is-ness among the citations

It feels as if, now that I don’t teach literature, I have less to write here. I spend less time thinking about the meanings of things, more time strategizing about how to assist my students to a comprehension of the very artificial rules of proper use, to a facility with the various tools of proper research.

There is less “scope for imagination” in that, I find.

Citation rules seem to have little bearing on the human condition. There is small room for either hope or despair here, just the dull is-ness of them.

That, I suppose, is a horrible confession from a person whose livelihood, currently, is bound up in the is-ness of citation rules among other things. I hear Chesterton chastising me: “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person” (Heretics).

more february 002

Can is-ness ever truly be dull? These rules, for instance, moderated by the Modern Language Association, the product of hours of minds at work, days of trial and error, instituted for the purpose of clear and ethical communication of information: these rules are dull in the way that the nails and bolts of a building’s skeleton are dull. Small and arcane they may be, but upon them, a great structure has been erected. We trust them — collectively — to bear the weight of vast projects, of life-changing ideas, of the human condition, of hope and despair.

That’s not a lecture I’ve given my classes.

We talk a good deal about information technology, seeking to produce students who possess “information literacy.” Will they “get” it, I wonder, these students who have come of age in an age of information, for whom palm-sized devices have essentially always given them access to what seems like all the information in the world?

They are accustomed to using and sharing information, but on the web you do that with hyperlinks and forwarded articles, so that sources are apparent and no one worries about citation, summary, paraphrase.

And yet.

And yet I cannot think that these skills are completely outmoded, that your ability to read my blog post on touch-screen tablet renders my ability to summarize an article irrelevant. We want to produce students who know how to handle arguments, who can get to the heart of a question, distill a verbose passage down to a few succinct sentences. We want to produce thinkers who care about the details and know how to use those details — like the page numbers of a scholarly journal article — in the cause of clarity.

Will they learn to do and value all of that in my class? It’s doubtful, but perhaps I can help them along the way.

And perhaps the fact of is-ness will teach us also about could-be-ness; perhaps, together, we could be interested persons whose imaginations have ample scope, even among the rules of the Modern Language Association.

©2014 by Stacy Nott

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