On the MLA, Citations, and Digital Literacy as Modern Language

Further evidence for Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s titular premise in They Say / I Say: regardless of inspiration (which has not been lacking since my last post), it sometimes takes the provocation of another person’s writing to actually prompt me to dust off my keyboard and wade into the fray. In this case, it’s Mark Sample, whose comments on twitter led me to his full-length post on samplereality.com, entitled “The Modern Language Association Wishes Away Digital Différance.”

The problem Sample addresses is that in the most recent edition (the 7th) of the MLA handbook, the documentation style recommended for online texts – and therefore the style that will be used by automatic bibliography-generating tools like EndNote and Zotero – asks for site title and author, and does not ask for URLs. Sample was especially concerned about the way this ignores different versions of the same document, concerned that the message sent by such a documentation style is that “all that is necessary is to declare ‘Web’ in the citation, and everyone will know exactly which version of which document you’re talking about, not to mention any relevant paratextual material surrounding the document, such as banner ads, comments, pingbacks, and so on.”

As I commented then,

Agreed and agreed again, Mark – and I’ll add, as well, the frustration of trying to cite specific pages within a poorly managed site, wherein all the pages have the same title (i.e., the title of the front page, presumably copied over in the metadata of the template used for new pages). So it’s not just different versions of the same document that are effaced; in this case, it’s entirely different documents all inconveniently called the same thing. Only the URL distinguishes.

And honestly, if the primary concern is long URLs within scholarly databases, that’s probably a red herring: in many cases, these long citations aren’t persistent URLs at all, but rather search histories that don’t even function once the browser is closed. JStor manages to get their direct links down to only 34 characters, including the http://.

Including mine, Sample’s post has garnered nine comments as of now, all of them worth reading. Of particular interest to me today (if only because I’m about to respond to them) are the “official” response from MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal and the most recent addition, by Aram Zucker-Scharff of Read, Write, and View.

Feal, although defensive, does not seem to understand the nature of the problem. Although she usefully points out that the MLA guidelines don’t prohibit you from including a URL, and even tell you how to break lines within them if you do, her fundamental defense of the system as written continues to imply that naming the page (by title, such as the one appearing in the browser’s top bar) is sufficient to specify a particular item:

Contrary to Mark Sample, this does not mean the MLA believes “it doesn’t matter what digital archive or website a specific document came from.” Our guidelines call for naming the archive or Web site.

Needless to say, this would not resolve the issue I pointed out in my comment above. I suppose it’s possible that she read Sample’s post without the benefit of my brilliant insights (that’s a joke, people) – but if so, that just highlights the importance of context, and that context can often be erased by RSS feeds, etc (as Patrick Murray-John pointed out with reference to UMW Blogs – also prior to Feal’s comment).

More perniciously, though, Feal goes on to suggest that there is too great a “burden” for most users in “distinguishing permanent URLs from nonpermanent ones,” and that some writers “are not conversant with copying and pasting URLs and so type them, with the attendant risk of typos.” Let’s say it’s true: some people do have difficulty with these tasks. But isn’t that a problem? This is the MLA – if we in English are unwilling to talk about literacy with our students, if we are uninterested in acquiring this kind of literacy for ourselves, who will be?

Those who can’t copy and paste are missing out on the single greatest advantage of digital composing: the ability to easily re-order text. If you’re writing complex scholarly texts and you’re still typing everything out anew every time… well… Let’s just say that URLs are the least of your burdens.

And I will grant that “permanence,” in the sense that a link today will still work three years from now, is difficult to determine. These are the vicissitudes of the modern attention span, and we have no way of predicting that, let alone encoding it within a URL. But that’s not what we should be talking about when we talk about permalinks: we’re talking about the difference between a one-line URL with a clear directory structure (which may even have the word “stable” in it, like www.jstor.org/stable/378908) and a five-line URL with the terms “query” or “search” and multiple question marks. I’ll spare you posting the latter; if you’re looking for some, check the first drafts of your students’ research papers.

I say first drafts, because I think there’s a clear opportunity here to educate the next generation of scholars – yes, and general users, too – to pay attention to such things. They’re going to be out on the web anyway; they should be able to find their way around. The unfortunate thing about the MLA guidelines is that, even when URLs are available, the message sent by making them optional is that they’re tricky, burdensome, and in any case not all that important. Not so, as I and the others cited above have been trying to make clear.

I’ll even go so far as to oppose AramZS’s potentially useful suggestions of linking to cached pages (to get around the page-death issue) and using URL-shorteners (for those whose permalinks actually are several lines long – though I still believe that this will be the exception, not the rule). While these would indeed work for people who actively follow the links, and while cached pages are incredibly useful to have available, both of these options would hide from readers the metadata that URLs can encode. It’s not only that the page itself has informative paratext; it’s also that the URL itself can tell us about the page’s provenance – simply, rapidly. It can help us decide whether the source is likely to be (un)trustworthy; it can help us decide whether we need to connect and see the site itself.

For example: is the information coming from a .com, .net, .edu site? .gov? Is it the main page or in a subdirectory, and if the latter, how does the site categorize this sub-page? Is the trunk of the URL the name of a company that might have a biased stance on the issue being discussed? My desire for this information is the primary reason I prefer my TwitterGadget to twitter.com; the gadget expands the bit.ly et al. for me when I hover my cursor on them.

In conclusion, it seems to me that “any widely used citation style” will, already, “place[] a burden on writers,” to remix some of the concerns above (Feal #comment-3859). MLA has a longstanding policy of asking writers to keep track of page numbers, which can be very difficult to rediscover if you miss them when first taking your notes, as well as the publication information, including the publishing house (the advantage of which information is, to many students, at least as opaque as a URL – albeit as useful to us) and date (which can be a problem for careless photocopiers, since it’s often on the flip side of the title page). The question is whether the burden is useful; whether we learn by having to attend to things like provenance.

It seems clear that we do – and that we have the further burden of helping others see this chance for learning, too. Frankly, it’s a burden I welcome.

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