What is the difference between MLA and Chicago anyways?

8 12 2011

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.



19 responses

8 12 2011
Jonathan Dresner

“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.”

That’s me, too. I explicitly say both of those in my assignments and when asked, especially in the World surveys which are mostly non-majors. In my upper-divisions I recommend Chicago style, but mostly rely on residual fear created by my pickier colleagues to maintain discipline.

That said, I do think that Chicago style (especially in notes) preserves more information that historians, in particular, consider interesting. Perhaps not a big thing for student papers with limited source sets, but still worthwhile in the broader profession. And we’re supposed to be professionalizing them, introducing them to the idea, at least, of standards and requirements that must be met.

8 12 2011

Dude, I think you should just tell your students, especially the grad students, that Zotero will do your bibliography any way you want and for free.

8 12 2011
Jonathan Rees


I’m just mastering Zotero myself these days, so you’re going to have to link some instructions for that right here for me so that I don’t screw up that lesson.

9 12 2011

Zotero works fine for standard things like books and articles, but for archival sources it has been a nightmare for me. Does anyone know if there is a completely customizable template where you decide what fields to include, what order to put them in, etc.?

8 12 2011

Now that I think of it, so will MS Word 2011 (or whatever its called now)… you just have to type everything into its little database… Zotero imports everything automagically from Word Cat etc. And both of these will do your footnotes too…

8 12 2011

BibMe appears to offer Chicago and Turabian for free too – which makes it even worse – I was assuming your students just wanted to use that program and purposefully remained ignorant of what citation style you wanted – rather than what must be the case – they just flat out didn’t think to ask? Blows my mind.

8 12 2011

I have a whole lecture on this that I can share with you sometime🙂 But for the moment, I just want to point out one significant point: EasyBib, the MS Word feature, etc., do NOT format the footnotes correctly. I tell my students to do it the old fashioned way (using the Turabian manual). Why those other sites/tools can’t do it correctly is beyond me, but it is what it is.

Also, the thing about putting “Print” after each citation is an MLA thing, not a Chicago thing. At the very worst, students should at least stick to one or the other, without mixing Chicago and MLA together to create their own “style.”

8 12 2011
Jonathan Rees

Kristen (who I can tell from my Dashboard is in fact the Kristen down the hall from me who falls under the category of colleagues outlined above):

I’m not sure I WANT to do an entire lecture on footnote formatting. Isn’t that one of the things that high school was supposed to be for?

8 12 2011

Of course, in the case of Chicago or Turabian or even APA, I think most high schools only teach MLA, or maybe MLA and APA (my own highschool “Write for College” textbook we got to keep only has MLA and APA (and we only used MLA) – I got to college and was like “what is this Turabian that our textbook we were told would help us at college doesn’t even mention?” I’m still ticked off at my highschool for that, and that was more than 10 years ago…at least let us know other styles EXIST, and don’t claim a book that only has MLA and APA is going to be enough for college… it almost would be at some, but certainly not all!)

Not that we librarians don’t get TONS of questions about MLA citations too. Either they really aren’t getting it in High School or it’s not sinking in.

(Let’s not even go into the fact that even the database citation creators don’t work perfectly either – as I reiterate in EVERY SINGLE library instruction session when I point out that feature of a database – “here is a quick way to get most of the citation information printed out to go with your pdf. Do NOT copy this into your paper. Look right here – I’ve already found a OBVIOUS problem with this particular example. You cannot trust a computer to format a citation for you.”)

8 12 2011

In high school, all we used was MLA. But in college, I got a book called “The Everyday Writer” (I think?) that had all three styles. It was immensely helpful. You are so right about database citation creators! They are so frustrating. I empathize with librarians who have to handle so many of our students’ questions.

8 12 2011
Jonathan Dresnerj

I learned something like Chicago in HS, actually, and don’t recall any of my college instructors actually giving us any instruction or instructions on footnote styles or formats. But I wasn’t a history major at the time.

