally, the most tedious aspect of citation—especially for students—is navigating the various standards for proper attribution in a variety of writing contexts.

For example, print journalism has a fairly simple (compared to academia) bar for attribution; for example, see this from an article in the New York Times by Anahad O’Connor:

“Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America,” Kevin Concannon, the U.S.D.A. under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in an interview. “This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?”

In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda

Print journalists often use direct attribution in the writing (no complex citation or bibliographies provided). However, online journalism and publications have added another level of citation, the hyperlink; see this from Joe Soss in Jacobin:

In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.

O’Connor tells us that “the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which account for about 10 percent of the dollars they spend on food.” Milk is number one among non-SNAP households, we are told, not soft drinks.

Food Stamp Fables

I have students write in these contexts (journalism and using hyperlinks) to practice clear and adequate attribution (citation) and finding credible sources, but most students and scholars eventually must navigate formal citation such as MLA, APA, and Chicago Manual of Style.

For many students who recently graduated high school and now must write and cite in college, they must shift to disciplinary writing and recognize that each writing situation has different conventions depending on the field of study.

Academic and scholarly writing (as noted above) require evidence for all claims, often incorporating sources as that evidence. Many students enter college confusing “evidence” with “quoting” because they have written a great deal of literary analysis.

While literature and history scholars often incorporate direct quotes from primary and secondary sources and forefront the authors and titles of those sources (conventions of MLA), most disciplines prefer paraphrasing and synthesis (citing multiple sources with the same content supporting your point) as well as forefronting the content from the sources, and not the sources themselves, as in this sample of synthesis:

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Thomas, P.L. (2017). Can superhero comics defeat racism?: Black superheroes “torn between sci-fi fantasy and cultural reality.” In C.A. Hill (ed.), Teaching comics through multiple lenses: Critical perspectives (pp. 132-146). New York, NY: Routledge.

Quoting, then, is simply one way to support claims and build credibility, and quoting should be confined in academic writing to textual analysis or highlighting passages from a source that demonstrates a uniquely powerful way of expressing the content.

Just as most students can navigate college without using MLA, they will incorporate many other types of evidence that are not quoting (and students will discover that some disciplines see quoting as weak stylistic choices of immature students and scholars).

Ultimately, academic and formal citation is about following a prescribed system while also understanding why each system exists. APA includes publication dates in-text because in the social sciences when research has been conducted matters; for literary scholars, when scholarship was published matters less than the credibility and stature of the critic (so all dates in MLA reside in the bibliographies, not the parenthetical citation in the text).

The mechanics of each citation system require students and scholars to pay attention to details and to copyedit carefully. Students must recognize that their credibility and authority are in part built on following those (often arcane) mechanics.

Of course, the quality of students’ original writing and the sources they depend on matter more, but citation systems exist in part to support what constitutes citation—clear and adequate attribution given to other people’s words, ideas, research conclusions, original creations (writing, photography, artwork, performances, etc.), and so forth.

On their journey to being writers and scholars, students are best served with these broad approaches to why academics depend on sources and how proper attribution/citation varies across writing situations and different disciplines.

Plagiarism, Accountability, and Adult Hypocrisy

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

“City Middle,” The National

A refrain by my father throughout my childhood and into my adolescence has shaped how I try to live my life; it remains possibly the strongest impulse I have as an adult.

My father’s parenting philosophy was possibly as misguided as it was reflective of the essential problem with how adults interact with children and teens: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

As a child growing up in the rural crossroads of Enoree, South Carolina, I witnessed my father announcing his dictum, sitting in our living room with a glass of Crown Royal in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

By the time I was a teen, the scenes were often far more physical, occasionally ending with me on the floor as my father attempted to wrestle me into compliance.

A game of him demanding, “Don’t say another word,” and me replying, “Word,” as he tightening his hold on me against the faux-brick linoleum of a different living room floor.

Adulthood for me has included a career in education, where I have taught and coached, and I am a father and grandfather. I am routinely tested, then, by interacting with children and young adults—challenged not to give into the adult hypocrisy of my father, of nearly every adult I encounter.

