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The rhetoric of citations in Learning, Design and Technology

Low_res_1984-chevrolet-citation

This is the 1984 Chevy Citation. This is a matched non-example of something else that is generally out of place as a citation in a LDT paper. Photo credit goes to myclassicgarage.com, and if they ever back link check my use of this image, they are gong to be seriously confused about why this image is 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 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. Contrast this to the meaning of three or more citations in the same space. These are two different rhetorical moves, both made via the use of a citation.

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 explained it more elegantly than others. For this second case, we have the rhetorical device “see” within the citation space. If the author simply explains the idea and doesn’t originate the concept, add “see” to make that clear. Thus the sentence, “This will be a Criterion-Referenced Assessment (Mager, 1997) to measure my students’ knowledge of each subject area based on the Common Core Standards.” Gives credit to Mager (1997) and the sentence, “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.” Lets the reader know that Mager (1997) is a good place to find a discussion of this concept, though Mager is likely not original contributor 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. And in the second example, Mager simply explained the term, as suggested by the rhetorical “see” prior to the citation.

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 f 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 phrased structure the rhetoric of the citation more accurately, their design insight would have shown through. For example, read the revised statement: “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 performance 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. The rhetorical value of a citation does not trump a first-hand account; rather the citation is another perspective altogether. For example, “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 separate the two perspectives or your point will be lost and the reader confused.

The date is part of the rhetoric of a citation. Furthermore, citations must always have a date; otherwise, they are not citations. 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 in 20 years of teaching writing, I am yet to see someone pull it off.  A citation in the first line is simply not a wise move.

Lastly, citing websites’ about pages, or product pages a firm produced about its own products, is very poor rhetoric. It 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 less obvious to the learner. I strongly encourage my learners to question the source and not 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.


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