First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

“How much we should emphasize academic citation in the first-year writing classroom has long been a matter of debate,” explains Jennie Young, director of the first-year writing program at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Then Young argues: “However, I’d like to take it one step further: I suggest that we stop teaching it entirely.”

I taught high school English for 18 years, much of that instruction focusing on teaching writing and preparing students for college. Since then, I have been a professor in higher education, including over a decade teaching (and briefly directing) first-year writing.

woman writing on notebook

Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Young’s provocative and compelling proposal speaks to many of the problems I have experienced with teaching first-year writing as well as with providing faculty the guidance and support they need to teach first-year writing (and writing in general)—especially those faculty outside the fields of composition and English.

Students typically come into first-year writing with a very narrow and distorted understanding of academic writing and citation; they have mostly written cited essays in English (and thus have very little awareness of the wide range of conventions for writing across academic disciplines) and have been inculcated into thinking “everyone uses MLA.”

Faculty charged with teaching first-year writing often struggle with teaching writing broadly because most college faculty are academics who write (by necessity and often begrudgingly) and not writers who happen to teach or do scholarship (this second category is where I reside).

These of course are not the only problems I have experienced, but they do serve as solid foundations for entering into a dialogue with Young’s call for not teaching academic citation in first-year writing based on four powerful reasons:

  • The vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they graduate. Most writing is now digital and uses active links to document source material.
  • It hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing, such as clarity, correctness and rhetorical effectiveness.
  • There are other ways to attribute credit. Journalists, for example, just write “according to” and provide the information and the date if it’s relevant.
  • The citation systems change from style to style and update to update. Why are we spending so much time insisting on something that’s not standardized across disciplines and is going to change the minute MLA decides to make arbitrary changes (to an already arbitrary system) in order to justify yet another new edition?

As I have examined before about my own instruction in first-year writing, I seek ways to scaffold student experiences in order to first dismantle their learned misunderstandings and garbled sense of disciplinary writing/citation and then to help them reconsider evidence-based and cited writing at a conceptual level.

Young’s first and third bullet above speak directly to my own teaching and assignments since I ask students-as-writers to investigate the diverse ways writers cite (I also emphasize journalism and on-line writing that incorporates hyperlinks) while introducing them to cited writing through hyperlinking so that we can focus on choosing high-quality sources and writing well instead of the tedium of formatting.

For students and writing instructors, however, I have to pause at Young’s use of “teaching” and ask that all of us charged with teaching writing in higher education reconsider some key aspects of first-year writing as well as the entire writing program at our colleges and universities.

Broadly, faculty must understand and also support the explicit goals of first-year writing and the writing program; obviously this assumes those goals have been decided and are available for faculty and students.

Young, I think, is pushing against the purposes of first-year writing: Is first-year writing designed to prepare students as writers and informed thinkers, or is first-year writing designed to prepare students as academic writers during their college experience?

These are not trivial questions in terms of whether or not we support Young’s argument about dropping citation instruction in first-year writing.

One of the tensions I have witnessed in my providing faculty development for colleagues teaching first-year writing is that I tend to work big-picture in terms of fostering students as good writers (not primarily disciplinary academic writers) while also cultivating student awareness of the more narrow (and often tedious) aspects of disciplinary academic writing.

Here is where I struggle with the word “teach” and also acknowledge that Young is making an excellent point about assessment and grades for students in first-year writing.

So here are the conditions of first-year writing that must be addressed when considering Young’s proposal.

All courses are inherently contracts between faulty and students while also being contracts among faculty. Students expect to receive identified instruction in any course, but faulty also teach each course with the understanding that students have had other courses that address content and behaviors that inform that instruction.

First-year writing—like general education requirements and introductory courses—has obligations to both each student and the entire curriculum of a college or university.

If we step back from Young’s specific proposal, I think the essence of her argument is one that is deeply compelling to me as a writing instructor: First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.

As many of those with whom I have worked to guide and direct first-year writing have come to repeat, no writing-intensive course is an inoculation. I would add, especially first-year writing.

The teaching of writing, whether discipline-bound or not, takes a great deal of time and several writing-intensive courses over the entirety of any student’s formal education.

All colleges and universities with first-year writing and writing programs (and ideally several writing-intensive courses designed to address the goals of that program) must confront at least Young’s argument in terms of what any first-year writing course can accomplish.

Since, as Young notes, academic citation is discipline-specific and those style sheets are in a constant state of flux, it seems quite reasonable to focus on the broad elements of writing well and being well-informed during first year writing while also conceding some space and time to introducing students to academic citation (fostering awareness, not teaching and assessing it).

Academic citation can and should be left to upper-level writing courses and courses in a student’s major where the tedium has at least some relevance in the moment of performing at a high level in a discipline in order to achieve a degree (and where faculty in that major can make informed decisions about what those majors need, as they say, in the “real world” after college).

The great irony about first-year writing and writing programs in higher education is that they are simultaneously framed as essential since they are charged with incredibly high-stakes expectations (teach all first-year students how not to plagiarize and how to select high-quality sources to incorporate into flawlessly formatted citation guidelines while also being nuanced and well informed about the topic) but are often under-staffed or staff in haphazard and poorly supported ways while also receiving inadequate funding and allowed to exist in conditions that work against those lofty goals.

First-year writing is an introduction to a next step as writers and thinkers for college students, and it is an introduction in many ways to college itself.

First-year writing, again, is not an inoculation, and Young’s call for removing academic citation from what we demand of first-year writing instructors and students is the least we can do to create the sort of courses that serve well both our students and out curriculum goals.

See Also

On Citation and the Research Paper

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Real-World Citation versus the Drudgery of Academic Writing

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