When the now-former president of the University of South Carolina was exposed as having plagiarized the end of his graduation speech, I immediately thought of my father and adult hypocrisy, certain that little or nothing would come of the plagiarism by the head of an institution that routinely holds students to draconian expectations for plagiarism and academic honesty.

In this case—unlike many high-profile examples that include Joe Biden, Melania Trump, and Rand Paul—Bob Caslen resigned, but there appeared to be nothing to suggest he was going to be held accountable by the system. And honestly, little consequences will occur to Caslen’s power, wealth, or status.

The university-level equivalent of this for students would be if a student were caught plagiarizing and that student were allowed to drop the course without any academic penalty, continuing on with coursework from there.

In academia, however, plagiarism for students tends to result in an assignment zero, a course F, or expulsion. Caslen is experiencing nothing equivalent to these consequences for students.

Since I teach writing, primarily first-year and upper-level writing at the university level, I often write about plagiarism and citation because these aspect of academic writing are both essential and deeply problematic.

I have even referred to the citation/plagiarism trap since consequences for plagiarism and the gauntlet of citation in college scholarship are disproportionately elements of stress for both students and professors.

The tension for me as a teacher, scholar, and writer is that I recognize how academic honesty and the mechanics of citation serve a writer’s credibility even while citation formatting and style guides are unnecessarily complex and often arbitrary to the point of inanity.

When we are dealing with citation, I find myself telling students that I recognize that APA, for example, is often mind-numbingly complex and essential in academic contexts that require formal citation (students also write using hyperlinks as citation, which emphasizes the possibility of citing that is academically honest and not tedious and pedantic).

The harsh reality about adulthood is that accountability, despite all the grandstanding adults do about it, is heaped mostly upon the youngest, the weakest, and the most marginalized. People with status—Biden, Paul, Melania Trump, Caslen—breeze through life little troubled by the bar we set for children, teens, and young adults in formal schooling.

“Pretenses. Hypocrisy” have driven Big Daddy into a rage, and Brick, to drink.

Especially for those of us charged with the care and education of children, teens, and young adults, we must lead by example; nothing is a worse lesson for young people than rhetoric that contradicts action.

If academic honesty and the proper attribution of other people’s words and ideas matter—and I think they do—certainly those standards must be higher for adults than children.

Otherwise, we are proving children right when they realize—as I did one day as a child standing in a smokey living room in Enoree, SC—that adult words are too often bullshit.

Despite all the jumbled mess that is the work and life of William Faulkner, I side with Addie from As I Lay Dying:

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

As I Lay Dying (p. 171)

“Words are no good,” that is, when actions reveal that they are merely words that serve to ask more of some than of others.

Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

As anticipated and predicted, my student evaluations of teaching (SET) included what has become a classic contradiction; in my first-year writing seminar, I received strong praise for my feedback and diligent support for students revising their writing along side a student who proclaimed that I provided no valuable feedback.

I typically share this recurring evidence that SETs are deeply flawed on social media, and I also reached out to students in my upper-level writing/research course since the SETs from that course had a much higher number of negative comments than is typical (again including contradictory responses about my feedback and support for revising).

Several comments on social media—including those by former high school students from decades ago and current colleagues—helped me work past the frustration of anonymous and misguided comments. In short, I want to stress that while SET data lack validity, student comments may offer more insight into the students themselves than the quality of instruction or the teacher/professor.

Students who are critical of a course or a professor are often failing to confront their own agency as learners and likely did not follow through on their responsibilities in the teaching/learning process. This, however, still deserves consideration by teachers/professors who are seeking ways in which to shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher/professor and to the student.

That shift has been a point of tension for my entire career, approaching 40 years, focusing primarily on teaching writing for secondary and college students.

My frustration lies in the disconnect between the enormous amount of time I spend supporting students learning to write (giving detailed feedback, providing resources and support material for writing and revising, and conducting conferences) and those students who both do not fully engage in the workshop model and insist on characterizing their lack of engagement as a failure on my part to provide adequate feedback.