8 12 2011

Okay, so since I’m procrastinating, I figured I might as well spell out the differences so you can have an answer the next time a student asks.🙂 Historians use Chicago for several reasons.* For one, MLA doesn’t use footnotes at all, which means each page is cluttered up with parenthetical citations. This isn’t a big problem for a book review where the student is only using one source, but for research/historiography essays, this is a problem. Students might “under cite” because they don’t want too many parentheses in the text, if they cite enough it becomes difficult to read, etc. Second, MLA has a “works cited” page instead of a bibliography. The difference between the two is crucial, and I’m sure self explanatory. Third, because many historians use archival documents, published primary sources with long titles, multi-volume works, etc., MLA can get confusing very quickly. I for one prefer seeing the full title and publication information at the bottom of the page in a footnote, instead of constantly flipping to the back of the paper to see the works cited. Fourth, we are historians, and since they are “historians in training,” they need to be initiated into the profession. There might be a fifth reason too, but I forget. My methods class gets a whole class devoted to this🙂

The reason I stick to being a “fascist” is simply this: it teaches students how to follow directions. In the “real world” they can’t simply make shit up (pardon my French). It is a good (and simple!) way to teach them how to pay attention to details and to create consistency throughout their corpus of work. When they have an example to work from (like the manual), all they have to do is substitute in the correct author’s name, etc., so it isn’t exactly rocket science. And, I’m only a “fascist” about footnotes, not about how to format the title page, etc. I need them to use standard margins, but I don’t actually measure them. Even I am not that anal!

Lastly, this one is important: I think we send students mixed messages when we drill into their heads that they must ALWAYS CITE everything, but then we don’t care how they do it. If citations and ethical conduct really, truly matters, then HOW they cite should be as important as WHEN they cite.

*To make things even more confusing, there are technically two kinds of Chicago style: the author-date system used in the sciences (it looks similar to APA), and the notes-bibliography style, used in history. I’ve never heard of (or seen a publication) where a historian used the author-date version, but I suppose it is possible.

8 12 2011
Jonathan Rees

As the author of this here blog, I officially declare that comment to be the most useful comment ever written in this space. [In case you can’t tell, I am not being sarcastic.]

It is now quite obvious to me that I am going to have to spend a substantially greater period of time on footnotes and bibliographies whenever I assign research papers in the future, but I am simply incapable of working up the same kind of enthusiasm that you have for this topic. Good thing that you’re teaching methods now and I’m not.

8 12 2011

Glad to help🙂 This is one situation where my perfectionist tendencies can come in handy for you! Huzzah!

8 12 2011

P.S. I can come by and give a guest lecture on this, so just let me know. It would only be about 20-30 minutes and is pretty informal.

8 12 2011

I actually make the lecture “fun” and it’s only about 20 minutes, but students respond well to it because it clears up a lot of their questions. Suddenly the clouds clear and things make sense! Then they have an open-book citation quiz, and the second half of the class is spent discussing either _Historians in Trouble_ or _Past Imperfect_, depending on what I feel like that semester. It always goes extremely well.

And, while I agree that they should’ve learned what plagiarism is in high school, I’m continually amazed at how many have no clue what they’re doing in that regard.

10 12 2011

I like Kristen’s comments a lot, actually. I’m a footnote fascist (in that I correct them when it’s not right, but in general let some things slide). I continue to think, though, that history majors at my institution should be just be able to fire off a properly formatted citation of a book without referring to anything.

But I had a similar come to Jesus lecture in my classes this past week about presentation and formatting. I could barely get through it without laughing, and neither could they. That said, though, I made it clear that their entire papers had to be in a single font (no body in Times New; footnotes in Cambria) and I then banned Cambria completely. But I explained my reasoning like so: first off, they have to take control of their word processors (they laughed at that). Second, shifting fonts tells me that they don’t care, which makes me question why I should. And then, like Kristen, I focused on issues about attention to detail. As I told them: if you have such font chaos on a cover letter, you’re telling your potential employer that you don’t particularly care about what should be a pretty important document AND you’re telling hir that, if you get the job, you will not demonstrate careful attention to detail.

12 12 2011
Nobody wants to read an entire book on a computer screen. « More or Less Bunk

[…] starts off as another grading story, but doesn’t stay that way. Google Books has not only been a Godsend for my own […]

13 12 2011
Britney Titus

Forgive me for being a couple days late on this post, but may I offer a suggestion? Just have Kristen give you the scavenger hunt assignment that is used in historiography…even though I probably wasn’t enthusiastic about it at the time or at the present, I haven’t had to pick up my manual since doing it and my footnotes were right on pretty much all semester. Assign it the first day of class and you shouldn’t have to worry about it after except when you grade papers and students will have two reference points, one being their manual (which is cheaper at 13 dollars as opposed to $19.99) and the scavenger hunt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,282 other followers

%d bloggers like this: