Friday, April 21, 2006

The MLA Format

Wow, its been almost a month since I posted something. That is too long. I didn't intend to take a break that long but sometimes things are different than planned.

I've been helping a history teacher grade the formatting and quality of citation on a big history project his students were working on. What a pain. The school requires students to use the MLA format. Because my background is not in English I learned a different format and indeed refused to use a parenthetical system for my PhD. Never-the-less, because it is necessary for my job, I've learned enough MLA to check the formatting. It really isn't that hard. Especially since there are web sites like The Citation Machine that will create the citation by just plugging the information into the right place. The students really have no excuse for not having all of the citations right.

As part of the process I went to the classroom and talked to the students about how to get everything formatted. After these sessions I'm generally asked why it is necessary to place references in a certain formatting system. This time a student had a great twist on that question.

He asked "Why did they develop the MLA?"

My only answer was one provided by an otherwise forgettable exposition teacher at the University of North Texas. It is the general party line when it comes to the MLA; I told him that "The MLA was developed to make the process of citing documents as easy as possible."

It was his follow up that tripped me up.

"How is it easier than other systems?"

I had a hard time answering this question truthfully because I actually believe, that in this case, the party line is wrong. The MLA is not easier. It is confusing, it is cumbersome, and it is, I believe, un-scholarly. I wonder if the letters MLA" don't really stand for "Moronic Losers Association" rather than the "Modern Language Association."

I think that when we have the annual teachers meeting where we discuss such things, I am going to suggest and push for a change to a foot-noted or end-noted system.

The MLA is confusing because it cuts researchers off from 100's of years of foot-noted and end-noted citation systems. I've actually had students ask me "Who was Ibid?" This may be more of a theoretical rather than actual complaint in some academic fields as they tend to rely upon recent research; but by making it harder for students to grasp the depth or trace the references of older material the MLA is un-scholarly.

The charge of un-scholarly may also be unfounded because grammarians, linguist and literature people don't normally study anything that is particularly scholarly in the first place. So in effect "Who cares if it isn't scholarly because the research isn't life changing anyway?" Tell me, who besides a few Volvo driving, tweed jacket wearing, pipe smoking egg-heads gives a rip about the development of existential themes in the poetry of the sub-arctic European Renaissance, or whether John Dunn was influenced by T.S. Elliot? Even if we did care, is the world going to stop turning if don't study these type of things? No. Therefore, unlike say, genetics, engineering Home Economics or Library Science it is OK for the MLA to be somewhat un-scholarly because it is used in fields that don't have life or death issues involved.

I digress

More to the point, why is it easier to put a (Smith) at the end of a sentence as a citation reference than a super scripted "1"? This is especially true if you have more than one work by the same author? It simply isn't any easier. It is easier, less confusing and requires fewer key strokes to input a notation for and end-note or foot-note system; period, full stop, there can be no argument.

If you have multiple works by the same author or different authors with the same last name it gets worse. Here is an example of what I mean

Smith, John. "Silly things English Teachers Do." Ivory Tower Quarterly 4.12 (2006): 66.

and this article

Smith, John. "The phonetically-linguistic-Time-Share Language Approach." Journal of Pseudo-Education 2.1 (2006): 23.

According to the Citation Machine the parenthetical reference for the first of these two articles would be:

(Smith 33-99)

and the second would be
(Smith 1-24)

The numbers after the name are the page numbers of the article in the journal. However, the page numbers do not appear in the citation, only the total number of pages. To figure out which of these two articles are being referenced you must subtract 33 from 99 to get 66 and then look and see which of the two article have a total length of 66 pages.

If, on the other hand, the articles were placed in a bibliography (As opposed to a reference list) in order of appearance and NUMBERED then the first one would have the note listed as a simple "1" and the next as a "2". You'd simply find article number 1 or 2 on the list. This means that a foot-not or end-note system is easier to use, simpler, less confusing, faster, and less intrusive in that you don't have awkward parenthetical sentence fragments or words salted throughout the text. (It also allows you to use the parenthetical statement to make snide comments, asides or obscure jokes about your text, readers or subject; which is what the idea of a parenthetical statement originally was.)

The MLA as far as I can determine was formulated in the late 1970's or early 1980's. The object was to make it easier to write a paper by eliminating footnotes which at that time required a great deal of work and planning to place at the bottom of the page.(Though end-notes alleviated this problem in a simple, user friendly and elegant way) As shown above it failed to do this.

Because the morons in the MLA, living as they did in their Ivory towers, didn't look around and see that typewriters were improving into word processors on home computers the MLA also fails in another area. By the 1980's the work of inserting the notes was rapidly being assumed by a machine which freed the researcher up to write. A computer as simple as an old Commodore "VIC-20" or "Apple 2B" can run a quite competent word processing program that will automatically place the foot-notes or end-notes for you. The MLA, on the other hand is not and cannot be made simpler by technology because you still have to type the parenthetical note and the citation at the end. The MLA is no less difficult using a word processor but because the drudgery of placing footnotes has been automated a foot-noted system is now very easy. In fact, writing a paper with foot-notes is now easier than using the MLA.

By the mid 1980's typewriters were dinosaurs which were if not extinct then well on their way to becoming fossils. Thus the MLA was formulated to solve a problem that was being solved better in another way. The Modern Language association should have ditched the MLA like an ugly girl-friend at that time before it was so firmly entrenched in schools, they didn't and we're stuck with it. It is the only system English teachers know and so they foist it on everybody else!

So I was left having to admit to this student that the MLA isn't really easier but in fact more cumbersome to use than a foot-noted system.

I always had the ultimate teachers fall back position. "We want you to do it this way because that's the way that college English departments want you to do it and that will help you in college." Or, in other words, We're training you in an inferior research system simply because some academic fat-ass has too much intellectual capital invested in this inferior system to let you use something better. But, that is is a kind weak position once you are dealing with High School students. But, never fear, I didn't say it quite that way.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Blogger Who Still Uses Foot-Notes

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