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

Citation Matters, Kelly J. Baker

On Citation and the Research Paper

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Real-World Citation versus the Drudgery of Academic Writing

On Citation and the Research Paper

Like its cousin the five-paragraph essay, the research paper [1] shares a serious flaw: they are both artificial forms found mostly in formal schooling (and primarily in K-12) that teach more about compliance than about writing.

A related problem with the middle and high school research paper assignment is “teaching MLA.” Last fall, after several weeks of investigating how my first-year students had been taught to write and cite, one student fumed uncontrollably in class that her high school teacher had demanded they learn MLA “because everyone uses MLA in college.”

If, then, we begin to view the teaching of writing throughout K-12, into undergraduate and graduate school, and then into the so-called real world, we as teachers of writing must embrace more authentic concepts of writing as well as citation—while also providing students with writing experiences that prepare them for both disciplinary writing throughout college and any writing as scholars or writers they may choose beyond their formal schooling.

Therefore, just as we must set aside the five-paragraph essay (a false template that does not translate into authentic forms or inspire students to write), we must stop assigning the research paper and demanding that students memorize MLA citation format.

Instead, students need numerous experiences as writers over years in which they investigate how writers write in many different situations and for many different purposes (including academic and scholarly writing that is discipline-specific). And as teachers, we should focus on authentic forms as well as on the concepts that guide writing.

Consider the following guiding concerns for the shift:

  • Just as teachers too often teach writing modes (narration, persuasion, description, exposition) as if they are types of essays (they are not), to suggest that anyone writes “research papers” is flipping the role of research. For example, in my first-year writing seminar I assign four essays and then require that one includes both a formal style for citation (APA) and a sophisticated used of a wide range of high-quality sources (a requirement of all our first-year writing seminars). However, my students discover after submitting and conferencing with me about their essays that as they rewrite, sources and citation become essential to virtually all their writing. To write well and credibly, then, is to study, to research; and to be a credible and ethical writer is to give proper credit to the sources of new-found knowledge.
  • “Research” also becomes jumbled in how “research papers” are traditionally taught. Students need to gain a better and more nuanced understanding of what original research is as compared to young and established scholars seeking out and then both studying and synthesizing other people’s work (research). Conducting an original study and then writing about that process and findings is a quite different and important thing versus generating a literature review and/or seeking out substantial evidence to give an essay greater credibility in the academic/scholarly world.
  • Citation and its evil twin plagiarism are also greatly cheated by focusing on students acquiring a specific citation format. Students must understand powerful and complex aspects of finding, evaluating, and then incorporating other people’s ideas and works into their own original writing. Citation, however, like essay writing, is discipline- and context-specific. For example, before I ask first-year students to write an essay using a scholarly citation format, I have them write an online piece (modeled on blog posts or online journalism) that depends on hyperlinks for citations. This process forces students to step back from MLA and consider the ethics of citation—finding and using only credible sources, thinking about the aesthetics of citation (how many words and where to place the hyperlink), and investigating how the threshold for proper citation and plagiarism shifts for different disciplines and different types of essays writing (journalism versus high school literary essays using MLA, for example).
  • Even more broadly, students must be exposed to the big picture reality that writing is an ethical endeavor—and the parameters of what is or is not ethical shifts subtly as writers navigate different writing environments and purposes.

When and how students incorporate primary and secondary sources into their own original essays must be a continual experiment contextualized by the students’ purposes. Therefore, citation and citation styles must be within the teaching of disciplinary conventions.

An early and important lesson for students is that multiple formal citation styles exist because of legitimate demands of the disciplines—not because teachers have rules and enjoy torturing students.

Early in my first-year seminar, we discuss the differences in English and history when compared to the social and hard sciences as disciplines.

Literary and historical analysis are often grounded in individual text analysis; therefore, quoting is often necessary in that analysis. But the social and hard sciences tend to incorporate original research, requiring students and scholars to represent accurately a body of research (not one study); thus, writing in those disciplines typically shun quoting and expect synthesis (not rote paraphrasing of individual studies, but accurate representations of patterns found in the body of research).

Literary and historical writing forefronts titles of works and recognizable names of those producing written artifacts; but the social and hard sciences are more concerned with findings and conclusions along with the when of those students so parenthetical dates and footnote/endnotes support highlighting what matters in those disciplines.

