Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

Citations

From time to time when reading I let off steam about citation styles that frustrate me. Each style (footnote, endnote, in-text) has its uses and each is also ameliorated or exacerbated by the actual style guide one follows in the reference.[1] I am militantly pro-footnote and this comment found on Twitter basically sums up my issue with most other citation styles:

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Citations (in my opinion) are supposed to serve two, linked functions: to support the argument made in the main text and to provide a roadmap for the reader back to the sources that support the argument. A lack of citations either expects the reader to take the text on faith that it is “correct” or otherwise presupposes that the audience has no interest/desire/need to see the source structure underpinning the text. In-text citations, while sometimes useful, tend to disrupt the flow of the text. Endnotes (and, I would add, any citation style that defers important information) supplies the structure, but does so in such a way that, if the reader wants to find that information, s/he has to interrupt reading to flip to the back of the book. As noted above, this disrespects the reader’s time, but it also disrespects the reader’s attention and so it is endnotes that I want to turn to in more detail.

I have heard two explanations for endnotes (particularly as an alternative to footnotes), but find neither satisfactory. The first is that footnotes are preferable except where the author has chosen to write mini essays in the footnotes–in the introduction to Meta History, for instance, Hayden White has a two and a half page footnote that would, perhaps, be less disruptive to the text if it was in an endnote. Of course, putting this one note as an endnote would almost necessitate moving the other footnotes into the endnotes. And, as full disclosure, I find footnotes to be underutilized in most prose and found David Foster Wallace’s fn use pleasant. I am always aware that on this issue I may be aberrant. [2]

The second argument is that endnotes are a publishing decision trying to balance the needs of an academic audience with the need to appeal to a broader audience that may be intimidated by footnotes. What galls me about the latter argument is that it still presupposes that some significant portion of the potential audience is unequipped to grapple with, unwilling to look at, or otherwise allergic to citations. First, I want to see some sort of evidence (with citations!) provided by publishers that proves that the actual audience of a book would be turned off by footnotes. This means that the evidence cannot merely cite low sales, but would need to demonstrate that books with the same audience, density of subject, and fame of authors and differ primarily in citation styles have different sales/circulation rates AND that the citations were at the root of that difference. Second, IF the citations really did play that big a role in the sale of books, then I would suggest it speaks volumes for the state of education that showing the process of research and writing is so intimidating that given two comparable books, the reader is going to prefer the one without the reference on the page to the one with for that reason.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to prefer books that use endnotes–some of those books are valuable pieces of scholarship, but putting the citations in the back of the book is the easiest way to discourage the reader from bothering to look too closely at the sources. I do not check every footnote that I come across, either, but it comforts me to be able to easily and quickly check the source(s) in question without needing to flip the page.


[1] For instance, any style that provides minimal information and largely defers the actual reference to a bibliography or works cited is more unhelpful than helpful, in my opinion. It is possible to say that this method reduces redundancy in the text, but redundancy in the text makes it significantly easier to use.

[2] I am okay being aberrant. There are also different standards for different media. Footnotes have not caught on on Twitter, while page-length footnotes seem to work better in literary fiction, literary non-fiction, and perhaps blog posts, than the do in monographs where the point of the footnote is meant for citation rather than extended discussion. Then again, sometimes convention, even convention that is used so as not to let the form distract from the content, needs to be set aside.