Humanizing Academic Citation


There was an “aha!” moment in my class this week that reminded me just how important it is to talk with students about the human conversation represented by academic citation.


This idea of an academic conversation on the page is far from new. More than 70 years ago, Kenneth Burke used the metaphor of the parlor filled with a heated ongoing discussion that we are choosing to enter and participate in as academic writers. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein have structured their valuable book They Say, I Say around this idea of academic conversation. I hope here to note a few more very practical benefits of using this metaphor to talk with students at all levels about incorporating and citing academic sources.

For years now I have been talking with graduate students about what it means to be entering the academic conversation in their field or subfield. “All your work has to do,” I tell them, “is further the conversation one useful step.” This goal, I think, feels more manageable than, say, “solving the problem,” and it has helped more than one student I know get over writer’s block with an essay or dissertation chapter. The goal of most academic scholarship is not, after all, to end the conversation. Our job is to advance it, which also makes it seem more exciting than scary to have others citing and building on our work.

As part of furthering that conversation, we should refer to other scholars and their work in a way that we would feel comfortable having them read. For many of us, it is/was a jump in graduate school to realize that we might meet some of the scholars we’re citing. And I find it helpful to bear the fact of this possible meeting in mind, as a scholar and now as a mentor. When we’re writing about the work of scholars we’ve never met and don’t anticipate meeting, it can sometimes be easier to criticize their work without recognizing its contributions—or not to hedge our concerns the way we would if we were talking with them. If you’re someone who tends not to hedge disagreement in spoken conversation, then you may choose a similar tack in writing. But you might still be thinking through what you’d be comfortable having said on the page should you suddenly find yourself seated next to this person at dinner.

Now to that “aha!” moment.

This summer I’m teaching a course for incoming first-year undergraduate students, and this week we have been talking about how to cite articles in an essay responsibly. I’m not sure exactly what inspired this, but I tried a new tack. To explain how and why we introduce other people’s work into our own writing as part of creating and supporting our arguments, I talked first about how we have discussions in class.

“How do you refer to each other when we’ve having full-class conversations?” I asked. The students quickly came up with examples such as: “going off of what she said,” “piggybacking off what he said,” “I agree with part of what Alex said,” and “I’m not sure I agree with that point.” With these examples they could immediately see the way that they were building off each other’s ideas, including those that they didn’t fully agree with.

I then introduced the idea of academic writing as conversation: When we ask students to incorporate scholarship into their academic essays, we’re really asking them to be in conversation with what those scholars are saying. And while the introductions of quoted or paraphrased material are typically more formal than “going off of,” it’s the same idea. We’re explaining how our point or interpretation relates to this published scholarship. As the students pointed out, this is a different approach for many of them than the one they adopted in high school, where they only quoted material that supported their argument—where scholars who are quoted are more back-up singers than interlocutors.

Within the frame of spoken conversation, suddenly I could also explain the problem of the “dropped quote” better (a “dropped quote” being a quote that is dropped into the text as a full sentence or two with no introduction and just a parenthetical citation at the end). I pointed out to the students how weird it would be just to quote someone else in a spoken conversation without introducing the person you were quoting—or just making scare quotes in the air when you said it. How could your audience make sense of that? I pointed out that this is pretty much what we’re doing when we drop quoted material into a paragraph with no introductory phrase or clause. Readers have no idea when they first encounter the quote who wrote this bit of material or how to make sense of it in relation to what the writer is saying in the paragraph.

For one student, it was an “aha!” moment. You could see it on her face. She exclaimed, “I do that all the time! And I never understood what the problem was.”

I’m not claiming that this will create light-bulb moments in every classroom, but I think there are many ways to extend the metaphor of academic citation as conversation that can empower students to join in the discussion and clarify for them how to do so. And if nothing else, it is important for all of us to remember that the last name in the parenthetical citation is a person with whom we are in intellectual conversation—certainly on the page and perhaps someday, in some cases, in person.

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