Like many of you, I’ve been grading a lot of student research papers lately. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve noticed some key changes in their bibliographies this semester for the first time ever. For example, a couple of grad students did there bibliographies through something called bibme.org. I know this because bibme.org leaves a note on their bibliographies that reads something like, “This bibliography was compiled through bibme.org.” [I can't be sure of the exact wording because I've already handed back those papers.]
They were both perfectly good bibliographies except for one problem: They were in MLA format. “In history, we use Chicago Style,” I explained dutifully when one of those students turned in their draft. “What’s the difference between MLA and Chicago?,” he asked reasonably in return. I know it has something to do with the order of the information, but I couldn’t answer him exactly. “In history, we use Chicago Style,” was all I could say.
I have all major citation formats for Chicago/Turabian pretty much memorized by now, but it wasn’t always like that. I went through graduate school using a 6-page yellow pamphlet I got when I was a Freshman in high school. None of my professors cared. When she was reading my dissertation draft, Colleen Dunlavy, the last of my readers I added from inside the history department at Madison, said to me, “You know, historians tend to use Chicago Style. You should probably convert your footnotes and bibliography to that.” It took me about 24 hours to get that done.
Many of my colleagues (some of whom who have been known to read this blog from time to time) have a reputation among our students for being “footnote fascists.” They see the comma in the wrong place, and they’ll demand it be moved for fear of offending Kate Turabian’s sanctified memory. I used to joke all the time about a now-retired professor here who graded with a ruler which he used to measure the margins on title pages.
I have never been a footnote fascist. My sole concerns have always been that the footnote or bibliographical entry had enough information in it so that I can find the source if I am so inclined and that the style is consistent throughout the paper. Some of this comes from the wide variety of journals in which I’ve published. I’ve been in more than one economic history journal that uses some strage variation of APA. I’ve also been published in Technology and Culture, which, if I remember it right, has an attribution style that I’ll just describe here as uniquely its own.
So on one level, I really don’t care what the difference is between MLA and Chicago as long as students follow my rules as outlined above. But there was another “innovation” in bibliographies that I first encountered this semester. A whole bunch of students in my survey class turned in papers with the words “print edition” after each book in their bibs. At first, I figured that the English 102 instructors had all started telling students to do that because of the rise of e-books. Then I asked the one student in my upper-level class who had the same phrase in his bibliography why he did it that way.
He introduced me to EasyBib.com. I haven’t played with it at all yet, but I do understand why students might want to use a site like this. After all, if they’re facing the footnote fascists, a computer program should assure them that all those stupid little rules are getting followed.
But what if your appreciation of why attribution is so important gets lost (like the dodo) by doing your bibliography this way? More importantly, what if the program doesn’t attribute your sources right (due to poor data entry or some technical glitch)?
Then there’s the matter of pure spite. I see that while MLA citations are free at easybib.com, you have to pay $19.99/year in order to cite material in the Chicago/Turabian format. Which one do you think most students will use now? Why should we have to accept the bibliography format that English professors want rather than the other way around? Are English professors happy that their entire discipline is now a loss leader?
I think I feel a bout of footnote fascism coming on fast.