As a consequence of disciplinary needs—the purposes of writing—many in the humanities embrace MLA or Chicago Manual of Style while the social sciences may prefer APA or a variety of footnote/endnote formats.

Further, students must be introduced to the ultimate purpose of citation formats—publication.

While school-based writing seems to suggest MLA, APA, et al, are created for students, these formats are publication manuals—leading to the authentic skill we should be teaching: how to follow a format regardless of the format and navigating the conventions of any discipline.

Students need to understand disciplinary conventions and then the why’s and how’s of following whatever conventions are appropriate for any writing purpose.

The “research paper” and “teaching MLA” at the middle and high school levels fail our students in the same ways that the five-paragraph essay fails them.

The teaching of writing needs a renaissance that honors both the authentic nature of writing and writing forms as well as the goal of fostering writers, not students who comply to assignments.

[1] For this post, when I refer to the “research paper,” I am confronting the traditional research paper assignment found in most high school English classes in which students are walked through a highly structured process in order to produce a prompted essay using MLA format. Grades are often highly affected by students complying with (or not) the process and conforming to MLA. Instead, I am suggesting authentic writing assignments that include students participating in and then implementing research because that is necessary for the type of essay written or the disciplinary expectations of the writing; I also believe we need to move toward larger concepts of citation and encouraging students to understand how to navigate any citation form as required by different writing purposes. As with the “5-paragraph essay” and confusing modes (narration, description, exposition, and argumentation) for types of essays, calling a writing assignment a “research paper” is overly reductive and inauthentic.


Citation Style Chart (OWL)

Why Are there Different Citation Styles? (Yale University)

Why are there so many Different Citation Styles? (Mercer University)

Writing for Specific Fields [far right column] (University of North Carolina)

Building a Nuanced and Authentic Understanding of the Essay 

The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education, UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative

The Five-Paragraph Theme – National Writing Project

The Five-Paragraph Theme Redux – National Writing Project

The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme, Kimberly Wesley

Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay, John Warner

Five Paragraphs: Unloved and Unnecessary, Susan Knoppow

See this FOLDER for the following scholarship on the 5-paragraph essay/templates:

  • What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • What Inquiring Writers Need to Know, Michael W. Smith and George Hillocks, Jr.
  • The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist), Mark Wiley
  • The Struggle Itself: Teaching Writing as We Know We Should, P.L. Thomas
  • Fighting Back: Assessing the Assessments, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • Teaching Argument for Critical inking and Writing: An Introduction, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction, Kathleen Dudden Rowlands

And for historical context, see Lou LaBrant’s work reaching back into the 1930s.

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

My home university has taken another step in our quest to provide our students more effective and intentional first-year and sustained writing instruction during their time at our liberal arts institution. Once we moved away from the traditional English Department-based approach to first year composition and committed to a first year seminar format, just under a decade ago, we opened the door to having professors in any department teach first-year writing.

We are currently re-thinking the first year seminar model, but we are also taking steps to support better professors who have content expertise in the disciplines, experience as researchers and writers, but little or no formal background in teaching writing or composition research. This summer, then, we have begun a year-long faculty seminar on teaching writing.

Coincidentally, on the day this week we were scheduled to address plagiarism and citation, a session I was leading, I came across in my Twitter feed Carl Straumsheim’s What Is Detected?:

Plagiarism detection software from vendors such as Turnitin is often criticized for labeling clumsy student writing as plagiarism. Now a set of new tests suggests the software lets too many students get away with it.

The data come from Susan E. Schorn, a writing coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin. Schorn first ran a test to determine Turnitin’s efficacy back in 2007, when the university was considering paying for an institutionwide license. Her results initially dissuaded the university from paying a five-figure sum to license the software, she said. A follow-up test, conducted this March, produced similar results.

I have been resisting the use of Turnitin, or any plagiarism detection software, but my university and many professors remain committed to the technology. The growing body of research discrediting the software suggests:

“We say that we’re using this software in order to teach students about academic dishonesty, but we’re using software we know doesn’t work,” Schorn said. “In effect, we’re trying to teach them about academic dishonesty by lying to them.”

