I am always very careful to indicate, in guidelines for essays and papers, that I don’t care what bibliographic or citation format my students use. APA, MLA, AAA, NWA … I always say that as long as they pick one format and use it consistently, they’ll be just fine. I have a soft spot for Chicago style (author-date) but I certainly don’t ask anyone to use it. Yet every term, I get at least one student who speaks to me or emails me in concern about bibliographic or citation format. Even after I insist that I have no preference, they just can’t quite be convinced that I won’t deduct grades for failure to conform with an arbitrary set of guidelines, including things like whether to capitalize every word of book titles, or whether to put parentheses around dates. They can’t quite believe me, either, when I tell them that many journals and presses use minute variations of the major styles, so that whatever I do as an author will eventually require professional attention.
Everywhere I’ve taught, I’ve seen this phenomenon, again and again. I also see, again and again, students who are apparently indifferent to serious writing or analytical problems but still get stuck on fine points of some style guide. What gives? Is it really the case that most professors are such sticklers for formatting issues that it is rational for students to be so concerned? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. Alternately, maybe citation style is something that seems more objective than other, more significant aspects of paper-writing. When you’re unsure of other issues, or know you have problems with them, hanging on to the one thing that you know you can get just right is a security blanket. Whatever else may be wrong with your paper, at least you got the citations right. I don’t know about this either, though – if it were really true, wouldn’t more students actually use a single style correctly and consistently, even after inquiring?
So, colleagues and students, what do you think? Is citation anxiety ubiquitous? If so, is it reasonable? And what can be done about it?