Some of that tension also lies in students conflating my not grading assignments and not being overly prescriptive in writing assignments (few or broad prompts and no rubrics) with “not providing feedback” and “doesn’t give clear directions of what he wants.”

For context, here are the support materials I provide students in order to support their agency as learners:

Based on these materials alone, I think no reasonable person could accuse me of failing to provide enough feedback; certainly “no valuable feedback” seems unfair.

But I need to stress that these support materials are just that, support, and they are provided concurrent with direct instruction in class, textbooks on writing, and my own feedback on their writing and in conferences.

One of my primary goals as a teacher of writing over four decades has been how to foster in students the ability to write and revise when independent of me or any teacher—their agency and autonomy.

Over my career, I have become less and less prescriptive and offer fewer and fewer direct marking on student writing. One strategy I have used throughout my career is highlighting areas needing revision/editing and prompting students to use the support material in order to revise/edit.

I also have increased significantly using questions in my feedback, including asking directly if students have used the support material when drafting or revising.

Something I had not anticipated is that more students are offended by that question, interpreting it as passive aggressive and even “mean.”

In order to teach well, however, I need to know if the student writing is a result of the student choosing not to use the support material or the result of the support material not being effective (note the “REV” and “UPDATED” on many of the materials above since I am constantly revising based on feedback from students).

When I conferenced with my high school students, for whom I had prepared a textbook for revising (now somewhat reproduced here) that allowed me to respond very quickly by placing numbers and highlighting where students needed to revise and edit, I always asked if they used that text that explained the issue and provided revision strategies; if the student said “no,” I sent them back to their desks to work on their own before I provided more feedback.

I want students to revise and edit independently because otherwise I am revising and editing the essay for them.

With my college students, I typically provide feedback and note that they need to address similar occurrences throughout the essay, noting the need to review the writing beyond what I have marked (often, however, I simply highlight recurring areas needing revision).

None the less, I repeatedly stress to students that they are encouraged to request a conference with me if they are uncertain how to revise or edit based on the highlighting or my comments.

At this juncture, I am noticing another tension—students shutting down because they find feedback “negative”; this is the source of students saying that I am “mean” or that the feedback makes them feel “not smart.”

My university is a selective college, and these students have been A or nearly A students throughout high school; they also tend to suffer from the paralysis of perfectionism.

For these students, one of the most difficult responsibilities of them as students learning to write is having to re-imagine what learning is.

Some students want to submit perfect work only so the concept of revision is difficult for them because they are uncomfortable with any of their work being marked “wrong” or needing “correction.” Of course, learning to write means embracing the reality that all writing can and should be revised and edited, even by the most seasoned writer.

For students learning to write, however, feedback and revision/editing are necessary, preferably several drafts over an extended period of time.

One senior from the upper-level writing/research course provided what I think is an extremely perceptive observation about the role of the student learning to write: “There must be a dialogue and extra steps that students must take if they want to excel.”

Some of the tension expressed in my SETs this spring is likely due to the reduced bandwidth we are all experiencing mid-Covid-19. But the difficulty many students face embracing their own autonomy and their role in learning to write is nothing new.

Ironically, while my university and most other universities use SETs to evaluate professors, the best use of that feedback may be as mirrors for students who seek ways to place blame for their not learning at anyone else’s feet except their own.

My job remains finding ways to help students take ownership for their writing and to foster in them the skills and confidence to draft, revise, and edit independently.

That job will continue to be a painful one for me and my students.

Moving from Performing as a Student to Performing as a Scholar: More on Writing and Citation

The first time I recall being viewed as “good at writing” was in high school when I submitted a parody of my friends and teachers for a short story assignment; this was probably my junior year of high school during Mr. Harrill’s American literature class, and I am quite certain that I would be mortified by the story if I could read it now.