My general skepticism about technology was confirmed years ago when I was serving on my university Academic Discipline Committee where faculty often debated about whether or not students flagged for plagiarism by Turnitin had actually plagiarized (see Thomas, 2007, below). That debate turned on many issues being raised by the failure of plagiarism detection software, as highlighted at the University of Texas-Austin based on Schorn’s research:

  • Despite industry claims to the contrary, most plagiarism detection software fails to accurately detect plagiarism. Read more.
  • The Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Council of Writing Program Administrators do not endorse plagiarism detection software and have issued statements warning of its limitations. Read more.
  • Plagiarism detection software can have substantial unintended effects on student learning. It perpetuates a very narrow definition of originality and does little to teach students about the complex interplay of voices required in dialogic academic writing.
  • Plagiarism detection software transfers the responsibility for identifying plagiarism from a human reader to a non-human process. This runs counter to the Writing Flag’s concern for “careful reading and analysis of the writing of others” as part of the learning process.
  • Plagiarism detection software raises potential legal and ethical concerns, such as the use of student writing to construct databases that earn a profit for software companies, the lack of appeals processes, and potential violations of student privacy and FERPA protections.
  • Plagiarism detection software does not, by itself, provide sufficient evidence to prove academic dishonesty; it should not serve as the sole grounds for cases filed with Student Judicial Services.
  • Instructors who choose to use plagiarism detection software should include a syllabus statement about the software and its use, establish appeals processes, and plan for potential technological failures.

The fourth bullet above—where the authority for both teaching citation and detecting plagiarism is shifted from the professor/teacher to the technology—is the core problem for me because of two key issues: (1) many professors/teachers resist recognizing or practicing that teaching citation (and all aspects of writing) is an ongoing process—not a one-shot act, and (2) focusing on warning students about plagiarism and suspecting all students as potential plagiarizers (teaching plagiarism, a negative, instead of citation, a positive) are part of a larger and corrupt deficit view of scholarship, students, and human nature.

While plagiarism detection software is being unmasked as not as effective as using browser search engines (a free resource), we must admit that even if software or technology works as advertised, best practice always dictates that professors/teachers and students recognize that technology is only one tool in a larger obligation to teaching and/or scholarship.

Another related example of the essential folly of placing too much faith in technology when seeking ways to teach students scholarly citation is citation software, such as NoodleBib and the more recent App RefMe.

Despite, once again, many universities (typically through the library services) encouraging uncritically students to use citation software, I discourage the practice because almost always the generated bibliographies my students submit are incorrect—in part due to some of the harder aspects of APA for the software to address (capitalization/lower-case issues, for example) and in part due to students’ lack of oversight after generating the bibliographies.

Ultimately, then, if we think of citation software as a tool, and if students can be taught to review and edit generated bibliographies, the technology has promise (setting aside that some citation software embeds formatting that can be problematic once inserted into a document also).

Both plagiarism detection and citation software are harbingers of the dangers of seeking shortcuts for teaching students any aspect of writing; spending school or university funds on these inadequate technologies, I think, is hard to defend, but the greater pedagogical problem is how technology often serves to impede, not strengthen our roles as educators—especially as teachers of writing.

Some lessons from these failures of technology include the following:

  1. Be skeptical of technology, especially if their are significant costs involved. Are there free or cheaper alternatives, and can that funding be better spent in the name of teaching and learning?
  2. Be vigilant about teacher agency, notably resisting abdicating that agency to technology instead of incorporating technology into enhancing teacher agency.
  3. Recognize that teaching writing and subsets such as citation are ongoing and developmental commitments that take years and years of intentional instruction.
  4. Resist deficit thinking about students/humans (do not address primarily plagiarism, but citation).

Straumsheim draws a key conclusion from Schorn’s research: “In addition to the issues of false negatives and positives, plagiarism detection software fits into a larger ethical debate about how to teach writing.”

The ethics of teaching writing, I believe, demand we set aside technology mis-serving our teaching and our students—setting technology aside and returning to our own obligations as teachers.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

Statement on Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Preventing Plagiarism (UT-Austin)

Teaching with Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Plagiarism Detection Software: Limitations and Responsibilities (UT-Austin)

Results of the Plagiarism Detection System Test 2013

Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices (WPA)

CCCC Resolution on Plagiarism Detection Services (#3)

Why I Won’t Use TurnItIn to Check My PhD Thesis, Travis Holland

Another Terrible Idea from Turnitin | Just Visiting, John Warner