To quote or not to quote

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A couple of weeks ago, Nadine wrote a comment on my post Multiple confusion in which she noted, ” Not that encouraging direct quotations is best writing form, but at that age it’s probably more common.”

That got me thinking. When teaching citation and referencing, we often start with quotations.  Is this because it is easy to demonstrate, based on something that most students can and do already do?  When you copy-and-paste, you are using someone else’s exact words, you are quoting someone. When you quote someone, you need quotation marks. You use quotation marks around the copy-pasted words to show you are quoting, and you also say who that someone is, whose words you have borrowed.

From there we go on to say that, when you use your own words to put over someone else’s thoughts and ideas and findings, you need also to cite them;  they may be your own words but they are NOT your own thoughts.  You still need to say whose thoughts or ideas or findings you are using.

It’s a common complaint, that although most students know how and when to quote someone else’s material, it is when they paraphrase or summarise someone else’s work that they often forget that they need also to cite the source of that work.  It might be because they confuse using their own words with their own original words and ideas… they are using their own words so a citation is not necessary?

I won’t go too far down that track today. What I do want to do is to go back to Nadine’s comment, that “encouraging direct quotations” is not “best writing form.”  My first thought was, why then do we teach how to quote and cite?  But a second thought quickly followed – surely in some cases, possibly many cases, quotation IS the best form?  It certainly is in a literature essay – we quote extensively, and then explain the portent of those quotations, how they provide evidence for our arguments; we discuss the literary devices used in the quotation.

What about other subjects?  Language, yes, we quote extensively.  Film too, if we are considering the screenplay – or is that another form of literature?  Perhaps when reporting other writers’ opinions, especially in the arts.  Perhaps in the humanities, especially history and politics, philosophy and religion?  Maybe in the sciences too? Certainly in the social sciences, reporting verbatim comments in a survey, or an interview. Maybe in the natural sciences and other subjects too, if someone has said something particularly apt or pertinent – or impertinent.

But Nadine is right – apart from textual subjects, the norm is to summarise or paraphrase, not to quote.  It’s a matter of disciplinary writing, using the conventions of academic writing in the subject to show one’s worthiness to join the academic conversation.

It goes further. It argues a need to support students’ academic writing, with the further understanding that there is not just one kind of academic writing – different subjects have different conventions.  We need perhaps to consider whther we are doing enough by way of teaching the skills of paraphrase and summary, the art of and techniques for note taking and note making, the craft of using paraphrase in our work, as ever, not to replace our thoughts but to supplement them, to provide evidence and support for them.

Subject teachers are wont to say there is not enough time in their curriculums to teach academic writing in their subjects – but if they don’t do it, who will? How will students learn?  Some will learn despite our lack of support, yes, by exposure to acadmic writing and thinking as they read.  What of subjects of which their teachers hold that citation and referencing is rarely used – that is commonly claimed by mathematicians, and science teachers too. And yet, read any academic paper in these subjects and the reference list often comprises 50 or even 100 and more entries.

Those conventions and possible non-awareness of them are something I have been pondering quite deeply in the last few weeks. There’ll be a post or two on the topic coming up.  Watch this space!

2 thoughts on “To quote or not to quote

  1. This post has so much to unpack I’m not sure where to begin and I’m glad you’re planning on exposing it further:
    Thought 1. I think that distinction on different types of academic writing is very important and now I’m wondering from the middle school/ primary school perspective looking up how we can best expose them to this idea early on in digestible forms without it being off-putting. Because I’m not seeing it yet.
    The nonfiction our students are exposed to is in the form of books, that may differ in form (that great graphic looking at the different formats of nonfiction); or articles in news media; or websites; wikipedia(?) but they all look and sound pretty similar. I’m wondering if even text-books (I’ve been in a post-textbook schools pre-DP level) Research is pre-digested and interpreted for those lower in the academic feeding chain and for the public and so indeed we miss out on the nuance, so how can we expect students to replicate an ideal they have not necessarily been exposed to?
    Thought 2. It’s worse than summarising and paraphrasing and quoting. Or the ability to do so. In marking Masters students I’m finding that the ability to SPQ varies but is okish. The real issue is the inability to take that further and to either take a position on what you’ve read / observed / experience or to add to the field rather than just regurgitate other people’s opinions.
    I keep on telling our students that 96% (arbitrary inkling of the % – it’s probably more, because most articles coming out of other universities seem to be co-authored by a white male professor from a US university) of what they will read has been written and researched in a white, male, BANA, college/university context, so you as an international student have valuable insights, experiences, contacts, contexts, connections that can enhance this mono-world view USE it.

    Thought 3. We don’t know what we don’t know, or what the students don’t know because apart from the librarians and coordinators I’m not sure many have an overview of the areas that are over/under taught horizontally and vertically in academic literacy (reading and writing) and information literacy (not just the bits the librarians try to squeeze in) and particularly research not as an ATL but as a threshold concept.

    There are more thoughts, including that I’m glad that WAB with their FLOW21 has begun to create the temporal space in which this type of thing could be poured, albeit that it’s still in the early stages of development.

    • Thoughtful comments, Nadine, thank you.

      You have touched on several areas already in the back of my mind, thoughts as I take this article further. You’ve given me new thoughts to ponder too. Definitely watch this space.

      Just to take your Thought 1 further : the number of textbooks (especially textbooks) to which students are exposed which are very poor examples of academic writing, poor in the sense that the authors do not cite their sources; at best they give a reading list at the end of the book. Not good example, not good role-modelling … but this is often the main exposure that students do get as they progress through school. I like the way you have phrased it: “how can we expect students to replicate an ideal they have not necessarily been exposed to?”

      Your Thought 2 put me in mind of the track I got on about this time last year. Have you read “It takes time?” Brent posits that it can take university-level students 4 years to understand that academic writing is not about spouting back what we already know – but to use what is already known as a springboard forward, using it to support arguments rather than to be the arguments. (He also points out that the IB DP students in his admittedly small study showed more alacrity than students who have been through more traditional curriculums.)

      The last point you make in Thought 2, that’s a powerful thought. It is sad, but it is the way of the world right now – and as such, we should make students aware so they do take advantage of it. (And maybe then can do something about changing that balance!)

      And I could not agree with you more regarding Thought 3. That is one of the reasons why (school) librarians should perhaps have a wider oversight of what is going on in their schools, they get the cross-perspective that subject teachers often lack.

      You’re right, there’s a huge bundle of thoughts to get thinking about. Your challenge in Informative Flights a few weeks spurred me to get writing more regularly – and just this series of thoughts is providing material.

      I had not heard of FLoW21, thank you for mentioning it. Wow! I am looking forward to exploring this. Congratulations, WAB.

      Watch this space!

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