A couple years later, however, my “writer epiphany” came the spring of my first year of college. I very clearly mark the beginning of my life as a writer with a poem I wrote from my dorm room, inspired by being introduced to e.e. cummings in my speech course with Mr. Brannon.

To be blunt, I likely didn’t really write anything of consequence until my mid-30s—specifically my doctoral dissertation. And then, my life as a published academic really didn’t occur until I was in my early 40s (my 20s and 30s had a smattering of published poems, stories, and scholarship).

These realizations about writing quality over decades of formal schooling and so-called serious writing help inform my work as a teacher of writing. My undergraduates are unlikely to write anything of real consequence while in college so I see my job as helping them develop behaviors the support the possibility of them writing something of consequence if and when that becomes something they want or need to do (graduate school or in the “real world”).

As I have continued to think about my spring courses and the need for students to unlearn to write, I am convinced more than ever that students struggle to write well in formal schooling because of formal schooling.

A high school teacher of English and I talked through my experiences with three different courses of students recently submitting cited essays. Students often seem so bound to their past experiences that they do not or cannot follow basic formatting guidelines even with the detailed models I provide.

The high school teacher eventually identified a key problem I face teaching my students to write at the college level. Since my university is selective, I teach mostly highly successful students. Whether or not we want to call them smart, these students are extremely good at doing a certain kind of schooling in which student behaviors are rewarded.

Students are determined to show that they are working hard, the high school teacher concluded, but they do not recognize the need for working carefully. I added that this was exactly it, and that at the college level, thinking and working carefully and even slowly are qualities valued in scholarship.

Another challenge for students and teaching those students is the essential concept of being a scholar as that is layered onto being a writer. One example of this problem occurred in my first-year writing seminar.

A student submitted a cited essay on a topic outside of my field; I found the content to be problematic, but since I am not a scholar of the area, I simply alerted the student of my concern, noting that if he wrote the same piece in an upper-level course in that discipline, a professor would likely challenge the content in ways I could not (since I am primarily focusing on other aspects of writing, which I will detail below).

The student immediately responded, justifying his topic by his own lived experiences. I, of course, carefully explained that having a lived experience matters, but that is not how one becomes a scholar. Expertise is built from the sort of careful consideration of a topic that happens over time spent studying.

Regretfully, for students, that process of being a scholar is too often reduced to the artificial “research paper,” an experience that trivializes being scholarly and misleads students that working hard is all that matters.

This entire problem is a subset of the problem of grading as well. I do not grade but have minimum expectations; I also will not provide students feedback on assignments until they meet basic requirements (from Word document formatting to APA citation formatting).

Again, as noted above, students are working in the context of direct instruction in class that is grounded in the student resources, checklists, and detailed samples I provide.

None the less, several students will submit work without any citations in their essay, work with only 2 or 3 of the 10 sources on the references page cited in the essay, work clearly cited in MLA format, and other head-scratching submissions that seem completely unrelated to the assignment or the samples provided.

Here, then, are what I am holding my students accountable for when teaching writing at the college level, keeping in mind that they are unlikely to confront anything not already covered well by many seasoned scholars and that they (as with my own experiences) probably will not submit anything of consequence as an undergrad:

  • Learning how to use Word (or any word processor) as a tool. I am a stickler for using page breaks and properly formatting hanging indents (again, not that these are inherently important, but they are common ways in which Word can be used to help make formatting work for a writer). I am also adamant about reminding students not to submit work with different fonts (such as one font in the header and another for the essay) or manipulating spacing or font sizes (to distort the length of an essay). While I recognize that formatting is essentially superficial, this focus is about teaching students that being careful, meticulous, and detail oriented are likely to be well regarded at the college level—while their usual “working hard” approach can fail them if their submitted appears careless, sloppy, and incomplete (a draft).
  • Coming to recognize citation as a basic expectation of scholarly writing and thinking, while moving away from “memorizing” citation style guides and moving toward carefully using style guides as references while they work. I hold students to some elements of using APA (the citation of my field of education) in the same way I do simple document formatting (above); in other words, I will not give feedback on an assignment until some of the mechanics are demonstrated (double-spacing, hanging indents and alphabetized references, in-text parenthetical citations, etc.).
  • Rethinking their work as students-as-scholars/writers by shifting how they integrate sources in their original writing. One of the worst habits students bring to college in terms of citation is the hard-work approach to using their sources—stacking up 5-10 sources (in high school, that was books pulled from the library shelves) and walking through them one at a time, doing very little original work and taking almost no care to organize the content of the essays. Here is one the greatest challenges, I find, when I encourage students to stop writing about their sources—”Johnson and Kale (2018) conducted a study and found that…”—and begin to write about their topic in complex and compelling ways—”Dress codes remain sexist and racist (Cole, 2019; Hall, 2016; Johnson & Kale, 2018; Paul, 2020).”

For the first two bullet points above, I tend to hold firm to not accepting work until students meet the requirements (this can be painful for them and me), and for the third bullet, I focus on this as I comment and prompt them to address in their rewrite(s).

A final point that I must emphasize is that using high-quality sources well and fully is a foundational aspect of content in student writing. I note this since students often follow up when I return their essays and my feedback with “What about my content?”

I explain that it is very hard to take an essay seriously when citations are incorrect, incomplete, or incorporated in careless ways (working through one source at a time). In other words, for students as young scholars, citation is an essential way for them to establish and develop their credibility.

Working hard is performing as a student; working carefully is performing as a scholar.

I am under no delusion as a teacher of writing at the undergraduate level that I am producing writers; therefore, I want my writing expectations and experiences to contribute to their journey as careful thinkers—a few of whom may choose the life of an academic, a scholar, or a writer.

Citation and Credibility: Three Lessons

In my three courses this fall, students are now all working on scholarly essays that incorporate high-quality sources (focusing on peer-reviewed journal articles). Since the work lies primarily in the field of education, students are using APA style guides.

Often when teaching students citation, we focus our lessons on (the drudgery of) formatting and idiosyncratic citation structures (APA’s annoying lowercase/upper case peculiarities, for example, in bibliographies) as well as the challenges of finding and evaluating a reasonable amount of valid sources to support the claims of the essay.

Students often struggle with evaluating sources for bias, and honestly, they are not well equipped to recognize flawed or ideologically skewed reports that appear to be in credible journals and are themselves well cited.

Part of the problem has been well documented by Gerald Bracey; citing Paul Krugman, Bracey confronts the rise of think tanks that promote their agendas through the veneer of scholars and scholarly reports. Then, Bracey notes, “[t]he media don’t help much. By convention, they present, at best, ‘balanced’ articles, not critical investigative pieces” (p. xvi). This is what I have labeled “both sides” journalism.

While scholarly writing and citation can often slip into a circus of minutia, one lesson needing greater care is helping students (and anyone making a research-based claim) recognize that their credibility and authority is built on the validity and quality of the sources they incorporate.

Here, I want to present three lessons illuminating that dynamic—all pulled from current issues.

Lesson One: The “Science of Reading”

One of the best examples of the problems with ideological think tank reports and media coverage occurred (again) at Education Week, a major publication covering education that has abandoned “critical investigative pieces” for simply reporting (crossing the Big Foot line) and “‘balanced’ articles.”

Ideological think tanks, as Bracey warned, are well organized and very aggressive, systematically alerting media and providing press releases so detailed that journalists have to do little work (except, of course, evaluating the credibility of the report to begin with).

Media routinely cover that think tanks release reports, and journalists have argued it isn’t their job to determine if those reports are valid or not.

For example, Education Week is so invested in the “science of reading” narrative and movement, that they eagerly present reports from NCTQ because their reports reinforce that narrative—even though, NCTQ itself has been repeatedly criticized for not meeting even the basic guidelines for scientific research.

