The rhetoric of citations in Learning, Design and Technology

Citation Checker

A citation checker is a useful tool. It’s not going to help you with anything I talk about here, but it will catch if there is a mismatch between your reference list and your paper. This is just one of many, but it helped me. It’s called Recite. exposed link here:

Citations are rhetoric, plain and simple. Each time you cite something, you are employing a rhetorical device. When you employ the device erroneously, you make the case to your reader that you don’t understand what you are trying to say. The most common rhetorical citation device I see is the consensus citation. A consensus citation is when you make the case that a whole bunch of scholars agree about something. For example, multiple citations on a given point express how pervasive the consensus is among scholars. Here is an example: Scholars agree that asynchronous communication is democratized (Chun & Plass, 2000; Gunawardena, 2004; Howard 2012; Johnson, 2006; Stockwell, 2007; Warschauer, 1997).

The same sentence with only one citation is not just a case of fewer citations, it’s actually a different rhetoric altogether. It suggests the author is the one make the point, the first one to coin the term, or the only one that you happened to encounter that mentions such a thing. For example, consider if you had the same sentence from above with just one citation, “Scholars agree that asynchronous communication is democratized (Howard, 2012)”. This sentence means that Howard (2012) claims that scholars agree about this, but you as the author of the piece, may or may not agree. If you had the sentence, “Asynchronous communication is democratized (Howard 2012).” Then this would suggest Howard (2012) coined the term, you read that original wok, and you are using the meaning as he described it. It’s a kind of reference to the reader that if they want to knew more about this concept, they should go read Howard (2012) because you have no interest in explaining  the concept again. Contrast this to the meaning of three or more citations in the same space that suggests consensus. These are two different rhetorical moves, both made via the use of a citation.

A problem arises when you cite a work that cites a work. If in Howard (2012) you followed a discussion built on Vygotky (1975), then you could employ some sort of “as cited in” phrase, but elegance plummets. Along with your elegance, your rhetorical style goes with it. I have not yet encountered a one-size-fits-all solution for this predicament. Typically,  a writer is referred to the original source for accuracy.

A small but worth mentioning error surrounds coining a commonly used term, or laying ownership to something that’s not really own-able. Sometimes we find a writer will inadvertently credit a concept when they mean to credit an explanation. A direct citation or a paraphrased citation credits an author with a concept, but some scholars inadvertently credit an author with a concept when the author has simply used the concept or tern and then explained it. Sometimes that explanation is so elegant that grow to own simply because of this error. To resolve such cases, we have the rhetorical device “see” within the citation space. If the author simply explains the idea but doesn’t originate the concept, add “see” to make that clear. Thus the erroneous sentence, “This will be a Criterion-Referenced Assessment (Mager, 1997) to measure my students’ knowledge.” mistakenly credits Mager (1997) for creating the concept of criterion referencing. More correct would be, “This will be a Criterion-Referenced Assessment (see Mager, 1997) to measure my students’ knowledge of each subject area based on the Common Core Standards.” This lets the reader know that Mager (1997) is a good place to find a discussion of this concept, though Mager is likely not original author of this insight.  In other words, this first citation says the author (Mager) coined the term, or that the author is using an interpretation of the term that is drawn from Mager because there are other ways to interpret the term. In the second example, Mager simply explained the term, as suggested by the rhetorical “see” prior to the citation. For a concept like criterion referencing in test design, a large number of scholars worked on the concept over an extended period of time. It strikes me as foolish to credit one person with the idea.

