Daily Archives: October 18, 2009

Manual Labor

As if health care reform, the mess in Afghanistan, and H1N1 weren’t enough to ruin your day, having to cope with new editions of two major style manuals (neither of which actually keeps up with new information formats because they keep changing) is one of those “in the cosmic scale of thing it’s really incredibly trivial but ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!” events.

MLA has finally decided it doesn’t matter what library you were in when retrieved an article or what “service” happens to be selling your library a particular database this contract year. Ten points for the rationality team. But leaving out URLs because anyone can do a search and find a website? One with no discernible author and several phrases at the top of the page, any of which might be the title – or the site name – or the sponsor? All of which are commonplace phrases that retrieve 5 million possible URLs? Okaaaay…. Deduct five points and go stand in the corner.

But it’s undeniably APA that has won the World Series of Stupid Style Manual Changes. DOIs? Not a bad idea. Citing the web site of the journal? Bad idea. Issuing seven pages of corrections and making excuses by saying they are “nonsignificant” errors?

Priceless.

This could be the tipping point. The time has come for faculty and librarians working with undergraduates to loosen up. In the cosmic scale of things, this manual labor really is trivial, but it carries a huge carbon footprint. For every hour spent writing a paper, at least an equivalent hour is spent trying to figure out whether you need a comma or a period here, which city out of the six on the title page is the one to use, what database you printed that article out of, or trying to identify the website of a journal for an article published in 1986 that you printed off JSTOR, given the publication changed titles three times and switched publishers five time since then. As this activity always happens in the wee hours of the morning on the day the paper is due, lights and computers have to be running, so we’re talking about a major energy drain. That’s not counting the environmental damage caused while creating and shipping the large amounts of carbonated caffienated beverages consumed in the process. Or the evening hours of the professors who are doing much the same while marking papers. Or the librarians trying to update their websites, guides, and class materials.

And what exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references? You learn that research is a pain in the butt. You learn that it’s really, really important to follow pointless rules with utter scrupulousness. You learn that, at the end of the day, you’ll get points off because you didn’t follow the pointless rules – unless, of course, you’re making a bundle off book sales, in which case “nonsignificant” is a valid defense.

I recommend that librarians stop teaching citation styles. (Why did we get stuck with that job, anyway?) That professors stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead. That students are told “the reason we cite sources is because they serve as your expert witnesses; people need to know who these witnesses are, so provide their credentials, ones that readers can use to find the sources themselves, because they may want to learn more about the subject. That’s why we cite things. Oh, and to give credit where it’s due and avoid a plagiarism rap. That’s important, too.”

As for all those arcane rules? “Don’t worry about it. They’re nonsignificant. Just give me the information I need to find the source, and make it easy to read. That’s all I ask.”

We might not save the planet, but we would save a lot of pointless aggravation. Not to mention a few bucks buying updated style manuals.

CC-licensed photo courtesy of Jonno Witts; part of the Writer’s Block set.