Exactly one week before classes were to begin this term, I was notified that the two sections of ENG 126, “Writing About Literature,” I was scheduled to teach at another CUNY campus had been cancelled due to under-enrollment. In that instant, my dream of a fall flush with dinners and drinks, theater and full-priced opera tickets, morphed into a nightmare of cold leftovers in the 6-hour long rush ticket line at the Met. But such is the life of an adjunct.
My prospective income and peace of mind were partly restored when The Department offered me a single section of WRIT 303, “Research and Writing in the Professional Programs,” as a replacement. I wasn’t much concerned about the migration from “writing about literature” to “writing in the professional programs,” which, at York College, include nursing, occupational and physical therapy, community health education, and a range of other health, social, and behavioral sciences fields. After all, I wasn’t always an English major: I have a BA Human Service Advocacy and an M.Ed. in Secondary Teacher Education. It’s been some time since I’ve worked in either field, but surely I could pick up APA citation style again. More important, I’ve spent the last two years as a CUNY Writing and Communication Fellow, immersed in the language and culture of WAC, WID, and CAC–those unhappy and ungraceful acronyms that name our field and proclaim our identity as citizens of the (academic) world, able to construct persuasive arguments in any discipline-specific language.
It took until the third week of classes for my serenity once again to be disturbed. It happened at the point in my syllabus where I confidently instruct my students in the art of introducing sources. Never, I commanded, drop a quote or paraphrase without identifying the author, title, and genre of the work you are citing: T.A.G. your citations! And that’s the minimum respect you owe to your sources; you might even add a little something about how influential (or controversial!) the work has been in your field. For example:
In the widely read [groundbreaking, ubiquitously cited, still controversial, etc.] first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that, while prior to the mid-nineteenth century “[t]he sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” (Foucault, 1978)
I’ve used this same lesson (with different sources, depending on the course content) as long as I’ve taught college writing, and it’s what I do in my own writing as a Ph.D. student in English.
I sensed something was amiss when students looked from the board to the reading and doubtfully back to me as they tried to reconcile what I was telling them to do with what they were reading. My sense was confirmed as I circulated around the room during the exercise and saw students writing things like
In a recent article in The Journal of Individual Psychology, “Cultural Competence: A Primer,” Len Sperry defines “cultural competence” as “the capacity to draw effectively upon cultural knowledge, awareness, sensitivity, and skillful action in order to relate appropriately to, and work effectively with, others from different cultural backgrounds.” (Sperry, 2012)
Too much information, I thought. What does it matter where it was published or even who wrote it beyond the perfunctory parenthetical citation of last name and year of publication. Why not simply write “Cultural competency can be defined as,” insert quotation, cite and be done with it? And, in fact, that’s what the articles I assigned were doing: “Culture can be defined as ‘the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgments about their world’ (Chamberlain, 2005).” Does anyone jump to the reference list to find out just who this “Chamberlain” is? Or feel deprived that we aren’t even provided a page number so we can more fully contextualize the passage quoted? I didn’t.
And yet, as an expatriate English person abroad in the social sciences, I miss the intimacy with which the Humanities engages with sources. We’re taught that writing with secondary sources is like entering a conversation (a cocktail party, even!), listening to the other speakers, and jumping in confidently with our own “intervention.” Writers in the social sciences can sometimes seem to treat sources like faceless statisticians without even first names. Citation in literary theory and criticism, on the other hand, often looks like idol worship–or else the smashing of those idols. In any case, the work is frequently as much about the sources cited as it is about the common object of writer and source. Think of the the complex and fraught legacy of Michel Foucault, whom I quoted above, in the field of queer studies. Simply to cite him, parenthetically, without discussion, without even the courtesy of a first name, in a work of literary criticism would be akin to seating him at a back table with the second cousins. That’s no way to host a party.