The rhetoric of citations can also backfire on you if the relationships between the written work and the argument are unclear. If you have used a section in a way that exposes faulty logic, you can evidence that you don’t understand what you are talking about. For example, I sometimes find advanced learners use citations in such a way as to imply an implausible logical relationship, such as a causal relationship that actually does not exist. For example, look at this construction, “Participation has been argued to be an intrinsic part of learning,” (Wenger, 1998; Hrastinski, 2008) therefore the videos provide clients and their staff opportunities to learn about the features of the software during the course of integrated authentic performance assessment.” This means that because Wenger said it, the learners will learn. But of course the learner neither care nor heed what some obscure educational researchers say, so the reader dismisses the writer as misinformed, or worse. What a tragedy when the student is actually an insightful designer explaining complex designs! Had the writer used citation rhetoric more accurately, their insight would have shown through. A revised statement might read: “There is moderate consensus that participation is intrinsic to learning (Wenger, 1998; Hrastinski, 2008). Therefore, with this in mind, we designed the videos to provide clients and their staff opportunities to learn about the features of the software during the course of integrated authentic performances assessment.” With the questionable logic removed, the writer’s insight becomes far clearer. For this reason, I ask that none of my learners attempt to finish direct quotes in their writing. The rhetoric can too easily run amuck.  The same goes with direct quotes with two authors, which is impossible, and unfortunately, more common than I would hope.

Sometimes, the citation is the right rhetorical move, but the rhetorical value of a citation does not trump a first-hand account; rather, the citation is another perspective altogether. For example take the erroneous, “I noticed learners tended to complete online discussions only in the final hours prior to the deadline (Howard 2012).” By adding the citation, you have effectively told the reader that you are crediting someone else with what you saw. This makes no sense and is at the same time, a common error. If you witnessed it, that is evidence enough that it happened. If the phenomenon is also witnessed by another researcher, you’re free to say so. However, one must separate the two perspectives or your point will be lost and the reader confused.

The date is part of the rhetoric of a citation; without a date there is no citations. I simply do not buy into the idea of “no date” or “n.d.”. The rhetorical value of the date has meaning on many different levels. For example, by citing a much older publication, a researcher can show that a concept has been churning through the mind of other scholars for quite some time. For example, “Design precedent (Lawson 1990) is a concept integral to our understanding of design Learners might grow in their understanding of how to design (Boling 2010).” Scholars often change their position on something over the course of their career, so the date is as important as the name. Also, if there really is no date, it is wisest not to include the reference unless you’re employing a rather complex rhetorical strategy, such as mocking public opinion.  For a detailed discussion of this, see my blog post on citing Wikipedia. But in general, I advise my learners that if there is no date, it is not worth citing at this point in their learning.

I often find myself suggesting to authors not to put citations in the first sentence of a paragraph. The reason I advise this is because, in such a position, the rhetorical value being employed by the citation is unclear. The topic sentence needs to lead the reader to the evidence behind the argument. When we have a citation in the topic sentence location, the typical role of citation as evidence can’t be used, so the reader goes searching for what the paragraph is actually about. But the topic sentence is supposed to say what the paragraph is about. This confuses the reader. I am sure there may be cases where putting a citation in the first line of a paragraph could be employed advantageously, but those cases are rare. In my 20 years of teaching writing, i have found that figuring out what the paragraph really means in the context of the larger thesis necessitates a broader statement in the topic sentence location.

Citing advertisements is very tricky business, and in our digital world, advertisements are progressively more disguised. Websites’ about pages, or product pages a firm produced about its own products, are a form of advertisement. They are there to promote, not really explain in the same way a non-biased review might be. Citing an about page, or assuming it as matter of fact, makes the claim that you, as the researcher, trust an advertisement as much a scholarly paper. I can’t think of any scholarly context in which this strategy could be viewed as rhetorically sound. For example, the reaction one might fetch from this citation is easy to predict, “YouTube is arguably the best website ever known to mankind (YouTube, 2015).” Other citations from product literature, be they from web sources or elsewhere, are effectively the same though they may be even more stealthily disguised. I strongly encourage my learners to question the source and never take a company’s literature at face value. I would not trust any corporation to give me an unbiased evaluation of its products in an advertisement, which is basically what an about page is.

If you have other citation rhetoric insights, I would love to hear them. Please send me a comment. This post has been revised and expanded several times as I find new and more complex citation issues. Last update: November 2019.


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