If there’s one thing I wish I could compel from the minds of young writing students, it’s this brain chilling obsession with citations. The frequency with which students–to include senior English majors and graduate students–waste their time with APA or MLA precision in an otherwise garbage fire of a paper, is a damn shame. One that used to surprise me.
It seemed insane that grammar, diction, spelling, and hell, even the meaning of words themselves was so frequently ignored for organized bibliographies. I recently had a student who could not define four of the words (wrongly used) in her second sentence, but demanded that we spend the entire hour appointment going over citations, most of which were just fine. When I prodded a little she had to set me straight. Sweating onto the crinkled rubric from her bag, she laid the facts on me.
Citations, in proper APA format are 40% of her grade. Clearly, this makes said papers easier to grade for all those professors who aren’t reading them anyway.
Ironically though, she’s being graded on her ability to copy instructions from Purdue Owl, in order to prove that she isn’t copying or stealing ideas without properly attributing original authors.
Instead of promoting critical thinking, and demanding a rational organization of thoughts–>arguments, professors are sometimes guiding students away from actual inquiry. This is a scene that plays out in about half of all my writing center appointments. Often, to suggest that a student think about the ideas in what they’ve read–if they read–or to consider the meaning of what they’re writing is too much. It’s against not only a societal tide of anti-intellectualism (with it’s own new leaders) but contrary to what their current higher authority, the professor, is asking of them. And to be clear, this same kind of refusal to think, just tell me the answers so I can get an “A” type shit happened back when I was tutoring for math and science too.
Still, this isn’t to say that citations don’t have their place, sure–but 40% of one’s grade? Half? More important than learning enough to synthesize information, to improve one’s understanding of the world in which they live and prompt them to interact with said world more critically? Nah.
So it’s not always their fault. While I’m quick to complain about the lack of critical inquiry, of intent, of de-centering that people–often pretentious college educated liberals–come to conversations with, I have to admit, mostly when I’m struggling not to correct a glaring inadequacy or narrowly derived position in an annoyingly polite conversation, that they were set up. Students are grade obsessed because an anti-intellectual, neo-liberal society taught them to be “just smart enough to run the machines, but dumb enough not to ask questions,” as Carlin would say. In this way everyone gets to appear and feel valuable. And loud. Loud is getting real popular. But the discomfort, the grinding and stretching necessary for learning is taken as more and more offensive. And why shouldn’t it be? Knowing that traditional definitions of success depend primarily on following rules and getting good grades, mostly through rote memorization, is too tempting for many to pass up. Too difficult to circumvent. Takes time that we don’t have. What with life going on and all–boyfriends, girlfriends, beer, sex, drugs, money, friends and kids all looming over our heads, all more tightly linked to likability than using a brain.
Still, this is what I’m currently most disappointed about in the supposed value of higher education. Not that the degree alone doesn’t get you anywhere, but that students aren’t required to get anywhere on their way to the degrees. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of undergrad and graduate school, but only by constantly going out of my way to add, challenge and re-think the standards for “excellence” in university courses. It’s still a shock to the naive to come across someone with degrees on top of degrees who can barely read, write or comprehend doctrine that they themselves write, speak or advocate for. Rest assured, that college education was made as safe and as comfortable humanly possible. And unfortunately, it’s only getting easier, especially at the more expensive and prestigious schools.