Sarah Schwartz ignores that NCTQ is not a credible source for making claims about teacher training in reading. But with just a brief Google search, anyone can find that NCTQ has had numerous reports reviewed, finding a disturbing patterns: “Although NCTQ reports have been critiqued for their limited use of research and highly questionable research methodology, this report employs the same approaches as earlier NCTQ reports,” explain Stillman and Schultz in one of the most recent reviews (also concurrent to the report cited in EdWeek).

Students, like journalists, are often not expert in the topics they are addressing, and well-formatted reports can seem credible, but often fail the basic expectations of peer-review (NCTQ releases their reports without peer review and receive media coverage while the discrediting reviews tend to receive no media coverage).

The lesson here for students (and journalists) is that any claim is only as good as the sources used to support that claim.

If the “science of reading” is a valid narrative (and, in fact, it isn’t), citing sources that fail the basic test of being scientific certainly erodes if not discredits the initial claim.

Lesson Two: Gun Violence/Control

Since school shootings are a subset of the larger pattern of mass shootings unique to the U.S., I have been researching gun violence and school safety for many years. These topics have robust research bases that tend to contradict public and media assumptions about both.

I had just recently covered school shootings and safety with my educational foundations course when the highly publicized mass shootings near Atlanta, GA and in Boulder, CO erupted. So I returned to research on gun violence in two classes, having some students challenge what I was sharing. Those comments tend to echo typical pro-gun talking points and the common, but weak, arguments supporting gun ownership found in mainstream media.

Here’s the essential problem with research on school safety and gun violence/control: Gun advocates are ideologically driven and use compelling but false arguments to promote their gun agenda.

In other words, standard arguments for school safety (armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, active shooter drills, etc.) and access to and ownership of guns (Second Amendment) are dramatically different than findings in existing research. Making this dynamic worse is that gun advocates have powerful organizations such as the NRA and even high-profile scholars offering discredited but popular arguments and research.

For example, John Lott is an economist and author of a high-profile pro-gun book; he also publishes research on gun violence that in many ways looks to students, the public, and the media like high-quality research.

Again, simply reporting on Lott’s research or citing that research in academic writing proves to be misguided since his work has been widely discredited once reviewed (see above).

The lesson here for students is that not all published scholarship is credible, and, possibly even more importantly, students need to seek out a body of research, never relying on only one study or the work of one scholar.

Lott is discredited but his work is also a distinct outlier; academic and scholarly writing loses credibility when relying on cherry picking (outlier research) in order to support a claim.

Lesson Three: Identity Politics

Another aspect of academic and scholarly writing grounded in sources is the importance of terminology—using disciplinary or technical terms in valid and accurate ways.

Recently, Barbara Smith took Megan McCain to task for McCain’s misuse of “identity politics”:

As one of three Black women who coined “identity politics,” Smith offers an incredibly important lesson for students because her Twitter thread offers credible sources for her claim, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective and What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics, the latter of which leads us to the seminal text itself, Combahee River Collective Statement.

The lesson for students here is the need to clarify terms in valid ways, including finding the primary source for scholarly language.

In some frustrating ways, citation formats and structures are both tedious and powerful aspects of building a student’s or scholar’s credibility. But a far more important task for students in terms of establishing their credibility is finding bodies of evidence that are verified by the field itself, most often peer reviewed and sitting within the bounds of many similar studies.

Since the space for scholarship and evidence continues to expand, students need to be better equipped for the difficult task of determining when sources are valid and when they are mere ideological distraction.

Unfortunately, as I show above, we have ample evidence around us daily of the great divide among research, the media, and the public—a divide often manipulated by powerful organizations with ideological agendas.

The Talk

Yesterday I had The Talk with two of my classes—my first-year writing seminar and my upper-level writing/research course.

Doing so proved to me once again that you can’t have The Talk too often with young people. Students were under-informed, misinformed, and worst of all, filled with fear.

The Talk, of course, for these classes was about plagiarism.

Two students in separate classes shared what I think is far too common with the emphasis on what to avoid, plagiarism, (a deficit perspective) instead of what to do and why, scholarly/academic citation—one having been “terrified” by a seminar on plagiarism when they were first-year students and the other struggling to express their concern about teachers being too “harsh” (a recognition that their experience with citation was mostly about avoiding punishment).

