Beating The Bibliography Blues

Beating The Bibliography Blues

post by Troy Hicks, fellow of The Educator Collaborative

Beating The Bibliography Blues

We love to hate them, but bibliographies are a part of nearly every academic writing task.

As any writing teacher working in any classroom — from upper elementary to graduate school — knows, helping student writers figure out when, how, and why to cite sources is an ever-present challenge.

While we do still need to focus on the mechanics of MLA, APA, Chicago, or other styles, often this is where we spend most of our attention, failing to help students truly understand the purposes for academic citation. The goal of citation, after all, is not perfect punctuation. Even in the CCSS, we are reminded that grade-level appropriate actions for citing sources are scaffolded over time, and that what we would expect a 4th grade student to do (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.8: “… gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information, and provide a list of sources.”) is different than what we would expect of a 12th grade student (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.8: “… integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.”).

So, when we teach students about citation, what we need to focus on are the moves that writers make.  It is about entering the academic conversation, not just getting a source for one’s bibliography to show the teacher that some research has been done. For instance, we want students to consider:

  • When, how, and why do we want to invite the voices of others into our own writing?
  • How can we really on the knowledge and experiences of others to accentuate the information we are presenting or the argument we are making?
  • In what ways is it appropriate and useful for us to use short quotes (within a sentence), longer quotes (in a blocked paragraph), or even a paraphrase of the original material?

Many resources, such as this one from from Student Achievement Partners or Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, model the ways in which we can use sentence frames or templates to help students enter the academic conversation. Citations are a necessary part of that conversation because they show that we, as writers, are well-read and that we understand the complexity of the topic that we are writing about.

Still, it is important to help students understand all the parts of a citation including main points like the author, title, and date, as well as the nuances for online sources, those with no date, or those with no identifiable author. Teaching them how to use a bibliography manager, however, will ultimately help them become stronger academic writers.

But, Shouldn’t They Build Bibliographies by Hand?

While there are still teachers and librarians who may liken the use of the bibliography management tool to the ways that math and science teachers may feel about calculators, I think it is time to push beyond that knee-jerk response.

That said, I do agree that many critics of calculators, bibliography managers, or educational technology in general do have a point that, when used poorly, the technology actually encourages sloppy thinking, laziness, or a misunderstanding of content knowledge. For instance, Neil Selwyn in his book Distrusting Educational Technology contends that “Given the apparent transformatory power of contemporary digital technologies, it is understandable that these technologies are now seen by most commentators as being an essential and largely unquestionable element of contemporary educational arrangements” (Chapter 1).

On the other hand, much like José Vilson, Executive Director of EduColor, who argues in Edutopia that “Calculators are tools to help solve problems, not the solver of the problem itself,” I would extend that similar line of thinking to bibliography management tools. Even the best tools, like Zbib, don’t always get things right, and this is the moment that we can use to teach our students about citation. Vilson concludes “We need a healthy balance of working within the number system and doing more complex problems. We need to let calculators serve their purpose in moderation.” And, in a similar manner, I would argue we need to do the same with bibliography managers and writing. This is where the work begins.

Choosing a Bibliography Manager

There are many tools that we can use to ease the bibliography construction, most of which are either supported by ads or come at a premium subscription such as EasyBib and Noodle Tools. Even Word has a built-in tool to build a bibliography. There are many critiques of these tools, including cost, clunkiness and, one which is pointed out succinctly by a review on Common Sense Media: ads. Without a premium account, many of the tools just don’t work as well as they could, and that makes it difficult for teachers to justify their use.

Things have changed, however. Relatively new to the game is Zbib, an online bibliography management tool from the long-established, open source Zotero. I’ve been a Zotero user for years, and would still argue that I can’t live without it as an academic and a writer. For students, even as early as third grade, we can now share this powerful, free tool with them in the form of Zbib.

Google Docs integration, however, is what changed the game. As they noted in their blog post announcement:

The same powerful functionality that Zotero has long offered for traditional word processors is now available for Google Docs. You can quickly search for items in your Zotero library, add page numbers and other details, and insert citations. When you’re done, a single click inserts a formatted bibliography based on the citations in your document.

Even if a teacher choose to use one of the other tools listed above rather than Zbib, the main goal here is to go beyond the initial flash of having such a tool available. No matter which tool you choose, the goal is to have students use the additional features of the tool to summarize and document their sources in a clear, comprehensive manner. Let’s examine how.

Citing Sources, Adding Details, and Creating a Comprehensive Entry

Using the bibliography tool’s “manual entry” option forces students to dig deeper into their web-based sources, encouraging them to think about the author, the source, the publication date, and more, pushing them well beyond saying that they found their source “on Google.” The following screenshots shown are from Zbib, yet similar features exist in EasyBib’s “Manual Citation” by adding an annotation, and in NoodleTool’s annotations, too. From a technical standpoint, then, open up the citation and including additional information is relatively straight forward. The more nuanced and interesting task is helping students to figure out exactly what to put in that annotation box.

In this example, I have cited an article from Tween Tribune “Badges make today’s Girl Scouts tomorrow’s cybersleuths.” Zbib got most of the details, but not all. And, as noted above, that’s OK. It forced me to then go back and confirm all the information from my source and make a useful annotation. For instance, in the screenshot below you will see that I needed to do three things:

1) and 2): While Zbib got the item type, the title, and the URL, I needed to add the author and the publication date. Students will often fall into the habit of saying that they got an item like this “from Tween Tribune” (or, worse yet, “from Google”), but fail to see that there is an individual author and a specific publication date. In this case, Zbib’s inability to pick up on that metadata worked to the teacher’s advantage, requiring the student to return to the original source for more detail.

3): With the annotation, I took a simple move from Graff and Birkenstein to introduce what “they say,” using a simple “According to…” as the opening to my annotation. Of course, this could be a more complex annotation, which I will explore in more detail in the conclusion. For sake of this example, however, I just copied/pasted a quote from the article to make the point clear.

Conclusion: From Creating Citations to Crafting Intentional Writing

As we move students into the practice of doing more with their citations than simply documenting their sources, we want them to think about writers’ craft and the ways in which they can use these outside sources to further their own ideas.

For instance, one kind of annotation they might create could be a quote from the source, whether copied and pasted from a digital source, or transcribed from a print source. That is helpful, but could go further. With the quote saved directly with the annotation, teachers could encourage students to use the sentence frames/templates mentioned above, inviting them to write a first draft of how they might integrate the source into their own essay.

Another kind of annotation could be a straight-forward summary, and yet another could be a descriptive or critical annotation, as described in detail by West Sound Academy’s Library Guide. They suggest a number of questions that can be used to explore the source in more detail, including “What is the purpose of this source? Is the author’s intention to persuade, to inform, to analyze, to inform, or to argue for a point-of-view?” and “How much information did you get from this source? Did its bibliography lead you to new sources?”

Remember that the goal of citing sources is not just to force our students into compliance with minute grammar rules. We can lead them to more thoughtful, substantive interactions with the materials they are reading when we encourage them to see citation as both an act of giving credit where credit is due, yet also as a launching point for crafting their own ideas.