I Always Tried to Use Chicago Style

Technology creates anachronisms faster than we educators understand and realize.

Take the citation as an example. In high school I turned in papers MLA style (make sure to get the commas in the correct place). For graduate school it was ALA. For my undergraduate senior thesis I went with Chicago Style if only because it suited my desire to explore all kinds of thematic segues without distracting from my central thesis.

When I assigned history papers to my 8th graders, I always spent a good couple of lessons going over how to create a works cited page (MLA). This grew easier over time, as Microsoft and the web added programs that made the process stupid proof (it’s all algorithmic anyway). Getting my students to add quotation marks and citations in their actual texts was, in my opinion, more important than getting semicolons and underlines correct.

Why Do We Cite?

From a writer’s perspective, we cite to give credit where credit is due, to build arguments from other people’s logic, and to lend authority to the thesis we’re trying to prove.

From a teacher’s perspective, we insist our students cite for the above reasons and, honestly, it gives us one more area in a rubric we can associate with their grade (and who hasn’t docked a point or two for missing a comma…or had the conversation with a student on plagiarism).

Also, I think it may serve as an educational right of passage. Or maybe bragging rights among the nerds and academic go-getters. “My Bibliography was 30 pages long in Times New Roman Font Size 8”.

But Why Do We Cite this Way?

Or, more accurately, why do we cite this way still? The era where print copies of papers and essays is waning. Or, as Slate puts it in their excellent post “Stop Citing Your Papers. Start Hyperlinking“:

Conceived during an era when libraries were purely physical places, papers were composed by hand or typewriter, and professors returned graded assignments sprayed with red ink, current systems of citation in academic writing lack value in the digital age. While some will continue to hold out on digital documents, they are quickly becoming the minority as their peers take advantage of digital submission and grading as well as e-readers and computer programs that can easily adjust font, take notes, highlight text, and store (more legible) comments.

Digital documents can contain hyperlinks to the original source material. Which, from a reader’s (and teacher’s) perspective is much more valuable and useful. Think the essayist is making excellent points (so excellent that you start to have questions about their sources)? Follow the hyperlink trail! Think vast quantities are being copied and pasted? Look directly at the source (without having to Google the text)! Want to explore the bigger picture? Hyperlinking is much more effective and removing those barriers of exploration.

I’ve noticed that even when passages of text are not available for reading on the web, it’s becoming more common to simply link to the book title on Amazon (much to Amazon’s joy I’m sure).

MLA and ALA won’t disappear anytime soon. But they likely will as the digital world continues to make inroads on education.

Curriculum Wars – What’s Missing

In the many education feeds that I monitor, curriculum war stories always lack a fundamental reality check.

First, a short explanation. In the United States, curriculum wars are typically painted as a battle between conservatives and liberals over state curriculum and, by extension, textbooks. This is a simplification, but a simplification that serves our media’s consistent need to paint every story as an us versus them narrative (because, you know, reality is usually more nuanced and complicated). In this stereotypical simplification, the arguments boil down to the following:

  • Conservative Argument: These godless liberals are teaching our kids to hate the United States, man comes from monkeys, and socialism is the answer to all ills. No respect is given to authority, mom, God, or apple pie. We’re creating a generation of narcissistic, valueless, brainwashed citizens. (Free sample of such thought, check out this National Review Article).
  • Liberal Argument: These Christian fundamentalists are teaching our kids that global warming is a hoax, Ayn Rand was an economic genius, dragons actually once existed, and the United States is a paragon of virtue. (Free example, view Salon’s 11 heinous lies conservatives are telling our school children.)

They Miss the Point

Both arguments assume that students get their information from two sources: teachers and textbooks.

What they miss is the big, fundamental change that happened between when many of those making the argument went to school and the modern world.

It’s called the internet.

Knowledge is decentralized.

Curriculum can be questioned with a simple browsing to Google or (my favorite) hanging out in Wikipedia land. Google Now and Siri offer all kinds of perspectives and options.

 You Got to Surf this Wave

Students are going to find information. Sometimes it will be bad information. Often times it will be incomplete information. And, gasp, it likely won’t fit neatly into curriculum. Good teaching means you challenge assumptions and (as a side) encourage perspective. The internet features many views, often in the extreme, but there’s such a large buffet of options. A teacher’s (and parent’s) role is to be aware of what’s being consumed.

I’m not going so far to say teachers and textbooks don’t affect learning (they clearly do).

But I do not see danger lurking behind every curriculum battle.



You’ve Lost the Argument

Seth Godin features a post on how to loose an argument. Personal favorites:

  1. Forget the pitfalls of Godwin’s law. Any time you mention Hitler or even Communist China or Bill O’Reilly, you’ve lost.
  2. Bring up the slippery slope. Actually, the slope isn’t that slippery. People don’t end up marrying dogs, becoming cannibals or harvesting organs because of changes in organization, technology or law.

Anytime I read a comment in the newspaper or on someone’s blog that features those two point I immediately stop reading or giving any intellectual credit to the writer.