Despite the differences in class levels, these students were equally hesitant to answer basic questions about the purposes of citation and what constitutes plagiarism; they offered tentative and incomplete answers when I persisted in coaxing responses.

We tended to agree, eventually, that what constitutes plagiarism is a complicated issue. Students, unlike teachers and professors, were quick to argue that citation errors are not plagiarism, and students also place far more emphasis on intent (which among my colleagues is typically rejected out of hand).

The purpose of The Talk yesterday was to help students make some distinctions about reasonable expectations for citation in academic settings as opposed to intimidating students into not plagiarizing. My questions revolved around the purposes of the bibliographies included in cited essays as well as the basic expectations of in-text citations.

In other words, I wanted students to feel more empowered with increased confidence in terms of knowing they were not plagiarizing even when they remained uncertain about the formatting expectations of the style manual they were being required to use (my students typically are using APA in my courses but have backgrounds in MLA).

Approaching citation at the conceptual level (and avoiding the negative approach of “don’t plagiarize”) seeks to help students understand attribution in academic settings.

Some of the key concepts I emphasized include the following:

  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of the bibliographies included in cited writing is to provide enough information so that a reasonable person can locate the source with a minimum of effort. I urge students to start with what information is essential for that purpose and then to attend to the tedious formatting requirements of that information next.
  • Understanding that in-text citation is required to identify appropriate attribution of other people’s ideas and words. I have found that students often focus on attribution for words (quoting) but aren’t as apt to voice the need to cite ideas. (Note: Students are well aware that blunt plagiarism—passing off an entire essay as your own when it isn’t or pasting huge sections of text from Wikipedia into an essay as if they wrote it—is wrong; therefore, they see plagiarism as a situation about intent and characterize most concerns raised by teachers/professors in their cited work as citation errors, not plagiarism.)
  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of in-text citations is to include the essential information required by the style sheet assigned so that a reasonable person knows which source in the list of references is being cited. Here, the issues of citation at the conceptual level overlap with style sheet formatting so we discuss the different thresholds of major citation systems (APA focusing on author name and year as opposed to MLA using only the name).

The discussion of citation at the conceptual level seemed to help students feel more confidence as most of them faced the unfamiliar waters of APA, but we also had to confront the elephant in the room—what I call the gauntlet of academic citation.

I shared with students the harsh truths about plagiarism in higher education.

First, I explained my experience on my university Academic Discipline Committee, where many years ago I came to the realization that my university has no official definition of plagiarism and that professors vary significantly in their definitions of plagiarism as well as how they identify and punish plagiarism across campus (some religiously using and others never reporting even blunt plagiarism).

Regretfully, this discussion brought students back to fear, but I think they need to be aware of the unpredictable landscape of citation in college so that they can better advocate for themselves. I specifically urged them to seek out an advocate if they find themselves in situations where they think plagiarism is being misidentified in their work.

Next, I explained to students how systems such as work (another tool for variation in how plagiarism is addressed in different professor’s classrooms) and that these systems are expensive but not as effective as simple Googling.

I also addressed the student’s concern about many professors being too harsh by admitting that academic citation during college is often much more severe than in the real world (where plagiarists become president or serve in the senate) and far more complex than in the real world.

For me, after 37 years of teaching high school and college students writing and the gauntlet of academic citation, I recognized yesterday that we adults fail the citation/plagiarism talk the same way we fail the sex talk—by focusing on what not to do and instilling fear instead of understanding in young people.

This new recognition sits now beside a long-standing Truth I practice and preach about teaching all aspects of writing; there is no one-shot inoculation (or even two-shot inoculation in our age of Covid-19) because writing and the technicalities of citation are complex, things we gradually acquire even as there is simply no finish line.

Instilling fear in young people is a dis-service to them as well as the lessons we hope to teach and the good we believe we are doing for them.