My student was anxious. He'd waited in the rain to talk to me, pacing up and down outside the cafe window while I finished my meeting with another kid. I wondered what he could possibly want that was so crucial as to make him stand, in a downpour, for 15 minutes, hoping to talk. I'd never seen this one in my office hours before.
"Mr. Peck, I, uh..."
His voice trailed off almost as soon as he sat down. Between us on the table was a soggy essay, a draft for a class other than mine. It was open to the back page, labeled "works cited." The page was blank.
"Mr. Peck, can you help me format my citations?"
You might remember source citation formatting from school, although with any luck you'll have managed to forget.
"MLA. APA. Chicago, Turabian, IEEE. In-text, endnotes, footnotes, parentheticals. Et al."
Man of us know these words and acronyms, although for most of us they could scarcely matter less.
There is a mantra among those who doubt the value of education: When will I use what I am learning here? In the case of citation formatting, the doubt is justified, because the answer is "never."
Once you leave school you will not use source citation formatting guidelines again. They will not matter. But in school they are an end-all, be-all, important thing.
I have seen students, like the one who waited in the rain for me, reduced to tears over missing commas. I've heard of kids put on disciplinary leave, for a semester, a full year, over forgetting to italicize something.
Perhaps you think I am exaggerating but I am not. I give the same warning every year to my class: Learn how to cite your sources right, and learn it now, because somewhere in the university there is a professor who is just waiting to have you expelled for improperly indenting your title.
It is especially galling to me because it is no longer necessary. We live in the information age--if you want to tell someone where you found something, you can either link directly to it or give them a web address to visit that will show them exactly where to find the information you used, even if it's in print.
As it is, though, citations are anything but simple. Standards aren't even consistent from class to class, because different instructors, even within the same program, use different citation formats. I use MLA, because it's the easiest; my friend uses APA because she wants her students to learn a more rigorous approach, to help prepare them; my adviser demands Chicago because it's the standard in our discipline.
The guidelines don't vary much among these formats, but they vary enough that you can't just assume you have it right once you've learned one style. No, you have to learn them all, and keep their intricacies straight--or else.
I recognize the value in citing sources. Don't get me wrong. I come from a family of journalists. I am both a graduate student and a college instructor. In the world of writing, our ideas are all we have, and we have to make sure they are protected. Taking that seriously is so important, to me and to others, that I feel I should be clear here in saying is vital that students cite their sources.
What I take issue with is citation formatting. It is an endlessly confusing thing that does not matter, and most people should be spared of ever having to know. We should fit it: We should stop requiring that anybody learn overly complex source citation styles, and adopt a simple, link and keyword-based approach that takes advantage of the communication tools of our modern-day existence.
I want the time I spend warning students back. I don't want anybody to stand in the rain, crying, over a comma ever again.
Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.